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Community and Q&A

Insulating Old house

hilarymck | Posted in Energy Efficiency and Durability on

I have a post and beam house, built 1790….the walls are board on board, then lathe and plaster. There is no space to put blown insulation in.
I am unsure whether to stud up the inside walls, and insulate, or add some kind of insulation board to the outside, and some insulated siding.
I would really like to talk to someone who knows what they are doing, someone that works in northeast New York, who is trustworthy and would do this for me.
The house is cold, and impossible to heat, I think it’s time to do it up right.
I am in Hudson Falls, NY.

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  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    The best approach would be to install a continuous layer of exterior insulation -- probably rigid foam, or possibly mineral wool -- followed by new siding. Or you could install SIPs or nailbase on the exterior of your home.

    If you don't know how to find a good contractor, I suggest that you contact local HERS raters. You can find a list of energy auditors through the RESNET website or the BPI website. If you ask local energy raters to tell you the names of good local contractors, you can probably trust their advice.

  2. user-757117 | | #2

    It's hard to say if you will get any responses from any local contractors on this forum...
    It's also hard to say what the best strategy for retrofitting your house is without knowing more.

    Fortunately however, there is a lot of good general information stored at this site that might help you inform yourself prior to any future dealings with a contractor.
    Here are some "quick picks" that may help you get started:

  3. sals_dad | | #3


    From your description, your house may be of considerable historical interest. I don't know about its condition, or the town, but a quick Google search suggests you have one of the oldest houses in a town with an active historic district.

    Before making major changes (especially windows!) please check in with a local historic preservation resource. The approach you take should be driven by the specific antique details of the house.

    For example, if the exterior has been altered or modernized over the years, Martin's advice to go with an exterior sheathing may be dead-on. Or, if the exterior is near original, but the interior is not, perhaps an interior approach would be more appropriate. If the old part of the building is near-pristine, perhaps you could consider moving your primary winter living space into a newer wing or addition, that would benefit from a full energy retrofit, leaving the older section intact, so you can enjoy the best elements of the 18th and 21st centuries!

    I hope you can share more about your very special house, and how you choose to proceed. Just be careful, as the easiest way to improve the energy efficiency of your house will be to destroy the details and quirks that you love about it.

  4. hilarymck | | #4

    Wow, Curtis, you hit the nail on the head. It is very tricky. I have owned the house for 8 years now, and renovated it carefully when I bought it.......cosmetics mostly.....had to replace some windows that were not original, but kept all the walls intact, it has all original doors and hardware, windows with wavy glass. It was said to have been used in the Underground railroad. There is a huge cistern in the stone cellar. I am only the fourth owner since 1790.
    It still has a lot of knob and tube wiring. There is a brick bake oven that has seen better days in the cellar......another project.
    The interior walls are original, except where I have had to patch, but you can't tell where. Some of the ceilings are sheet rocked, the ones that were falling down.
    The outside is also original....I have painted it, and patched a few boards that were rotted.
    You can see a photo of it on the first page of my web site, (I am a weaver) at
    I am wondering if I insulate the first floor, and the attic, and seal up all the cracks, if I can warm it up some.
    It is either COLD, or it is EXPENSIVE.
    But that being said, it is a beautiful house with gorgeous pitch pine floors downstairs, and wide pine has lovely golden light, and an incredible ambience. I love it and don't want to make it modern, just a little warmer.
    Oh, and I got an award a few years ago from the Washington Country Historical Society, for my preservation and renovation.
    Thanks for your response.

  5. user-901114 | | #5

    That is a beauty. I recently read that the upstairs floor boards(kings pine) were wider because they tax collectors were never let upstairs. Boards wider than 14in were highly taxed..

    I was doing a salvage job on one like it and was wondering how one could perform an insulation retrofit. Personally, I'd do it from the inside with rock wool in a framed wall with rock wool boards across the interior studs. Air tight blueboard and plaster after that. Plaster can be made to look old.. Then I'd have to come up with some sort of interior window. Maybe temporary ones for winter only. I'd do the same under the first floor joists. Then I'd pile on the cellulose in the attic. That leaves only the rim bands to deal with. You can insulate those bays with cellulose or rock wool when you open them up to replace the electrical. I know a guy who works with these historic buildings in the north east. Look up lmh building and salvage on facebook and tell him Steve sent you.

  6. sals_dad | | #6

    Hmmm - I thought I had posted a second reply the other day, but...

    After reconsidering your winter use of the most difficult rooms, making sure you have tight storm windows (inside or out), sealing air gaps, insulating above the ceilings and under the floors, you'll be left with the thin but uninsulated walls.

    I would NOT add significant thickness, either inside (where the look of the timbers would be compromised) or out (please don't tear off antique clapboards). One approach might be to remove the interior drywall, plaster, and/or lathe, and add a thin board of high-performance insulation (look up Aerogel) , then replaster.

    Perhaps you would benefit from having infra-red photos taken of the house now, to identify just where the biggest problems are? Be wary of most energy consultants and "best practices" that don't specifically address historical integrity.

    And Electrical - get a good older electrician with long experience with knob & tube, and make sure he is OK with whatever insulation approach you take, and have him monitor/inspect the installers.

    Good luck!

  7. hilarymck | | #7

    I am starting to insulate under the floors, and I am planning on doing the attic.
    I think I need to caulk all air leaks in the basement, and around the seam of house and cellar. I am also going to look into new storms.......and if I can't afford them, I will at least seal the ones I have.
    I absolutely do not want to "stud up" the inside, and lose the character of the house.
    And yet I don't want to tear off the siding either, because putting it back on will lose all the fine detail around the windows.
    So I am going to do what I can, and see if it helps.
    I do have ONE room, on the north side, that has always been the warmest in the house. I just realized that the ceiling of the room in the cellar below it, has a bead board's the only one in the cellar. I am wondering if THAT is the reason the room above it is so warm.
    It will be interesting when I get the floors insulated, to see if there is much different.
    I will look around to see if I can find someone to do the infra red photos. That sounds like a great idea.

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