Friday, October 1, 2010

Saving Our Wooden Windows

A recent blog posting from Preservation Nation prompted me to talk about our  historic wooden windows today.  I may have mentioned that we have 42 windows in our house.  With the exception of the 2 basement windows, they are all the original 1-over-1 double hung, single pane, wooden windows.  These windows are generally 40" wide x 68" tall downstairs and 64" tall upstairs where the ceiling height is a foot lower.  There are exceptions, where there are 3 windows together and the center window is 33" wide, with 20" flanking windows.  Or the shorter window over the kitchen sink.  Or the 50" wide window with the 1' high top sash of leaded glass in the front of the house.  

As you can guess from the multitude and size of the windows,  even though most of the windows are unremarkable in style, they are a character defining feature of the house.  If you listen to the replacement window people, our windows are the enemy and must be replaced.  They are costing us thousands of dollars in heating bills  because of the heat flowing out through those single panes and must be replaced by double- 0r triple- glazed models, preferably those made of vinyl, because that's "green."  Let's see how industry spin meets reality by looking at our century-old wooden windows more closely:
  1. These windows are made of old growth wood.  Those growth rings are close together, leaving less room for moisture to get in and making them more resistant to bugs and rot.  The material these windows are made of is not available anymore.  Why would we willingly throw these long lasting windows (did I mention they are almost 100 years old and still going strong) in the landfill to replace them with something new made from a resource-intensive process?  Saving embodied energy is green.  Saving money gives you more green.
  2. Our window sashes are solid, they move well (except where they have been painted shut), and in most cases the ropes are still intact.  In some cases glass has cracked or is loose in the frame, but generally, the windows are in good shape.  These windows don't need to be replaced, but they do need to be reworked.  We have been taking them out one by one, reglazing them, and rehanging them with new ropes and insulated weight pockets.  It's a long process, but well worth it.
  3. Single panes don't cloud up.  The rope and weight mechanism is simple mechanically and pretty easy to fix if the rope breaks.  Did I mention that our windows are 100 years old?  The quality and longevity of some of the new windows seems a little suspect.  I personally know of several people who have had to replace windows that are 10-20 years old because they have clouded up between the layers of glass or the plastic and metal mechanisms have broken. 
  4. Our windows are plain, but character-defining.  Have you noticed that many houses never look the same after the windows have been replaced?  Either the character defining features (for instance the number of panes) in the previous windows have been removed, or the opening that the windows inhabit has been shrunk to accommodate the new vinyl window changing the trim and impact of the windows.    
  5. All of our windows have new storms.  Studies show that adding a storm window to a single pane window is just as energy efficient as a new window.  You get to keep your old, historic, character defining windows, spend less money than replacing them on a storm window, and still get the energy benefits.  And guess what, storm windows can have screens too so you can take advantage of all that natural ventilation in the summer that your windows provide.
  6. We've insulated our attic and walls and we've insulated and caulked around the windows.  Here's the stuff the window salesmen don't want you to know...more heat is lost through your uninsulated attic and walls than through your windows AND, here's the kicker, it takes, on average 240 years to recoup the cost of replacing your windows through energy savings.
So, if you replace your windows that are over 60 years old, you throw away embodied energy and old growth trees, you contribute to the growing landfill problem, you change the character of your historic house, and you spend a lot of money in your pursuit of being green.  You'd have saved more energy if you insulated your house better,  repaired and caulked around your old windows, and bought new storm windows.   Hmmm...seems obvious what the greener answer is here.   

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