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Lyman Estate undergoing green renovations that have big implications for other historic homes

Posted by Megan McKee  March 21, 2011 03:30 PM

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By Megan McKee, Town Correspondent

Starting in 1793, four generations of the wealthy Lyman family used their sprawling Waltham mansion as a summer home. Since they gave it to the organization Historic New England in 1951, the 14,000 square foot building has been rented for countless weddings and functions year-round.

This year, the Lyman Estate will be closed as the mansion undergoes about $500,000 in renovations that Historic New England officials hope will reduce the building's energy consumption by up to 50 percent while laying out a path for others hoping to do energy upgrades to the historic buildings that are often left out of the green conversation.

“What do we have in New England? We have old houses. You can build an incredibly efficient new house but you'd have to tear down the old house,” said Sally Zimmerman, manager of Historic New England's Historic Preservation Services. “Our number one goal is to show what can be achieved with modest, relatively inexpensive, reversible energy retrofits...We're not going to do anything in here that will do long-term damage to the building, nothing to remove historic character.”

At the Lyman Estate, this means using methods that are accessible to almost all homeowners. The mansion's windows were taken out a few weeks ago to be reglazed, fixed up, and weatherstripped. Heating ducts will be insulated so hot air doesn't escape into the closets and areas through which they pass. And insulation will be installed between the second floor and the third floor, which used to be the servants' quarters.

As each of these steps is completed, Historic New England will do an energy audit to find out the effectiveness of each effort.

“We want to learn what every single intervention does, what the net gain is,” said Zimmerman.

While the upgrades may lack the appeal of the latest and greatest green technologies, their implications are much wider and further-reaching, said Henry Moss, an architect with the Cambridge firm Bruner/Cott.

He said there are 110 million existing housing units in the country, way more than will be built any time soon. Despite this fact, there has been little published research quantifying the effects of various energy upgrades.

“When architects like me try to understand what we should do with existing building, it's often very difficult to show how effective or benign changes will be,” said Moss, whose projects have included the preservation of H.H. Richardson's Hayden Building and Charles Bulfinch's University Hall at Harvard University.

He is on the Lyman Estate's committee, and has been watching the project's progress, which is being spearheaded by Ben Haavik, who oversees the care at all of Historic New England's 36 properties.

“What Ben is doing is really pioneering,” said Moss. “If you can find affordable ways to solve these problems with these very sensitive buildings like the Lyman Estate, then we've imagined we can generalize them very broadly for people who live in old buildings.”

Haavik said windows are one of the key elements since there is so much potential for heat loss around and through them.

Though the Lyman Estate's wooden windows are about a century old, they are very much usable, and can be just as efficient—with the right maintenance and addition of storm windows—as the newer vinyl and aluminum windows that many view as the only option for energy efficiency.

“There's a lot of evidence that shows [new] windows need to be replaced every 15 years,” said Haavik. “A wooden window maintained will last 100, 200, 300 years.”

Fewer rounds of window replacements mean landfills are kept free of waste material, he said.

Moss said he and many other architects intentionally avoid using vinyl windows because of the chlorine used in their fabrication.

Haavik said Historic New England will implement renovations used at Lyman Estate at the organization's other properties and will be making a big push to get information out to the public.

They'll be holding workshops for their members and public tours at the estate while keeping historic preservation organizations informed about their progress. And the project manager will post weekly or bi-weekly updates online, said Haavik.

“The lessons learned shouldn't just be for us internally but for other people looking for low impact, high rewards,” said Haavik.

Though the building is closed during renovations, it is open for tours for people considering renting it in 2012. The greenhouses are also open.

Megan McKee can be reached at

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