Written by Karen Nickless
“We can’t build our way out of this climate change crisis; we must conserve our way out.” This quote from past National Trust president, Richard Moe, often refers to the unnecessary destruction of older buildings to build new “energy efficient” buildings. It also refers to retrofitting older buildings to make them more energy efficient. Unfortunately, well-meaning people who are trying to be more energy efficient often do not see the unintended consequences of their actions. They are unaware of (or ignore) the waste that is created by the demolition of buildings and subsequent landfill additions. They may also discount the carbon cost of manufacturing new materials for those award-winning “green” buildings.
Replacement windows are a perfect example of the philosophy that we can get rid of the old and be more energy efficient with new. But can we? To help answer that question, the Preservation Trades Network sponsored a National Windows Preservation Standards Summit from July 22-July 29 at Pine Mountain Settlement School in the mountains of Kentucky. There, about 100 window restorers, artisans, architects, owners of historic structures and preservation staff from State Historic Preservation Offices, local and statewide organizations and the National Trust met to provide definitive energy testing data for historic windows and to develop a draft of industry guidelines for the repair, restoration and weatherization of old windows.
Although all the data has not been compiled, the initial findings showed the benefits of window restoration. Even something as simple as adding a storm window can increase the efficiency of older windows, while a full restoration can give you a window that can compete with a replacement window - without the expense, carbon cost and loss of aesthetic value that comes with that replacement window “guarantee.” The guarantee on a historic window may not be in writing, but it is longer lasting than a replacement window.
As an example, one of the National Trust’s historic sites, Drayton Hall, built in 1738, originally had 12 divided light windows. About 70 years later, the son of the original owner decided to replace the windows. Charles Drayton chose a more fashionable 6 over 6 look when he had the windows installed in 1810. Over two-hundred years later those wood “replacement windows” are still there and still operable. Yes, they have been maintained, and were even the subject of a major conservation project in the early 2000s. But the moral is, with a little maintenance you will never have to replace your original wood windows. More than can be said for replacement windows.
So, consider restoring your old windows rather than replacing them, and know that you haven't contributed to the problem of climate change, you've helped conserve our way out of it. Not only that, your home will be cozy and will look great.
Karen Nickless is a Southern Office Field Representative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Windows Preservation Standards Summit was partially funded by a $3,000 grant from the Kentucky Preservation Fund, through the Southern Office.