Harrison House Goes Green

The newsletter this month focuses on energy efficiency and green building within the historic preservation community. There are a lot of common misconceptions that historic preservation discourages modern day standards of energy efficiency and sustainability. While it is true that older buildings tend to have efficiency problems, there are multiple ways to bring these buildings up to current standards without compromising their historical integrity.

A great example of this is the Harrison Boarding House, located right here in Historic West Las Vegas. Recently, the Harrison Boarding House received both local and state designation on the register of historic places within the City of Las Vegas and the State of Nevada. Less commonly known, however, are the green building renovations and goals that are integral to the future plans of the Harrison House.

The Early Years

Harrison House plaquePurchased in 2009 by Katherine Duncan, the house was deeded to the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce with the intention of becoming a historic building. Together, Duncan and the chamber have worked tirelessly to increase recognition and gain support for historic designation for the Harrison House. The home is an exciting artifact within the entertainment history of Las Vegas, providing hospitality services to black entertainers throughout the decades that segregation ruled the industry.

Duncan and the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce originally purchased the house as part of a greater goal for rebuilding the neighborhood and community of West Las Vegas. Like many houses in the surrounding neighborhood, the house had suffered years of neglect and economic instability and was badly in need of repair and rehabilitation. Together, Duncan and the chamber managed to raise about $20,000 in donations and contributions towards rehabbing the house. It was during these fundraising efforts that Duncan learned of the important history of the house and began working towards historic designation as well.

Unfortunately, soon after initial repair and reconstruction had taken place, the Harrison House was robbed and vandalized. Out of money and forced to start over, Duncan began to reach out to various building personnel, searching for new technologies that would discourage theft and benefit the existing community. Duncan began to learn about sustainable building practices and re-evaluated the rehabilitation efforts to incorporate green building techniques and products.

A Green Vision

Duncan started on a new plan and vision, to rehabilitate the Harrison House as a state of the art, net-zero energy, LEED-certified model demonstration home to be used as a cultural and community resource center. Duncan envisions the home as setting an example for the rest Historic West Las Vegas, creating a “ripple effect throughout the neighborhood and community”. Not only will the Harrison House serve as a historical landmark and center of African American culture, but will serve as a model for energy efficiency and economic stability as well.

Historic Preservation and Energy Efficiency

Heading up the green rehabilitation project with the Harrison House is Rick Van Diepen, Principal at Greenview Global, a Las Vegas-based sustainability consulting firm. Working on a pro bono basis, Van Diepen has assisted Duncan and the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce to help make their green goals a reality without compromising its historical integrity.

The design and rehabilitation efforts have all been guided according to the LEED for Homes guidelines. Upon project completion, the Harrison House will apply and be eligible to receive the Platinum LEED rating. Following the LEED recommended guidelines ensure national recognition of the green building efforts at the Harrison House, as well durability and success for the project. The LEED guidelines for green building are industry standard and have proven successful time and time again.

To begin the green rehabilitation project, Van Diepen partnered with Love Engineering, who provided an initial evaluation on the energy efficiency of the existing house. The evaluation included a pressure test and duct blaster, providing a template for addressing problem areas. Commonly referred to as the building envelope, the exterior walls, windows and roof of a house are the most important factors in creating an energy efficient building. The testing by Love Engineering exposed the roof, attic, HVAC ductwork and wall insulation as primary contributors to leaks within the building envelope.

Common air leak sourcesThese findings are not uncommon for homes built around this time. Many historic homes suffer from too little insulation or cracks in the walls, and roofs that have developed and worsened over time. The good news, however, is that many of these problems are fairly simple and inexpensive to fix. In addition, all of these problems can be addressed, as Van Diepen says, “behind the scenes,” without effecting the historical character of older homes. Currently in the process of addressing these concerns, the Harrison House serves as a neighborhood model for how homeowners can fix these problems themselves and save money in the long term by creating a more energy efficient building envelope.

The first step for the Harrison House was sealing the roof and attic space. Duncan and volunteers of Ward 5 stripped the old insulation and debris from the attic and used a foam insulation to caulk around the edges and cracks within the space. A radiant barrier will be added to the underside of the roof’s structure. Similar to tin foil, the addition of this material allows the roof to reflect heat away from the house and helps keep the attic space and ductwork cool. This allows the HVAC equipment to work more efficiently as the air is kept cooler while it is transferred throughout the home. New, high efficiency cellulose insulation will be added back into the attic to further help protect the space from the hot Las Vegas sun. In addition, the HVAC equipment was changed out to a SEER 16 heat pump unit, as recommended by Love Engineering’s “right size it” report. Installing HVAC equipment that is sized correctly for a home’s square footage and layout ensures the unit is working to maximize efficiency and keeps operating costs down. Occupancy sensors and a programmable Nest thermostat were installed inside the house to automatically adjust temperatures for optimal comfort depending on whether the house is being used or not. Some electrical upgrades were also made, using LED fixtures and bulbs to reduce energy costs within the house. Most historic lighting fixtures are able to take LED bulbs, significantly reducing the amount of energy used while increasing the lifespan of the bulb as well.

Several options are currently being looked at regarding window rehabilitation, as the single pane windows of the original house are not ideal for energy efficiency. New, prefabricated windows of the same style as the original house proved to be too expensive for the project’s budget. Instead, additional glass added to the interior side of the windows, much like an interior storm window, is being looked at. This will help to reduce air leaks through the single pane windows, while maintaining the original look and feel of the home. Recycled cellulose insulation will also be added to the walls to increase the R-value of the house, which also helps to reduce leaks within the building envelope.

The Future of Historic West Las Vegas

Harrison HouseDuncan and Ward 5’s efforts are paving the way for other older homes located within Historic West Las Vegas. Their efforts are a great example of historic preservation and energy efficiency working together and achieving common goals. The house is currently used as a demonstration home, where people from the neighborhood can come to educate themselves on inexpensive methods for increasing energy efficiency within their home. In fact, Duncan is BPI (Building Performance Institute) certified and personally provides assistance and information throughout the community.

In addition, the Harrison House operates as a community business center, providing meeting space and wi-fi for local business owners. It is also a place of refuge, where residents come to join together to discuss community issues, events and solutions. Duncan believes that the ideas and practices showcased at the Harrison House are part of a larger vision for neighborhood redevelopment and economic stability. “Its not just about the Harrison House, but about the rebuilding of the Historic West Las Vegas neighborhood.”

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment