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Optimizing Energy Efficiency in Victorian Houses

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Chazz is an Interior Decorator/Consultant/Retailer, amateur photographer, cook, gardener, handyman, currently restoring an 1880 Victorian.


We Can Learn a Lot About Optimizing Energy Efficiency from the Victorians

This article will introduce you to a few of the most effective energy conserving architecture and building practices of the Victorian era.

When we think of old Victorian houses, the image that comes to mind is often a drafty and overly-expensive energy-eating buildng. Although it is true that the Victorians did not have the technology available today, they did have a lot more comfort and awareness of environmental factors than they are often given credit for.

The Victorians were particularly expert at taking advantage of natural ventilation and air flow to increase comfort. Used properly, the "old ways" are still surprisingly effective because old houses, for all intents and purposes, used "historically green" architecture, building methods, and interior decorating.

That is not to say that the energy efficiency of older homes cannot be improved. It can be and should be -- but it should be done in a way that maintains the historical integrity, aesthetics and ingenuity of the building.

The Essential Reference for Owners of Old House

1879 illustration of a Victorian house showing Energy Efficient Porches, Balconies, and Orientation with strategically planted trees.

1879 illustration of a Victorian house showing Energy Efficient Porches, Balconies, and Orientation with strategically planted trees.

Location, Location and Orientation

Taking advantage of Natural Forces of Air, Sun, and Wind

Victorian architects knew how to orient buildings to take best advantage of the sun's location and prevailing winds. They were experts at using airflow to maximum advantage in both hot and cold weather.

Houses were built to capture winter sun and summer breezes. Doors, windows, porches, balconies, and even greenhouses or conservatories were situated to make the most of what nature had to offer.

Wider roof overhangs, porticoes, awnings and porches and balconies kept homes in the warmer south cooler. In the north, they protected the house from rain, snow and wind and provided pleasant "outdoor rooms" in summer where cool breezes could be enjoyed along with a lemonade.

Color was also used to add to the comfort of a home. Exteriors in warmer areas were painted in lighter colors to reflect rather than absorb heat. Conversely, in colder climates, darker colors on exterior walls kept houses warmer, as did thick masonry foundations and walls, especially towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.

Floor plans for a late Victorian House designed by Barber

Floor plans for a late Victorian House designed by Barber

Indeed, entire floor plans were designed with an awareness of air flow and ventilation that we seem to have lost. Hallways and staircases to the second floor were built to help with effective air circulation. (In fact, our old Victorian even has two attached "indoor outhouses" and the ventilation achieved in building them is amazing. Even with such close proximity to the living areas, I doubt that odor was ever a problem since the air flows through them with a force that can be felt.)

Stone and brick foundations and walls absorbed heat during the day and radiated it at night. Walls were wider than today and covered with a thick layer of plaster over wood lath which did provide some insulating properties. Plaster composition was different then and often included horsehair and similar fibers in the mix which contributed to the ability of walls to insulate as well as adding texture and durability.

Energy saving was inherent in the design of old buildings. The combination of design, materials and decorative elements created optimal energy efficiency. In fact, studies by the Energy Research and Development Administration found that older buildings were far more energy efficient and used considerably less energy than buildings built between 1940 and 1975.

Help with Maintenance for Energy Efficiency in Old Houses

Older Buildings: More Energy Efficient

Studies by the Energy Research and Development Administration found that older buildings were far more energy efficient and used considerably less energy than buildings built between 1940 and 1975

Victorian Doors and Windows

Designed for Common Sense Energy Efficiency

Heavy solid wood doors were not only decorative features in Victorian houses. They have good thermal properties, especially when the doors and frames are properly maintained by regular painting or sealing and caulking as required. Many Victorian era doors also had transom windows above the door which provided additional options for ventilation through regulating air flow.

Despite the sales pitches of vendors who tout replacement windows, there is no window as efficient as a well-maintained and operable heavy wood window. Older windows actually use less energy for heating and cooling.

