Why Should I Keep These Old Windows?

People buy old houses for a number of reasons, but all old house owners will mention “charm” as what they like best about their house. But we all have bills to pay, and we all want comfort. So is it time to say goodbye to those charming but leaky old windows?

The aesthetics of “charm”

Windows are often called the “eyes” of a house, and for good reason. A traditional window will include many shadowlines on the exterior, and the glass itself will sit well back from the exterior, adding depth and interest to the wall. The proportioning of each traditional window element also follows the natural harmony of classical design: the bottom rail will be wider than the others, and the sashes will be thick and substantial. The glass itself will sit back within the sash, with milled details on the exterior. All of these details are what we call “charm” and are the result of generations of organic design development: it is a proven aesthetic.

Looking at a modern window, the only aesthetic is a clumsy, synthetic mimic of a traditional window. Every detail, dimension, and material serves only two functional goals: low-cost manufacturing, and achieving a hypothetical “energy efficiency rating” in a test laboratory. Once installed, the new replacement windows erase those interesting shadow lines and proportions, and make the building exterior awkward, flat and dull.

A closer look at “energy efficiency”

Replacement windows can not only ruin the appearance of a historic home, but they can’t deliver the savings they promise. Keith Haberern P.E., R.A. thoroughly analyzed the costs and pay-back for various window improvements for his own historic home in New Jersey. He found that simply adding a traditional storm window was by far the most efficient cost. Even allowing for reasonable bias in this analysis, there is simply no way that replacement windows save the money that they claim to. Below are his results, printed in Old House Journal: SEE CHART >>

One thing that is not included in Haberern’s analysis is the annual labor of removing the storms and installing the screens on traditional windows. But this task enables the window exteriors, storms, and screens to be cleaned and inspected twice a year so any problems can be detected and repaired immediately. Also, adding or improving weatherstripping on traditional windows – a simple task – is probably the single most effective step in reducing energy costs and eliminating drafts.

Old windows are serviceable for generations

Old windows can be renewed for generations by reglazing, painting, and repairing with common, proven, inexpensive materials. A broken single-pane glass in an old window can be easily and inexpensively repaired with materials from the local hardware store. But new windows can become unserviceable very quickly, perhaps in 20 years, with fogged thermal glass, cracked plastic, and wood rot behind faded and chalked vinyl cladding. These unique manufactured parts are not designed to be repaired, but must instead be replaced, often with great effort. The manufacturer must be identified and located, and the specific part has to be identified and often special-ordered to be installed by a local dealer. As window manufacturers bring out new window designs, they make older window parts obsolete and unavailable. And some window manufacturers don’t outlast their own windows.

Failed modern windows are disposable; hardly a good investment. Traditional windows defy obsolescence and the broken promises of each new generation’s wonder plastic.

The value of “hand”

In the fabric business, the tactile value of a textile is called “hand”. A good fabric is said to have a good hand. This is also true with windows. Traditional windows are satisfying to touch and operate. Each window can make its own distinct sound, something that gives an identity to that room. Over time, so-called imperfections bring the memories of past generations to the present. Perhaps there’s a distinct bubble in the glass of the upper sash that an adult will remember as a child. We will often travel to find this kind of charm in other places, but when it’s in our own homes, we often see it as something to fix.

Save your money – save the past – save your windows

Replacing traditional windows with new windows is not a good value, no matter how it is analyzed. Properly maintained original windows and storms provide value beyond the home too: support for local tradesmen, avoiding more waste in the landfill, and cultural continuity for future owners and inhabitants. Finally, those who look at your home everyday – your neighbors – will thank you for preserving the beautiful, original “eyes” of your home.

By Brian Black, Grand River Builders