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Community and Q&A

How to insulate a brick farmhouse built in 1876?

Amy Taulbee | Posted in Energy Efficiency and Durability on

We are buying my husband’s family farm. The house was built in 1876 and is 2 stories, double brick, with plaster interior walls. There is no central heating so sometimes it actually feels colder than it is outside!

The windows are beautifully arched at the tops with lovely wide, angled molding, and of course single paned. I don’t believe any insulating was ever done.

We are concerned about how to heat the house (ductwork?) and tightening things up. Any and all suggestions would be so appreciated. Thank you.


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  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    As you probably know, you can heat your farmhouse any way you want, using the same equipment that every other house uses. Options include a furnace (burning natural gas, propane, oil, firewood, or wood pellets), a boiler (burning natural gas, propane, oil, firewood, or wood pellets), an air-source heat pump, or a ground-source heat pump.

    Any type of heating system will work. However, improving your home's envelope is much more important than your choice of heating system.

    I think you should hire a home performance contractor or a home energy rater -- ideally someone certified by RESNET or BPI -- to do a thorough energy audit of your home. That way their recommendations for air sealing, insulation improvements, and window improvements will be tailored for your home's needs.

    (By the way, I hope you have a good budget. Upgrading an uninsulated old farmhouse that needs a new heating system requires big bucks.)

  2. Riversong | | #2

    If you have a full basement or crawlspace and access to abundant wood fuel, you might consider the original central heating system developed by the Romans: the hypocaust.

  3. James Morgan | | #3

    I agree with Martin that an energy audit might be a good place to start. Without second-guessing that report, which will be specific to your home, the general wisdom is that 'tops and bottoms' (attic and cellar/crawl space) is going to offer the greatest bang for the buck in insulation upgrades and if your budget is not unlimited this is certainly the place to start. If your single-pane windows are in good condition consider good-quality storms as the next step, replacement if not. Improving the thermal performance of your solid brick walls will likely be the most expensive and disruptive intervention.

    If your home is in a heating-only climate consider a hydronic radiant system rather than ducted air: radiant systems can provide thermal comfort at lower set-point air temperatures thus reducing transmission losses through poorly insulative walls. In the US this often implies underfloor installations, I think though that the Europeans' preference for wall-mounted radiators has got it right: in a high thermal mass masonry building they offer faster response to changes in exterior temperature and more localized control. In a traditional highly-compartmented farmhouse there are likely to be definite advantages in keeping the main living room slightly warmer than the kitchen and the bedrooms, and to be able to crank up the heat quickly in a home office, for example, only when you need it. The notion of a uniform high temperature throughout the home is a relatively recent one, introduced with the open plan Prairie Style homes of the early 1900's: your farmhouse was built with different expectations. Your pocketbook and your energy use will benefit from a heating system which respects that difference. Depending on the availability of sustainably-sourced firewood, an efficient woodstove can also be invaluable in achieving appropriate thermal zoning of your home.

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