Simply opening windows and transoms in different configurations (top only, top and bottom, transom only, transom and bottom, wider top opening with smaller bottom opening, etc.) can greatly increase the warmth or coolness of a room or house.

HIgh ceilings combined with double hung windows and transom windows over interior doors can be used to effectively regulate the flow of hot or cool air between rooms to maintain a comfortable temperature.

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Heat and humidity leave through the upper opening and cooler air enters through the bottom. Double hung windows with substantial sashes were designed to take advantage of natural ventilation properties. (If your double hung windows have been painted closed, undo the damage and make them functional. You'll use a lot less electricity. The thicker sashes and muntins on older windows were that way for a purpose - the thin frames on today's windows are neither as functional nor aesthetically appropriate for older homes.)

Although thermal glass was not yet invented and storm windows were not ubiquitous, the thermal properties of windows were kept high in two ways. First, compared to modern buildings which can use a ratio of windows to wall of up to 100%, historic buildings only used what was necessary for light and ventilation, at a ratio that hovered around 20%. Twenty percent glass area in a wall is far more energy efficient than higher ratios. Secondly, most windows had exterior or interior wood shutters and were hung with draperies, wooden blinds and/or exterior awnings which increased their efficiency in regards to both heat and cool.

Reflections About Windows - What do You Think?

You know where we stand. What's your position when it comes to repairing or replacing old wood windows on a historic home? Why?

Restore or Replace Old Wood Windows?

Improving Old House Energy Efficiency

Recommendations and Caveats

Although they were built to be state-of-the-art energy efficient for their period, old houses (and their residents) can benefit greatly by common-sense maintenance and the addition of certain energy saving advances.

If you have the original wood storm windows, I strongly recommend staying with those. Otherwise, keep storm windows as unobtrusive as possible. (Some companies even make interior frameless storm windows for old houses so the historical appearance of the building is not changed.)

NOTE: If storm windows are not fitted properly they will cause condensation. Make sure to caulk between the storm and exterior window frame to prevent cold air leakage. If there is still a problem, use a rope style caulking around the inside sash for a tighter fit.

We highly recommend attic insulation with care taken to maintain adequate ventilation. Insulation should be installed between the floor joists. Do NOT put insulation between the rafters as this does not allow adequate ventilation. Unheated crawl spaces can be similarly insulated.

NOTE: Old wood frame houses should NOT have side wall insulation installed. It is extremely difficult to do without causing problems from moisture accumulation which leads to peeling paint and wood rot.

Instead, since the major source of heat loss in winter (and heat gain in summer) is often air leaking through small holes and cracks, especially around doors and windows, you would better off spending your time (and a lot less money) repairing these gaps and keeping your home properly maintained.

These minuscule spaces can often add up to more than 25 square feet of open wall space! That is, I am sure you'll agree, a pretty significant energy-eating hole.

If your house is wood, make sure the exterior paint is in good condition. Fill any holes in exterior wood with glazing compound or putty.

If the house is masonry, make sure the mortar is in good condition. If not, repoint it or have a mason repoint it.

(Needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, the mortar mix and application should match the original in composition, texture and appearance.)

Do NOT apply masonry sealers or paint unpainted masonry. This can exacerbate problems by trapping moisture in the walls and causing the masonry to deteriorate.

Check window glazing and if necessary, re-glaze them. (The accompanying video makes it easy with clear step by step instructions.)

Caulk all construction joints with the appropriate compound.

Weatherstrip (unobtrusively) around doors and windows.

Caulk gaps in interior woodwork where the wood meets the plaster.

Fill in gaps around electrical outlet and switch boxes.

If you have wide gaps between the floor boards, fill them in with strips of felt. (The felt will expand and contract with the wood.)

DEWALT DC546K 18-Volt Caulk Gun - for Heavy Duty Caulking & Adhesive Jobs

Victorian Style Home

Victorian Style Home

Nooks and Crannies

Smaller Spaces Provide More than Charm

Part of the charm of old Victorian houses is the seeming labyrinth of smaller rooms, hallways, and similar spaces. However, there were very practical reasons for this division of space.

