Return to splendor

A historic home gets a renovation that’s easy on the environment.

By Anne V. Nelson
September 20, 2009

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There are lots of not-so-lovely things about living in a lovely old house. Drafts, for one, and insufficient insulation -- plus the resulting high energy bills. There can be ugly “upgrades” made by previous owners. To improve efficiency and restore the old beauty, you might be tempted to start from scratch.

Joan FitzGerald, a writer, bought just such a home -- a circa-1880 Queen Anne that leaked like crazy and had been stripped of many details -- on Brattle Street in Cambridge several years ago. She embarked last spring on a project to fix energy inefficiencies and rehab the exterior, including old clapboards leaching lead paint into the yard and a driveway that sent storm water into the street. She also wanted to restore some decorative details, but the energy-saving aspects of the makeover are what get both FitzGerald and S+H Construction’s Jamie Leef talking.

The goal was “taking responsibility for the property in an environmental way,” FitzGerald says. That meant, in part, reusing what they could. New clapboards were “woven in,” Leef says, with existing ones that were still in good shape. The old asphalt-shingle roof was left in place under a new wood-shingle one, providing insulation and keeping waste out of a landfill. Workers drilled small holes in the siding and poured expanding foam insulation behind it; this avoided ripping out either the interior plaster or the exterior siding and replastering or re-siding once insulation was sprayed in.

Watching both the environmental impact and the budget required careful calculations. “I have a 400 line-item spreadsheet with lots of options,” Leef says. Some of the choices -- like not having to demo the roof -- saved money. Other things cost extra, like the new permeable-stone driveway. And some items had to stay on FitzGerald’s to-do list, including rehabbing the lead-paint-tainted soil.

The new paint, made from linseed oil and plant pigments only, won’t cause that kind of problem. It doesn’t even require the painters to clean their brushes at night. “You put the brush back in your bucket, cover it with a rag, and pull it out the next day and keep painting,” says Leef. Ironically, it’s probably the kind of paint that was around in the 1880s when the house was built. Just think of all the trouble that could have been saved.

Anne V. Nelson is an editor at the Globe Magazine. Send comments to

  • September 20, 2009 cover
  • september 20 globe magazine cover
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