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Geneva couple hopes to change historic preservation rules
By Jean Murphy | Daily Herald Correspondent

Ernie Mahaffey and Sheila Penrose purchased this home, which was built in 1929, on First Street in Geneva's historic district. They hope to make it more energy efficient throughout the renovation process.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

Whether to preserve the 80-year-old windows may become a sticking point in the renovation, as the owners explore how to make the house energy efficient.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

Ernie Mahaffey hopes this Tudor Revival home in Geneva will generate discussion on how to preserve homes, yet make them livable and affordable in today's economic climate.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

A built-in cabinet original to the 1929 Geneva home is one of the features that make it unique.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

The front door of 405 S. First St. in Geneva. The door is original to the 1929 home.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 3/13/2010 11:00 PM

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How do you reconcile the conflicting interests of historic preservationists and the green movement? Can you drastically decrease a historic home's carbon footprint without destroying its integrity?

These are the questions that Ernie Mahaffey and his wife, Sheila Penrose, of Geneva set out to explore last year. The couple bought a circa 1929 Tudor Revival home in Geneva's historic district and hired Marko Spiegel of Conservation Technology International Inc. in La Fox to explore whether the home could be made super energy efficient without compromising its historic value.

Spiegel is an engineer who has made it his life's work to bring German "passiv haus" technology to the United States. These homes, which are so popular in Germany and Austria that they have become the government standard for new home construction there, feature "super-insulated, fully-enclosed envelopes with fresh air ventilation" that drastically reduce energy use.

After walking through one of Spiegel's "OneWatt" model homes, Mahaffey and Penrose were sold and eventually asked Spiegel if he would consider the challenge of retrofitting the technology into a historic home. This is routinely done in Europe.

The dynamics of the experiment were made much more complicated by the fact that the old home Mahaffey and Penrose purchased is located within Geneva's historic district, where controls on changes to the homes' exteriors are tightly regulated by a historic commission.

"Old houses are the fabric of our community in Geneva. I live in one myself. But I am intrigued by the idea of making them more energy efficient. We needed someone to start a conversation about what we are going to do with all of these drafty old houses," Mahaffey said.

"Someone needs to take us, as a community, down a learning path on this and I was interested in doing that."

An all-around activist in Geneva, Mahaffey admitted he wears many hats. He was one of the founders of the Center for Business Education, Innovation and Development, which seeks to promote entrepreneurship and new business and industry ventures in the Fox Valley. That is how he met Spiegel.

He is also an avid historic preservationist. He and his wife have restored a number of old houses - in Geneva, in Michigan and in Penrose's native England. In addition, Mahaffey has served on the board of Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley, a group that offers education and promotes the appreciation and preservation of the valley's architectural and historical resources.

Finally, he is interested in the green movement from both a business and an environmental standpoint.

"I think that this is a great discussion and I like a challenge. I see this as an opportunity for the Geneva area to get out in front on some really big issues because, as far as we know, no one else in the state of Illinois is even exploring this issue," Mahaffey said.

The Tudor home Mahaffey and Penrose purchased had deteriorated over the years and badly needed rehabilitation just to be livable.

"We knew the house was in terrible shape and we were going to have to tear up the walls anyway, so wouldn't this be the perfect place to explore issues like additional insulation and other sustainability improvements?," Mahaffey said.

So he brought in a team to attack the problem. In addition to Spiegel, he consulted with an Oak Park-based architect and a local Realtor, Jamie Daniel of Miscella Real Estate.

Daniel offered input on what needed to be done to the home to make it salable and the group quickly determined that an addition was necessary.

"It would be very hard to sell a house with two little bedrooms upstairs and a tiny kitchen - in Geneva or anywhere," Daniel said.

So with the help of the architect, they designed a larger kitchen with an eating area, a first-floor master suite and a corresponding addition of bedroom/office space on the second floor. Then Spiegel went to work on what would be needed to make the enlarged home a "OneWatt," super-sustainable house.