In addition to taking advantage of air currents, as discussed above, smaller spaces were far more efficient to heat.

It was easier to close off unused areas and regulate what areas of the house were kept warmest. The artful (and actually, scientific) use of transoms, windows, doors and portiéres were an effective way to maintain comfort levels and conserve heat and energy.

Some houses had "summer rooms" which were meant to be closed off in colder weather and to stay cooler in the heat of summer. High ceilings (because heat rises) and transom windows could regulate the distribution of heat between rooms. Ceiling fans could be used to recycle the hot air downward in the winter and, with the blades in the reverse direction, provide a cooling effect in the summertime.

The open floor plans favored in today's houses, especially when framed by a virtual wall of glass, would be well served by incorporating some of the more energy saving elements of the Victorian home. Portiéres, for example, could be used in the winter to create smaller spaces to maintain heat more efficiently and effectively. Glass patio doors could be hung with thermal drapery panels. Shutters and blinds would reduce heat loss through windows.

Shop for Insulating Drapery Panels for Windows or Portiéres

or Even Patio Doors

If you decide to go with some of the ready made options available today, remember that you will need to hang panels back-to-back for a portiére to get the two sided effect. You might also want to add some trim for a more Victorian look.

Prefer to Make Your Own?

Restoration Fabrics and Trims website homepage

Restoration Fabrics and Trims website homepage

Visit Restoration Fabrics & Trims For the Finest Selection of Victorian Fabrics, Trims, Wallpapers & More

Specialists in Period Sensitive Decorating at Budget Sensitive Prices



For More About Portiéres

And Energy Saving Interior
Tips from the Past
Please see

Energy Efficient Winter Decorating Victorian Style

for more common-sense ways that Victorian interior decorating took advantage of natural phenomenon to increase comfort -- and to do so beautifully and in keeping with the Victorian aesthetic.


Purposeful Planting

Landscaping for Energy Efficiency

In the 1800s, as today, it was recommended to plant deciduous trees on the south and west sides of a house. The shade they provided in summer helped keep the house cool in the summer.

Evergreens planted to block winter winds shielded the house from their chill in the colder months.

Trees were to be planted neither too close nor too far from the house so as to be most effective. If planted too close, falling leaves could clog gutters. If planted too far away, the benefits of shade provided and their use as a windbreaker would be lost.

Learn More About Energy Efficient Landscaping


Victorian houses have their drawbacks and restoring, maintaining and living in them is a not-always-easy labor of love, but after getting to know my grand old lady, I have great respect for the ingenuity and lost arts and science of the builders and homeowners who took care of her before me. We should not, as the well-worn maxim cautions us, throw the baby out with the bathwater -- especially when, with a little study and effort, you can keep the water warm longer and with less energy.

Old houses, properly maintained and lived in consciously and conscientiously, can be far more energy efficient than purveyors of so-called improved products would have you believe. New is not always necessarily better.

There are severe drawbacks to using many replacement windows, hollow-core doors, vinyl siding, and other contemporary manufactured products on old houses. Educate yourself before buying into the hype. It is not difficult to maintain or even to restore original wood windows, siding and similar features. It is less wasteful and you will wind up with a far more aesthetically and financially pleasing outcome.

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This Space is For You - You Know What to Do

MaryThereseBenn on June 16, 2012:

I really enjoyed this lens!

Anthony Godinho from Ontario, Canada on January 23, 2012:

Great lens and tips on optimizing energy efficiency in Victorian houses. I sure do love the Victorian look...blessed!

TrebAllen on January 20, 2012:

Excellent lens! I just love the old Victorian and "Painted ladies" type homes. They just had so much more character, intricate detail and a level of quality not evident in homes being thrown up, errr ... built today.

TheCheshireCat on January 16, 2012:

very interesting information. hope to live in an old house someday.

Tony Payne from Southampton, UK on January 14, 2012:

Excellent information on old victorian houses. Nicely done, blessed.

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