Jimmy Carter was Pres­i­dent the first time I wrote an ar­ti­cle like this one. I have no prob­lem say­ing it all again.

Old House Journal - - Contents - By Pa­tri­cia Poore

Mak­ing the case for the preser­va­tion of old wood win­dows: let the num­bers speak.

My own house, once on the mar­ket as a tear-down, was com­pletely ren­o­vated in 1998. The 1904 win­dows, re­built or re­paired at the time, con­tinue to serve. My new pro­duc­tion win­dows, added when rear porches were con­verted to liv­ing space, have lost their dou­ble-glaz­ing seals and are com­ing apart at the seams. Not long ago, I saw a trade memo that stated “new win­dow life ex­pectancy” to be 8–20 years.

There will al­ways be good rea­sons to buy new win­dows for old houses, in­clud­ing ma­jor ren­o­va­tion and ad­di­tions. Very high-qual­ity win­dows are be­ing made, with many op­tions avail­able for ma­te­ri­als, en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, and cus­tomiza­tion. Th­ese pre­mium win­dows are un­der­stand­ably very ex­pen­sive—and pro­hib­i­tively so, when con­sid­er­ing re­place­ment of most or all of the win­dows in an old house.

The re­place­ment in­dus­try en­joys leg­is­la­tion that gives tax cred­its and cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for re­place­ment ma­te­ri­als, based on short-term gains in en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. Main­te­nance and re­pair are not as im­me­di­ate, or as sexy, but that op­tion de­serves a voice.

Re­pair is achieved through sim­ple, tra­di­tional, com­mon­sense (al­beit time-con­sum­ing) meth­ods. DIY re­pair costs mostly time; putty and points and paint are cheap. Epox­ies and weath­er­strip­ping cost a bit more, but noth­ing like the price of a new win­dow. For those with no skills or no time, spe­cialty win­dow-restora­tion con­trac­tors have popped up all over the coun­try. De­pend­ing on how much work needs to be done, the fee will be from about half to fully the cost of a new win­dow, if the prob­lems are ex­treme. But you’ll have the orig­i­nals that match the house, fit in ex­ist­ing open­ings, and can be re­paired again in the fu­ture.

“It’s easy to take a driv­ing tour of bad re­place­ment win­dows: shiny white vinyl, stuck-on muntin bars, and flat glass,” says win­dow restora­tion ex­pert Ali­son Hardy. “The pro­por­tion, shapes, and wavy glass are part of the beauty and char­ac­ter that makes th­ese homes so ap­peal­ing.”

Older win­dows can be just as en­ergy ef­fi­cient as new win­dows, once they are made weath­er­tight. Look for bro­ken glass, failed glaz­ing, and miss­ing weather-strip­ping. Com­fort is a fac­tor; sin­gle-glazed win­dows can feel cold due to con­vec­tion cur­rents. How­ever, a storm win­dow over sin­gle glaz­ing adds ef­fi­ciency and com­fort at much lower cost than a re­place­ment.

The Win­dow Preser­va­tion Al­liance claims that a 30 to 40% sav­ings on heat­ing costs is pos­si­ble with old win­dows, and the ben­e­fit is im­me­di­ate. Ac­cord­ing to the Field Study of En­ergy Im­pacts of Win­dow Re­hab Choices (con­ducted by the Ver­mont En­ergy In­vest­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, the Univer­sity of Ver­mont

School of Civil and En­vi­ron­men­tal Engi­neer­ing, and the U.S. Army Cold Re­gions Re­search and Engi­neer­ing lab­o­ra­tory), the es­ti­mated first-year en­ergy sav­ings, com­par­ing a re­stored wood win­dow with a good storm win­dow to a re­place­ment win­dow, came to $0.60. Less than a dol­lar! In con­clu­sion, they noted, “The de­ci­sion to ren­o­vate or re­place a win­dow should not be based solely on en­ergy con­sid­er­a­tions, as the dif­fer­ence in es­ti­mated first-year sav­ings be­tween the up­grade op­tions are small.”

If to­tal en­ergy ex­pen­di­ture to man­u­fac­ture re­place­ment win­dows is con­sid­ered, the pe­riod to break even (on fuel sav­ings over re­place­ment cost) stretches to 40 years or more. And most new win­dows will not even last that long.

Fi­nally, as Na­tional Trust pres­i­dent Richard Moe once said, “We can’t build our way out of the global-warm­ing cri­sis. We have to con­serve our way out. . . . we have to make bet­ter, wiser use of what we have al­ready built.”


Here’s our sum­mary of the Win­dow Preser­va­tion Al­liance’s top rea­sons to re­pair rather than re­place wood win­dows:

• Be­cause old win­dows fit the house, aes­thet­i­cally and lit­er­ally. Re­place­ment win­dows have a rigid struc­ture and are in­serted in the ex­ist­ing win­dow open­ings. Old houses have shifted over time; the gaps that open up may re­sult in draftier con­di­tions than with the orig­i­nals. Re­place­ment sash is of­ten smaller than the orig­i­nal, for less view and less light.

• Be­cause the crafts­man­ship was prob­a­bly bet­ter. The true mor­tise-and-tenon con­struc­tion of an­tique win­dows is strong, and joints eas­ily re­paired. Unique shapes were made pos­si­ble by the old tech­niques. An­tique win­dows were built to last, to be re­paired as needed, and to re­main in use for as long as the house stand. Why send them to a land­fill?

• Be­cause good ma­te­ri­als have value. An­tique wood win­dows were made of of old-growth tim­ber, denser and more weather-re­sis­tant than to­day’s tree-farmed soft­woods. Del­i­cate muntin pro­files are in fact pos­si­ble only be­cause of the wood den­sity. The wood re­quired no cladding for weather re­sis­tance.

• Be­cause an­tique glass lends char­ac­ter. Bub­bles and dis­tor­tion are a record of chang­ing tech­nol­ogy. The vari­a­tion of color and tex­ture make the lights (panes) come alive when viewed from the street; the view through them is part of the old­house am­biance.

• Be­cause a war­ranty should run more than 20 years. Chances are the old win­dows have done their job for 60 or more years al­ready. It makes more sense to in­vest in a proven per­former than to sink money into new win­dows that may have a war­ranty of eight to 20 years.

• Be­cause the green­est build­ing is one that is al­ready built. Re­place­ment win­dows are sold with prom­ises of sav­ing en­ergy. But when eval­u­ated from the per­spec­tive of the en­tire pro­duc­tion, ship­ping, in­stal­la­tion, re­moval, and dis­posal process, re­plac­ing win­dows con­sumes much more en­ergy. That is, an older build­ing has a great deal of em­bod­ied en­ergy.

Wood win­dow sash restora­tion un­der­way: new lights are cut from re­cy­cled an­tique glass. RIGHT Re­fit­ted with chain in the pul­ley and coun­ter­weight sys­tem, a his­toric arch­top win­dow is still do­ing its job.

ABOVE The older the house, the less likely it is that re­place­ment win­dows will fit or look right. Only cus­tom work us­ing tra­di­tional join­ery tech­niques could come close to keep­ing the orig­i­nals.

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