The floors creak. Rumor has it ghosts roam the narrow hallways of the upper floors.
But, just because a house is old, like the 189-year-old Whistler House at 243 Worthen St., doesn’t mean it is forever sentenced to life with an antiquated HVAC system and drafty windows.
An extensive project to make the house more energy efficient and preserve it and its impressive 19th and early 20th century art collection for another 200 years in on the verge of becoming a reality, thanks to the city’s BetterBuildings program.
A state-of-the-art Unico high-velocity heating and cooling system, with moisture controls is being installed, as well as a new boiler. The house will be getting new storm windows; the exterior clapboard is being repaired and painted; and 14 inches of installation is being added to the attic.
The house, built in 1823 and the birthplace of artist James McNeil Whistler (1834), the home of the Lowell Art Association since 1908, is expected to realize an energy savings of more than 30 percent. The new HVAC system will also greatly control the moisture in the house, which is critical to preserving the art work.
“We are thrilled,” said Whistler House President Sara Bogosian. “This has been a dream of mine. This project is is both preservation and conservation.”
The project received the green light from the Massachusetts Historical Commission last week.
On Monday morning, the Whistler House welcomed a special guest – master plumber Richard Trethewey. Trethewey is familiar to PBS viewers as the plumbing expert on the long-running “This Old House,” a show on which he has appeared for 34 years. However, for the last 22 years he has also been associated with Unico, Inc., the company that created the high-velocity small-duct HVAC system being used at the Whistler House.
Tretheway said the system is innovative, allowing for one outlet in an 8×10 space, where with an old system there may be five. The outlet can be discretely located on the floor on the first floor and on the ceiling or high side walls on the upper floors.
“As a contractor, we were always trying to fight this conventional duct work in buildings” he said, adding he has enjoyed being part of installing the Unico system in “impossible” buildings, those historic places, like the Whistler House that provide their own unique challenges. “Once we show it can be done in an “impossible” building, it can be done anywhere.”
Assistant City Manager/Director of the Department of Planning and Development Adam Baacke agrees.
“One of the challenges to broad-based acceptance of building retrofitting work has been inaccurate conventional wisdom that this work can’t be done in historic buildings without sacrificing the historic character of the structures.” Baacke said. “Lowell’s program is specifically targeted to the buildings in the Lowell National Park and Preservation District, to disprove this fallacy by showing that even within the confines of one of the most tightly regulated historic districts in the country, significant energy efficiency work is both possible and desirable. The Whistler House project is a great example of this because it is a particularly challenging and significant historic building, so proving that meaningful retrofit work can be done there in a historically sensitive manner helps convince people that it can be done anywhere.”
In September 2010, the city was granted $5 million in federal funds as part of the national effort by the U.S. Department of Energy to encourage energy efficiency retrofitting work.
In Lowell, the program allows owners of historical buildings in the city’s Downtown Historic District to take advantage of a grant of up to one-third of the project cost of up to $250,000, as well as a low-interest loan for one-third of the project cost up to $250,000 from the Lowell Development and Financial Corporation. The final third of the project, up to $250,000, is financed by the property owner.
According to Baacke, two dozen downtown buildings have taken advantage of the program.
“We have worked with a wide variety of building types from different eras, ranging from mills to Haffner’s gas station,” he added.
Unico has a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and has installed their HVAC systems at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC, the Mark Twain House, Booker T. Washington House and the Harry S. Truman Little White House.
The system is designed to run efficiently while maintaining the architectural dignity of historic structures. It takes up less than one-fourth of the space of a traditional HVAC system, providing up to 12 tons of air conditioning in the same space as a 3-ton traditional system; it is also quieter and less visible.
Mother would be proud . . .