"Old houses are like leaky buckets with 100 holes," Spiegel explained at a recent historic commission gathering to discuss the project. "It is helpful to plug 90 of them."

So he proposed to the group an elaborate change to the building which involves a second envelope in the interior to maintain a constant temperature. A second set of interior walls would be built within the home, one foot from the existing walls, creating space that would be filled with high-tech insulation. This would also be done along the roofline in the vaulted ceiling of the living room. All of the original trim would be removed, restored and then replaced on the newly created interior walls.

Under his plan, the furnace would be removed and replaced with a high-tech heat exchanger hooked up to the ventilation system. An on-demand hot water heater would also be installed.

And the original windows in the home would be replaced throughout with triple-pane, state-of-the-art wood windows with a historic look.

Spiegel estimated that, without considering the addition, the energy costs for the current house are $5,088 per year. If you did a standard renovation and added insulation where possible, you could reduce that annual energy cost to $3,165. But if you followed Spiegel's entire plan, you could cut that annual energy bill to $1,200 or less.

Using the Home Energy Rating Scoring System, the current home score is 261. With a standard renovation you could reduce it to 164. But with the Spiegel approach, it could be lowered to a mere 48. The lower the index number, the more energy efficient the home is.

While the preservationists gathered were impressed with the improvements that were possible, all objected to the idea of replacing the original windows.

Karla Kaulfuss, preservation planner for the city of Geneva, argued that a home's original windows provide texture to a building that isn't present in a buildings' other elements and she also questioned whether it was truly green to throw the old windows in a landfill so you could replace them with new windows.

"Preservationists are green at their heart because we are all about the repair of existing products instead of throwing them away and replacing them," Kaulfuss asserted. "There needs to be a lot more education on both sides, but this is certainly a timely discussion."

Spiegel said that the preservation of old buildings has been a priority in Europe for decades because the zoning there is much stricter and it is almost impossible to get a permit to build a new building. Yet they have chosen to embrace the passiv haus movement.

"It is honorable that the windows are 80 years old. But if they are replaced with new windows which decrease the energy waste year after year, that savings will quickly outweigh the disposal effect of removing the old windows," he said.

"Maybe the time is not yet right in the United States for this discussion. Once energy costs double or triple, then I expect people will be willing to consider these options because they won't be able to afford not to," Spiegel said.

"I very much respect the work of the commission in their attempt to preserve the historic fabric of Geneva," he continued. "I am simply an engineer who is trying to make buildings ready for the next 100 years.

"Certainly there are buildings that deserve such careful preservation - landmarks and buildings with great historic significance - but not all 500 homes within an arbitrary line that someone drew," Spiegel asserted.

Spiegel now thinks it would be beneficial to start with a sufficiently old house that is not located within a historic area, turn it into a super-energy efficient house with triple-pane windows that look historic, and use it as a model to let people see that a home can be preserved and energy-efficient.

"Once they walked through it and saw the finished product, it would speak for itself," he said.

Mahaffey and Kaulfuss, on the other hand, are both mulling over the idea of retrofitting their home's existing windows with interior storm windows to preserve the original materials and yet increase their energy efficiency.

But Spiegel complains that interior storm windows would not allow the homeowner to open the windows and there are also issues of condensation that would need to be addressed by the window companies.

After spending $220,000 to purchase the home and $100,000 plus on the architectural plans for the addition and energy retrofit, Mahaffey and Penrose currently have the Tudor home on the market for $900,000, which would include the work yet to be done to make it larger and highly energy efficient. But they don't plan to proceed with the renovation until they have a buyer.

As for the window question, Mahaffey said he would again ask for the replacement windows, if they find a buyer.

"The Historic Commission would have to turn down the windows because they have to follow the Department of the Interior regulations on things like that," he acknowledged. "But the Geneva City Council can overrule them and I think that they would approve these windows as a legitimate exception.

"After all, this is not Martha Washington's house. It was built in 1929 so it is not even that old," Mahaffey said.