I recently did an interview with a journalist that asked me what the difference between "greening" a historic home versus "greening" any other existing home was. Interesting question. What do you think the answer is? I thought I accurately summed up the answer by saying "nothing and everything."
Judging by the silence from across the table, my point wasn't explicitly clear. Perhaps it was time to elaborate. In most cases as long as you're not receiving any historic tax credits or grant money, "greening" the interior of your historic home is really no different from any other home.
You should obviously keep the historic nature of your property in mind and work with a qualified design professional to develop quality construction drawings and a well thought out renovation strategy. But in terms of green products, all of the same rules apply. If your water heater is in need of replacement consider going tankless. Use low or no VOC paints, stains and sealants. An energy audit and thermoscan will help you pinpoint exactly where and how your home should be sealed up and insulated.
The possibilities are endless but remember that when it comes to replacement, first ask yourself if it really needs to be replaced. Replacing your 5-year-old, inefficient, beast-of-a-washing machine, that still works just fine, with the most efficient, water and resource saving model is not really green.
The exterior of your historic home may be a different story though. If you are in a Historic District, you'd be wise to check with your local building department before contemplating any significant changes, green or not. There may be regulations on materials that you use and where you can and cannot place things like solar panels or wind turbines. These rules will vary by jurisdiction but many Preservationists take the stance that "the greenest building is one that is already built." The charge for many organizations such as the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC) is to preserve the character and value of the Historic properties in their jurisdiction. Often this means that the overall aesthetics of your original windows, wood siding and the like hold more value than your desire to install energy efficient products or alternative energy solutions.
But before we vilify Preservation groups in the name of green, remember that replacing your old, leaky windows without insulating your walls and sealing joints and penetrations is an expensive way to not accomplish much. And, many times, if you can install your alternative energy equipment somewhere that it cannot be seen from the street Preservation Commission staffers are more likely to be open to approving your request.
In the mean time, work to capitalize on the natural efficiencies that many older structures were inherently designed with. If your windows and doors are placed in such a way that you can gain the benefit of cross ventilation in the summer or the warmth of the sun in the winter, cash in by reducing your use of your heating and air conditioning.
So back to the question; what is the difference between "greening" a historic home versus "greening" any other existing home? It turns out that I was wrong. The answer is actually "it depends."