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‘Old house challenges’ no match for Bell Court homeowner determined to be energy efficient

 (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)

With multiple working fireplaces throughout her home on the historic Bell Court Square, Nina McCormack purchased chimney pillows that inflate inside the shaft of the fireplace and stop cold drafts. (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)


By Elizabeth Adams
KyForward correspondent

Brown bags stuffed with puffy pink insulation cling to the attic ceiling of Nina McCormack’s honey brick house on the historic Bell Court Square in Lexington.

“Virtually useless,” McCormack said, lifting her gaze to the very first energy-saving decision she made nearly 20 year ago. At the time, contractors advised that she coat interior of the roof with a layer of insulation to contain heat that might escape through the top of her four-story house. Now McCormack knows better than to insulate an unconditioned space.

“It was one of those shoulda, coulda, woulda situations,” McCormack said. “It was what everybody said to do – the contractor didn’t know either.”

The first home efficiency misstep would also be the last for McCormack, who has valued sustainable living since she was a Girl Scout. In the late 1990s, the Bell Court homeowner began investigating home energy efficiency beyond layman’s knowledge.

She attended clipboard audits with Kentucky Utilities and invited an architect to walk through her 100-year-old home, which, because of its status as an historic home, is protected from many mainstream, easy-fix efficiency updates. She hired utilities experts to conduct a blower door test, which detects thermal patterns and air infiltration throughout the home. In addition, she started taking incremental do-it-yourself measures all over the house, starting with the basement and the attic.

Nina McCormick's 100-year-old home in Bell Court Square (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)

Nina McCormack’s historic 100-year-old home in Bell Court Square is protected from many of the mainstream, easy-fix efficiency updates. (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)

“I kept doing little replacement projects strategically,“ McCormack said. “Because a house is a system, and it’s all interactive; we did things in a sequence. Normally you wouldn’t do anything with windows until you deal with insulating – windows are secondary.”

In the basement of her tightly sealed structural brick home, McCormack used an inexpensive silicone foam sealant and foam boards around the perimeter of the foundation to block pockets of air infiltration. Throughout her home, she installed sleek, undetectable storm windows custom fit to her tall pre-World War II-era windows to provide an extra buffer of insulation for conditioned spaces. She packed cellulose insulation under the floorboards of her conditioned spaces, or on the basement ceiling, for more protection for her conditioned space. Many of her investments were items she picked up at a local hardware store.

With multiple working fireplaces throughout her home, McCormack purchased chimney pillows that inflate inside the shaft of the fireplace and stop drafts. She has closely inspected every conditioned room of her home – from her girls’ bedrooms to the charming second-floor greenhouse window – for openings that she can seal with caulk, foam or putty. McCormack found opportunities to insulate in pocket doors, around lighting fixtures and in electrical sockets and installed weather striping in doorways inside the house to prevent air from escaping to the attic.

Tracking her bills through the past 18 years, McCormack said her mostly do-it-yourself efforts have cut her utility bills in half. What’s more, she has developed enough expertise on the subject of energy efficiency to work as a consultant managing energy efficiency programs for residential and commercial clients. She completed training through the Building Performance Institute in 2013. Today, she is an active member of Bluegrass Greensource, a local nonprofit organization that provides resources and tips on sustainable living.

In late 2012, McCormack started opening the doors of her home to Bell Court neighbors who shared her interest in energy efficiency and her “special old house challenges.” During these meetings, she handed out a chart showing how energy efficiency measures have impacted her bills for the past decade. Now McCormack is developing online courses for those who want to learn how to make their historic homes more energy efficient.

As Lexington residents look ahead to the potential of another extremely cold winter, McCormack advises that even small steps toward energy efficiency can be impactful. She provides the following tips for homeowners:

1. Consider that “state of the art” has changed and will continue to change. Even for professionals and contractors, best practices five years ago now may be obsolete. Be assertive in questioning information, especially when it involves a major investment in your home.

2. Think of a space from top to bottom. For example, strategic places to insulate a conditioned space are at the top and the bottom of a structure. Consider conditioning beneath floorboards of a conditioned space or locating air leaks from the foundation of your home.

3. Think about your lifestyle and what matters to you in your home. Consider whether you can use natural light from windows as a source for heat or hang clothing from a line to conserve energy. Every home has different needs, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to energy efficiency. Think creatively about how you can conserve energy. Keep track of your bills so you know if your measures are making an impact.

4. Use the low-cost resources available through government agencies and local utility companies. A blower-door test through Kentucky Utilities costs $25 and can help you determine the best step forward. Government subsidies are also available for major energy-efficient installations, such as solar paneling. For more information, visit KyHomePerformance.org.

Elizabeth Adams is a freelance writer from Lexington.

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