Another Vinyl Tirade

Posted on: October 23rd, 2007 by Barbara Campagna 2 Comments

I have been mulling over Patrice’s vinyl sadness since last week which probably explains the violence with which I responded to a Building & Grounds Manager from one of our 29 historic sites today when he called to ask if I would approve “vinyl replacement” windows in one of our rental houses (I am the Director of Architecture for the National Trust’s 29 historic sites). “No vinyl” I said. “But vinyl lasts longer and doesn’t need any maintenance,” he responded. Why does this misperception continue in the general public and bleed over into those of us who should know better? As Mike Jackson (Chief Architect of the Illinois SHPO’s office) says, “No Maintenance required” really means “can’t be repaired” - so they end up in the landfill much sooner than say a wood window which can be repaired and repaired and repaired, or recycled. Vinyl can’t be repaired, and it can’t be recycled. So, maybe you don’t need to repaint it every 10 years, but within 20 years you will need to buy new windows yet again, and the heavy imprint on the environment starts all over.

To quote my colleague Patrice’s recent "White Paper on Sustainability": There is a common perception that windows are a major source of heat loss and gain. Yet retaining historic windows is often more environmentally friendly than replacement with new thermally resistant windows. Government data suggests that windows are responsible for only 10% of air infiltration in the average home. Furthermore, a 1996 study finds that the performance of updated historic windows is in fact comparable to new windows. Window retention also preserves embodied energy, and reduces demand for environmentally costly new windows, typically constructed of vinyl or aluminum… There is the widespread perception that air leakage through windows is responsible for the majority of heat gain or loss in historic buildings. Yet information from the U.S. Department of Energy indicates that windows are responsible for only 10% of air escape in the average American home. Floors, ceiling and walls are responsible for 31% of heat loss and gain, while ducts and fireplaces are each responsible for about 15% of heat loss and gain.

Now this assumption is only true for traditional windows, typically in buildings built before 1920. All the tables are turned when looking at buildings built after World War II, or even earlier International Style or mid-century modern buildings. Many of these windows and/or curtain wall systems were experimental, and most of the energy loss in these buildings is attributed to the curtain wall system.

So, what sage advice did I give our Building and Grounds Manager after I stopped hyperventilating? First, absolutely no vinyl. It doesn’t matter that this building is not the National Historic Landmark that the site is known for. It’s the vinyl in all the good sound background buildings that are contributing to the problems in our environment. Second, maybe the perceived energy loss is not from the windows (or the windows alone), so let’s get an energy audit first before we jump to conclusions. And third, get me options for repairing the windows or replacing with new wood. Yes, they will probably be more expensive than the vinyl, in the short term. But as stewards for the site we need to always be looking at the long term and the big picture. And so that means, NO VINYL!!

UPDATE, November 15th, 2007: The Building and Grounds Manager from the offending site called me yesterday to tell me he got prices for new wood windows that match the badly deteriorated ones, as well as prices for vinyl and clad windows. Guess what, the difference was pretty minimal, so he thanked me for the recommendation and now we'll be staying away from the vinyl!!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at


2 Responses

  1. Hogg’s Blog » Those ugly vinyl windows

    October 29, 2007

    […] ugly vinyl windows Share by dhoggard  in Life in General David Wharton found someone who despises vinyl replacement windows almost as much as I do.  As I said during my presentation […]

  2. Jay Eshelman

    February 26, 2008

    Hallelujah! Hear, Hear!

    Barbara Campagna: Your logic and sensibility are to be applauded. Thank you.

    My name is Jay Eshelman, I’m the President of The Woodstone Company, a traditional window company specializing in the manufacture of historic replicate wooden windows and doors. While we haven’t considered ourselves ‘restoration specialists’, we do manufacture wooden windows and doors that are designed to be easily and inexpensively maintained, literally, for generations. I guess you could say that, ultimately, Woodstone is the consummate historic ‘restoration specialist’ because our products are designed with ‘restoration’ (i.e. maintenance) in mind.

    There are a plethora of reasons similar to those referenced in your article as to why traditional pegged, mortise and tenon, wooden window and door construction is desirable, either architecturally, aesthetically or pragmatically.

    Indeed, there are certain aspects of traditional window and door fabrication methods that we have revised over the thirty years Woodstone has been in this business. For example, the exterior application of glazing points and putty is a methodology rendered impractical by the advent of Insulating Glass and Silicone sealants. Yes, we continue to offer single glazed windows and doors with glazing putty. But we will try to dissuade the practice unless the application requires museum quality replication.

    On the other hand, there are certain other traditional aspects to window construction, True Divided Lites (TDL) for example, that should not be forsaken for the mass-production methodology commonly referred to as Simulated Divided Lites (SDL).

    But I digress. I’ve written several articles for Clem Labine’s Traditional Building publication on the positive aspects of traditional wooden window and door construction and will be more than happy to discuss all of the technical aspects with you at your pleasure.

    The reason for this missive is to respectfully ask permission to cite your article to the many architects, builders and their clients with whom we do business.

    Please visit our web site – it’s listed in your ‘reply’ form as

    Again, thank you so much, not only for recognizing the attributes of the hundreds of years of development of window and door construction, but for taking an active stand against what will eventually be exposed as frivolous design and construction practices.


    Jay Eshelman