UC explores how best to insulate historic buildings

Webb headshot

UC assistant professor Amanda Webb recently secured a preservation technology and training grant to study insulating historic buildings.

People today don’t build homes like they used to. With energy-saving (and, therefore, money-saving) practices at the top of most builder’s priority list, builders and architects today design and use insulation practices that reduce energy use. But how do you save energy in a home that has been around for years?

“Old buildings are different,” says University of Cincinnati architectural engineering assistant professor Amanda Webb, PhD. “They were designed when we didn’t have access to cheap energy. Now we live in a world where we are connected to energy all the time. So, how do we reconcile for those differences?”

Webb is studying how to mitigate the risks associated with interior wall insulation retrofits in historic homes. She recently secured a one-year $40,000 Preservation Technology and Training Grant for her project, “A Systematic Investigation of Interior Insulation Retrofits of Walls in U.S. Historic Buildings.” The project is being funded by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a research center of the National Park Service.

Webb’s research will shed light on how retrofitting walls may reduce building energy consumption and better quantify the increased risk that retrofits pose to existing structures.

One of the challenges with renovating historic buildings is adjusting them to meet the needs of the 21st century while preserving their architectural integrity. Current common practices for the preservation and insulation of historic homes involve retrofitting basements, attics and crawlspaces. These retrofits, however, have their limitations, sometimes saving only a small portion of energy use. 

To increase savings, many architects turn to wall insulation. “To insulate a building, the best thing to do is put insulation on the outside of the wall,” says Webb. “But you don’t want to do that with a historic building.” This method, explains Webb, can sometimes detract from the defining features of historic homes.

Old buildings are different. They were designed when we didn’t have access to cheap energy. Now we live in a world where we are connected to energy all the time.

Amanda Webb UC assistant professor

Architects and planners are left with interior insulation practices, which can cause a number of problems, ranging from durability concerns to increased risk of a wall’s deterioration.

“It’s a complicated animal,” says Webb.

Current research for retrofitting walls in historic buildings is lacking. The grant will allow Webb to conduct a systematic and comprehensive study of the current research surrounding interior wall insulation.

Webb will first identify and compile the best practice recommendations and current common retrofit practices. She will run a simulation study of these practices and use the results to make practical recommendations for the industry based on the results. 

Overall, she aims to tackle the incentives and challenges in current retrofit practices that consider wall construction types, as well as varying climates.

Webb also hopes this work on interior insulation will align with best practice recommendation guidelines for the United States.  She recently served on the ASHRAE committee for Guideline 34, “Energy Guideline for Historic Buildings,” and is currently a member of the International Energy Agency’s Task 59, “Deep Renovation of Historic Buildings Towards Lowest Possible Energy Demand.”

Unfortunately, the industry sometimes ignores guidelines like these. Webb hopes to understand the gap between best practice guidelines and their implementation in the field, and she hopes her work with retrofitting walls can provide additional practical guidance.

The project will help Webb close this gap while providing a comprehensive review on current interior wall insulation practices. Overall, this work can eventually lead to more sustainable, and historically preserved, buildings. 

Top image: Amanda Webb, PhD, is conducting a study to determine best retrofitting practices for historic buildings, like these ones in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. (Credit/Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

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