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Download the PDF The need for modern mechanical systems is one of the most common reasons to undertake work on historic buildings.
Such work includes upgrading older mechanical systems, improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings, installing new heating, ventilation or air conditioning HVAC systems, or—particularly for museums—installing a climate control system with humidification and dehumidification capabilities.
Decisions to install new HVAC or climate control systems often result from concern for occupant health and comfort, the desire to make older buildings marketable, or the need to provide specialized environments for operating computers, storing artifacts, or displaying museum collections.
Unfortunately, occupant comfort and concerns for the objects within the building are sometimes given greater consideration than the building itself. In too many cases, applying modern standards of interior climate comfort to historic buildings has Recommended brief detrimental to historic materials and decorative finishes.
This Preservation Brief underscores the importance of careful planning in order to balance the preservation objectives with interior climate needs of the building. It is not intended as a technical guide to calculate tonnage or to size piping or ductwork.
Rather, this Brief identifies some of the problems associated with installing mechanical systems in historic buildings and recommends approaches to minimizing the physical and visual damage associated with installing and maintaining these new or upgraded systems. Historic buildings are not easily adapted to house modern precision mechanical systems.
Careful planning must be provided early on to ensure that decisions made during the design and installation phases of a new system are appropriate. The installation Recommended brief inappropriate mechanical systems may result in any or all of the following: The dropped ceilings covering an air conditioning system also cover the historic windows, altering their proportion and resulting in loss of the historic character.
For historic properties it is critical to understand what spaces, features, and finishes are historic in the building, what should be retained, and what the realistic heating, ventilating, and cooling needs are for the building, its occupants, and its contents.
A systematic approach, involving preservation planning, preservation design, and a follow-up program of monitoring and maintenance, can ensure that new systems are successfully added—or existing systems are suitably upgraded—while preserving the historic integrity of the building.
No set formula exists for determining what type of mechanical system is best for a specific building. Each building and its needs must be evaluated separately.
Some buildings will be so significant that every effort must be made to protect the historic materials and systems in place with minimal intrusion from new systems. Some buildings will have museum collections that need special climate control.
In such cases, curatorial needs must be considered—but not to the ultimate detriment of the historic building resource. Other buildings will be rehabilitated for commercial use. For them, a variety of systems might be acceptable, as long as significant spaces, features, and finishes are retained.
Most mechanical systems require upgrading or replacement within years due to wear and tear or the availability of improved technology.
Therefore, historic buildings should not be greatly altered or otherwise sacrificed in an effort to meet short-term systems objectives. Following are highlights in the evolution of heating, ventilating, and cooling systems in historic buildings.
Eighteenth Century Early heating and ventilation in America relied upon common sense methods of managing the environment. Builders purposely sited houses to capture winter sun and prevailing summer cross breezes; they chose materials that could help protect the inhabitants from the elements, and took precautions against precipitation and damaging drainage patterns.
The location and sizes of windows, doors, porches, and the floor plan itself often evolved to maximize ventilation. Heating was primarily from fireplaces or stoves and, therefore, was at the source of delivery.
InBenjamin Franklin designed his "Pennsylvania stove" with a fresh air intake in order to maximize the heat radiated into the room and to minimize annoying smoke.
Thermal insulation was rudimentary—often wattle and daub, brick and wood nogging. The comfort level for occupants was low, but the relatively small difference between internal and external temperatures and relative humidity allowed building materials to expand and contract with the seasons.
Regional styles and architectural features reflected regional climates. In warm, dry and sunny climates, thick adobe walls offered shelter from the sun and kept the inside temperatures cool. Verandas, courtyards, porches, and high ceilings also reduced the impact of the sun.
Hot and humid climates called for elevated living floors, louvered grilles and shutters, balconies, and interior courtyards to help circulate air.
Nineteenth Century The industrial revolution provided the technological means for controlling the environment for the first time. The dual developments of steam energy from coal and industrial mass production made possible early central heating systems with distribution of heated air or steam using metal ducts or pipes.
Improvements were made to early wrought iron boilers and by late century, steam and low pressure hot water radiator systems were in common use, both in offices and residences.SBIRT: Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment.
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Sharon C. Park, AIA. History of Mechanical Systems; Climate Control and Preservation.