Detroit’s Boston-Edison homeowners balance historic restoration and energy efficiency

The tradeoff between architectural detail and energy efficiency is a common one for owners of historic homes.
Eleanor Oakes in her sunroom at home in Boston-Edison. Photo by Maddie Boyer.

Eleanor Oakes is standing in the brightly lit sunroom in the back of her home in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood. It’s late morning on a cold spring day, and the room is chilly. 

Oakes and her husband have lived in the house, which she believes is 116 years old (city records conflict), for seven years. They would love to make this room comfortable during Michigan’s brisk spring and into the fall. It’s one among many potential home improvements Oakes wants to be done, all of which must balance their desires for comfort, energy efficiency, and historic preservation.

Detroit’s Boston-Edison, Virginia Park, and Piety Hill neighborhoods generally comprise historic homes larger than 2,000 square feet, like the one Oakes and her husband purchased in 2016. 

“We bought our home likely due to a naive dream of homeownership and want to renovate a historic home in Detroit. Given the cost of rent versus home prices, it also seemed like a good idea economically at the time. We loved the history and inclusiveness of Boston Edison specifically, as well as its convenient location to downtown and midtown.”

The historic neighborhood and proximity to their work drew them then. They were thrilled to have the opportunity to live in a beautiful old home with an available side lot at an affordable cost.

But the couple soon realized the home needed more work than anticipated to make it livable for themselves. It needed everything – plaster repair, plumbing, windows and more. 

They opted not to reinsulate to maintain the original plaster’s historical character, which would also have required them to replace the knob-and-tube electrical. But as a result, the house is not as airtight as it could be.

The tradeoff between architectural detail and energy efficiency is a common one for historic homeowners.

Monique Becker, a cofounder of Mona Lisa Living, often balances renovation while preserving historic architectural details in her business, which focuses on renovating historic homes in Detroit and Mackinaw City.

She acknowledges the difficulties for a historic homeowner concerned with energy efficiency and costs, noting that sacrificing windows, molding, and trim on the home’s exterior may be necessary to insulate. Opening walls allows for updated insulation, plumbing, and electrical. 

Becker said it is more labor-intensive — and expensive — to work around architectural details. Preserving interior walls requires creative work to repair and replace architectural details. 

“If you are concerned about keeping your operating costs lower, your construction budget needs to be 30% higher,” Becker said. “Don’t try to preserve walls, and you may have to compromise on some architectural features.” 

Instead, Oakes focused on replacing some of the windows as she began planning for a new baby. 

Boston-Edison historic neighborhood in Detroit.

Following guidelines from the Detroit housing nonprofit Clear Corps Detroit, she determined that the windows were primary places for lead dust buildup. Oakes knew lead dust is a hazardous neurotoxin for children’s growing brains and nervous systems.

So replacing windows became a crucial part of her home’s lead-safe abatement measures and a primary energy efficiency improvement since the home is not insulated.

Because of the Boston-Edison Historic District location, Oakes had to get approval from the Detroit Historic Commission, which approves building and construction permits for any exterior work. HDC’s goal is to preserve historically significant areas of the city by regulating the exterior look of residential homes located in these areas. 

While appreciating DHC’s mission in Detroit, She found navigating the historic window profile requirements time-consuming and expensive, requiring detailed technical information and attending meetings. 

Due to historic appearance requirements and cost complications, the window replacements had to be completed in phases. 

“If you can’t find ‘wood’ aesthetic options that suffice to the historic commission, you don’t have an option for replacing your windows,” Oakes said “The alternative is to lose money every month.” 

Ultimately, Oakes could select and get approval for a custom-sized wood series from Pella and accomplish the first phase of their window replacement goals, replacing single-pane windows with new casements with double-paned glass and insulation between the frames and the walls. 

The new windows have substantially benefited Oakes electric bill while providing working windows with little to no risk of shedding lead dust from old layers of paint.  

“I love how much warmer they’ve made our home, and we can also open them to let a breeze in in the summer months. A big improvement over our previous, non-functioning, broken, painted-shut windows.”

Today, the home is in decent shape. A good portion is livable after a lot of DIY renovation, though it still needs plenty of cosmetic and structural updates. But there are still plenty of outstanding issues.

The biggest remaining challenge for Oakes is the lack of insulation in the downstairs and the remaining older windows, which are drafty and still have lead paint on their casings. 

This makes it difficult to save energy, meaning Oakes faces high gas bills. It’s also a challenge to maintain the home at a comfortable temperature.

Eleanor Oakes’ home in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood.

Addressing these issues will cost money. 

Pierre Haden, president of the Historic Boston Edison Association, said the association can help support homeowners like Oakes and her husband, who often face conflicts between historic preservation and energy efficiency, with grant writing support and coordination with contractors.

“Energy efficiency ranks high in our priority for our neighborhood; if you aren’t spending money on your heating bill, you are able to use funds elsewhere,”  he said, noting that Boston Edison homes were originally designed with smaller families in mind. 

Haden also notes that these historic homes were designed for a past era — one without open floor plans when it wasn’t necessary to heat an entire home at once.

“People only utilized 30-40% of the home, and social events were structured around fireplaces,” he said. “Lead frame windows were for appearance, not insulation, and the ability to maintain one temperature in the entire home is unrealistic.”

What’s next for Oakes and her husband?

“We have a lot of long-term dreams for making our home more comfortable for our family, predominantly by insulating and renovating existing spaces so that we can use them year-round, such as our sunrooms and attic.”

Oakes is optimistic as we get closer to summer “I love being in our garden and also hope to continue to beautify it with native flowers and make it more productive to feed our family. We believe Michigan is a great bet long-term for climate change, so we’re grateful to have our home here.”

A lead safety workshop for Detroit homeowners will be hosted by Get the Lead Out Detroit Coalition on Saturday, June 24th from 1-2:30 pm on how to do lead-safe renovations in your home and mitigate lead issues. Participants will also join Eleanor Oakes in an artist talk at her solo exhibition displayed at the Belle Isle Viewing Room through July 1st. 

List of resources for prospective homeowners

Contractors | Brick + Beam Detroit

For Residents | City of Detroit

Historic Boston-Edison Association 

Mona Lisa Living

Clear Corps Detroit

Get The Lead Out Detroit Coalition

Madeline Boyer is one of Planet Detroit’s Neighborhood Reporters, in which residents report from the places where they live.


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