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Historical sustainability

Sustainably Living in Historical NYC Buildings

Peter Shrieve-Don
March 22, 2024

One of the best things about living in New York City is, well, the city itself—the buildings, the skyline, the character. These structures, ranging from towering art deco skyscrapers to stately brownstones to ornate pre-war apartments, are not just remnants of the past, but living pieces of history that continue to define the city's character. However, as we march toward a more sustainable future, these historical buildings face the challenge of adapting to modern energy-efficient standards without losing their essence. That’s not an easy line to walk sometimes. A simple Google search of “windows and doors NYC” yields a 31-page document from the Landmarks Preservation Commission summarizing how to go about installing one. But that’s what a city is—a push and pull between history and newness, identity and ambition.So it’s essential to strike a balance between preserving architectural heritage while striving for a more energy efficient future. Let’s dive in.

Appliance Updates for Modern Times

Appliances play a major role in a home's overall energy consumption. Unfortunately, historic buildings may harbor outdated models with poor energy-efficiency ratings. When investing in replacements, prioritize ENERGY STAR-rated appliances, which not only reduce your carbon footprint but also lower utility bills. Gas stoves too are great, but not so great for the environment, or the health of those around them. Induction cooktops offer a contemporary, healthier cooking solution with precision temperature control and a smaller environmental footprint. Home energy rebates can ease the transition to this cleaner cooking technology.

Understanding Your Electrical System

Because older buildings often have outdated electrical systems which pose limitations and potential safety hazards, it’s important to understand your home's wiring, outlets, and electrical capacity to avoid risks and make informed appliance choices. Consult with an electrician to assess your home's system, identify potential upgrades, and understand how much power you can safely draw. Outdated outlet availability doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with an outdated approach. Choosing not only energy-efficient appliances but ones which prioritize smart scheduling features is essential. Or even just pick up some smart plugs and prevent energy wastage from devices that continue to draw power when not in use.

Navigating the Rules

Respecting the Landmarks Preservation Commission's guidelines ensures your sustainability efforts align seamlessly with the building's historic aesthetic. Research historically appropriate upgrades, even if that means going beyond basic weatherstripping and sourcing windows that don’t violate code, or investigating HVAC systems compatible with the building's infrastructure.

Confronting the Draft Dilemma

Historic buildings, with their original windows and aged construction, are often prone to drafts and unwanted airflow. This not only compromises comfort levels but also puts undue strain on your heating and cooling systems. So when basic double-pane window replacement clashes with coding and regulations, more nuanced methods are key. Thorough weatherstripping around doors and windows is your first defense. Discreet, interior storm windows can also significantly boost insulation while leaving the original windows intact. For spaces with now-defunct fireplaces, consider methods of plugging the flue if it’s not already properly closed.

Temperature Check

The main struggle of older buildings often comes down to efficiency. As stated previously, rooms may fluctuate greatly in temperature due to thick uninsulated walls or antiquated systems. Targeted solutions can make a significant difference. Replace old radiators with units featuring smart thermostatic valves for zone-specific heating control. For spaces with limited options, unobtrusive wall-mounted electric radiators offer supplemental heating where needed. Or—the easiest option—invest in an energy efficient space heater. In summer, utilize ceiling fans to circulate air more effectively and create a cooling breeze without significant energy drain.

Railroad apartments

Railroad apartments, with their distinctive linear layout and sometimes lack of individual room divisions, present challenges in terms of privacy, light flow, and efficient use of space. Strategic choices in furniture and decor can make a big difference. Opt for arrangements that create a sense of spaciousness and allow natural light to flow more freely. Remember, on top of being proven in countless studies to be essential to your mental health, natural light is light that doesn't pull from the electrical grid or raise your monthly bill!  Use partitions, bookshelves, or translucent curtains to create separation between functional areas, like sleeping and living spaces, without completely blocking natural light. Embrace vertical space for storage and décor, using high shelving or wall-mounted units to minimize floor space clutter. Mirrors strategically placed can create the illusion of more space and enhance natural light.


Signing up for OhmConnect is probably the easiest of all these changes to make. Why? Because you don’t have to worry about coding, regulations, vintage charm—none of that. You just need to sign up. You’ll get a little notification during peak hours, and by reducing your energy consumption during those times, you not only lower your utility bills but also ease pressure on the city's power infrastructure.

Past Meets Present

The character of New York City is both its most ineffable and alluring quality, and one heavily influenced by the cityscape itself. That’s why sustainable living in historical buildings here is about honoring the past while also embracing the future. By actively addressing practical limitations, employing modern technologies with discretion, and participating in programs like OhmConnect, you're not just enhancing your own living experience, you're preserving the city's distinct character while building a more sustainable future.

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