Preserving Historic Windows: Shattering the Myths of Replacement Windows
By Judson Aley, R.J. Aley General Contractors
It has been said that eyes are the window to the soul. I would argue that original wooden windows are the soul of an old house. So why would you replace them with vinyl windows and toss them in a landfill?
In an effort to save on heating cost and reduce their carbon footprint, well-intentioned homeowners are often convinced by replacement window manufacturers that if they want to save money, new windows are their only option. This simply isn’t true. What these manufacturers neglect to mention is that studies show most homes lose more heat through inadequately insulated walls and roofs than through wooden windows, and that it could take a century or more for an investment in replacement windows to result in energy savings. What can a homeowner do?
If you still want to tackle your creaky, leaky old window problem, here are your primary options:
Window Replacement entails removing the entire window including the frame, trim, and molding inside and out and replacing it with a brand new window that is often custom-built. This is the most expensive option and, as I stated, you would never live to see the return on your investment in energy savings.
Sash Replacement (replacing only the movable part of the window) can run the gamut from inexpensive vinyl replacements to high-end name brand kits. Unfortunately, homeowners often do not realize the hidden costs of those seemingly inexpensive kits until it is too late. For example, if you remove the storm windows and sash and replace them with a double-paned vinyl window, the sill that accommodated the absent storm window is exposed to the elements and is prone to rot, which can lead to expensive repairs down the road. You also may not realize that since this sash is set into the existing window opening with a new track, you reduce the viewing area and the amount of sunlight that shines into your home.
Window Restoration can include repairs, glazing, weatherstripping, and the addition of an exterior storm window. Once completed, the window functions as it was originally designed to function, and its R-value is comparable to that of most replacement sash. If you want to do a faithful restoration of your home, this is your best option. The cost is generally on par with a high-end sash replacement, and you are preserving the integrity of the building, which is priceless. Historic wood windows can easily last more than 100 years if properly maintained, and studies have shown you can save 30-40% on heating costs by just repairing failed glazing or adding weatherstripping. Window or sash replacement is not necessary in most cases.
The Greenest Windows Are in Your House
In these difficult times, economic and environmental concerns dovetail nicely with historic preservation. Many of us in the building industry have embraced the saying, “The greenest building is already built.” The same can be said of your old wooden windows. A properly maintained wooden window that has a storm window and weatherstripping can be just as energy efficient as a replacement window or sash, and it has less of an impact on the environment when you think of the energy used to manufacture and ship the new windows. A more serious consideration is that vinyl replacement windows contain poly vinyl chloride, which is becoming a growing environmental concern. Not only can PVC windows emit harmful gases into your home, but their manufacture creates toxic by-products. They are hardly a “green” option.
Why Restoration Matters
I am fascinated by what an old building says about the person who built it and the people who have owned and cared for it over the years. By saving an old house—or its windows—you are preserving a piece of history, conserving natural resources, and being environmentally responsible by not contributing debris to a landfill. I believe it is important to be respectful of the history of the house, whatever period it may be from. Once the original windows have been replaced, the integrity of the home has been compromised in the name of alleged energy efficiency. This is too high a price to pay.
Judson Aley is President of R.J. Aley General Contractors of Westport and a proud member of several preservation organizations including the Connecticut Trust. This “Old House Specialist” is a second generation contractor who specializes in sensitive restorations of vintage homes. He is licensed to work in Connecticut (#570003) and Westchester County, New York (#WC13151H02). For more information, visit: http://www.rjaley.com or call (203) 226-9933. Go to http://cttrust.org/index.cgi/10754 to read an interview with Jud.
An ordinary wood-framed single-glazed window with an aluminum storm window has an R-value of about 2, while a fancy wood-framed triple-glazed window with quarter-inch spaces between the panes (but no storm window) has an R-value only somewhat higher—about 2.5. A triple-glazed window that has a low-emissive coating on the glass and is filled with argon, an inert gas, instead of ordinary air, has an R-value of little more than 4….For almost any house, spending an additional twenty thousand dollars on energy-related window features would have much less impact on actual energy use than spending two thousand dollars on more insulation in the attic.
—David Owen, Sheetrock and Shellac: A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement (2006)