Weatherizing Town Buildings

IN BRIEF

Weatherizing town buildings – with approaches like air sealing, insulation, and moisture control - is one of the most cost effective solutions communities can undertake to reduce the municipal heating fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions, while informing and educating local residents of the benefits of energy efficiency.

THE ISSUE

Many of Vermont’s municipal buildings are old and outdated, leading to high heating costs, uncomfortable and potentially hazardous working conditions for town employees, and undesirable public spaces. The cost of heating fuel in Vermont has steadily increased over the last decade and − despite the recent decline – will likely continue as traditional fossil fuel supplies dwindle and unconventional fossil fuels require more energy and money to extract.

Towns can ensure the continued use of their historic buildings, and save money in the process, by undertaking weatherization projects. “Weatherization,” when done right, is a broad term that includes air-sealing, adding insulation, and making upgrades to windows and doors, like weather-stripping.

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Energy Audits
Weatherizing starts with a professional energy audit to assess how the building “performs” by looking at a building as a system. The “whole building” approach assesses how a building functions from basement to attic, in terms of health, comfort and heating efficiency. A comprehensive audit includes an assessment of the leakiness of a building – where it loses air and heat, where insulation may be missing or inadequate, where moisture may be a problem, and monitoring for various gases that may pose problems to health. Based on the audit report, which will include a comprehensive list of steps for building improvements, communities can make decisions about what the most cost-effective weatherization improvements would be.

Financing
Just as important as knowing what needs to be fixed, communities need to think about how to finance the improvements. Financing options can include state and federal grants, efficiency incentives, budget and capital reserves, bonding, loans, performance contracting, and tax-exempt lease purchases. Contacting your regional planning commission (RPC) and Efficiency Vermont is a great place to start when considering funding opportunities. Additionally, there are non-conventional funding opportunities like crowdfunding, which includes platforms like kickstarter.com, indiegogo.com or brickstarter.com. Crowdfunding has become a popular mechanism to raise money for community projects, through leveraging smaller donations from a large number of people, both locally and globally.

Special Considerations for Historic Buildings
Many of Vermont’s town halls and other municipal buildings are historic. Simply continuing to use historic buildings is a step towards energy efficiency – partly because the embodied energy in existing structures has already been spent, so replacing them with new buildings – especially those constructed with energy-intensive, modern materials like aluminum and vinyl – represents wasted energy. However, weatherization makes historic buildings more comfortable and affordable to operate, ensuring their use into the future. When weatherizing a historic building, certain factors should be taken into consideration:

  • Moisture in the basement and elsewhere is a concern as many older buildings experience poor drainage around their foundations or leaks in the foundation itself. Damp conditions can lead to rotting of wood structural elements and mildew development. Hiring a Building Performance Institute (BPI) certified contractor ensures that any weatherization improvement will also include addressing moisture issues.
  • Vermiculite was a common form of insulation in the U.S. due to its affordability. In recent decades, studies have shown that some vermiculite contains asbestos, a known health hazard. Therefore, it is recommended that a trained professional be hired if removal is necessary for efficiency improvements.
  • Knob and tube wiring can be found in many older buildings in Vermont and sometimes it is still active. This poses a problem during a weatherization project because covering the wiring in cellulose will cut off the air flow necessary for the wiring to function. Another concern is that charged wire poses a risk to workers installing insulation. If knob and tube wiring exists, it is recommended that an electrician test all segments and have any live segments deactivated.
  • Maintaining historic integrity is always important when working in a historic building, and may be required if a project is state or federally grant-funded. Maintaining historic integrity may include ensuring the “reversibility” of a project, meaning any changes to the building design can be reversed if necessary. Keeping the historical character of windows is of particular importance to historic preservation. If windows are considered a cost-effective energy solution (many times it’s actually the least cost-effective part of a retrofit), it is often better – from a preservation and an energy efficiency perspective – to rebuild rather than replace them.

To address preservation issues, consider hiring a historic preservationist who can work with the town and the weatherization professionals to review the energy audit’s recommendations and ensure compatibility of any work with the historic features of the building.

Additionally, your regional planning commission can connect you with successful examples of communities in your region who have completed similar projects, which may help to garner the support of town officials and residents.

THINGS TO CONSIDER

  • Energy efficiency is an investment with short and long term returns in health, comfort and reduced energy costs.
  • When financed appropriately, investing in weatherization can cost the town nothing up-front and can be paid back using monthly savings from energy costs. Once the loan is repaid, the town saves money in perpetuity, and savings will increase as fossil fuel prices increase.
  • Conducting an energy audit with a certified professional ensures eligibility for Efficiency Vermont incentives, as well as a comprehensive, cost effective, step-by-step strategy to improve building efficiency, comfort, health and safety, with measurable savings.
  • Promote and secure community support for the project by clearly explaining benefits to local officials and residents. This is especially important since weatherization improvements tend to be invisible.
  • Weatherizing historic buildings ensures a lasting community legacy and can help maintain a part of the community fabric.

Related issues:
Energy Solutions for Communities

Related case studies:
Thetford Historic Town Hall

Resources:
Weatherizing Town Buildings: What Local Officials and Energy Committees Need to Know
East Central Vermont: Guide and Resources to Reducing Building Energy Use
Energy Star Portfolio Manager
Guide to Improving Energy Efficiency in Vermont Municipal Buildings
Preservation Trust of Vermont

Please Note: This summary includes language from Weatherizing Town Buildings: What Local Officials and Energy Committees Need to Know, pages 10-14. Thanks to the Windham Regional Commission for permission to use this document.