National Windows Preservation Standards Summit: Part I

Posted on: August 5th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 5 Comments

Written by Karen Nickless

Participants observing the restoration of a wood window. (Photo: 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.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.


5 Responses

  1. DCDude

    August 5, 2011

    I have rebuilt, reglazed and repaired over 50 windows in the past five years. It’s so easy and there is nothing like looking through a pane of 110 year-old glass. Great job!

  2. Heidi

    August 5, 2011

    I think restoring old windows is a great idea and even better if it’s more cost effective than replacing the windows. The question is how do you recondition your windows or how do you get in touch with someone who can? We still have one old window in our house with the wavy glass but the wood frame is rotting away. Can anyone give me advice on how to go about restoring/reusing the window?

  3. Lew Weinberg

    August 6, 2011

    I have to say, these self serving articles pumping the overstated assumption that every window should and can be saved, in every circumstance, no matter what the consequences and cost – are is pure BS and in the end, will do more to hurt Preservation and contribute to the loss of properties that could other wise have been saved.

    As and example, we have been working to do a Historic Rehab of a 1903’s style hospital bldg, that is on the Natl Register and was rehabilitated by a former owner into 59 unit of affordable rental housing. It continues to serve that class of clients to this day. However, it has been some 25 yrs since the first rehab and the bldg needs the typical rehab, new HVAC, roof, interior apt rehab re cabinets, fixtures, ect.. The windows are the original and have had aluminum storms added by the prior owner. The existing residents , many of whom have physical disabilities cannot in many case even open the wood window, let alone the old storms… The window in the bldg in question are plain jane one over pane dbl hungs… nothing fancy our unusual.

    While the wood windows “could be rehabed” IF price and time were no object (some 357 of them)… The cost to do so, appears to be in the 2,000 plus range per window…. (as opposed to 700.00 per unit for a replacement unit) as the resident in each unit would have to be relocated to accomplish the window work in ea unit. In fact we have found no restorer who will even give us a firm price, do to the time involved. In addition, no restorer will provide any type of assurance as to the ability of our residents to even be able to open the units, post rehab…

    We need the Historic tax credits to make the overall rehab work, however so far the SHPO has flatly refused to consider anything but rehab of the existing windows, even though that position will kill the prospects of doing this rehab of the overall project correctly and assuring the the long term affordability for the seniors and handicapped residing there.

    While you article and others I’ve seen show the proud single family homeowner doing the window rehab on the weekends, all by him / herself, they seldom show how this can work in cases like ares that are in bldgs 90% occupied and commercial in nature…

    It is truly short sighted by Preservationist to consider proper options and alternatives in cases like the one we have layed out.

  4. Jen Fisher

    August 7, 2011

    Lew, sounds like you have not met a restored window, which also sounds like that is part of what the SHPO is asking you to do. There are a lot of case studies out there, even on large projects. Don’t know why you expect the restorers to give you guarantees on how residents will be able to operate a window. How long have these windows lasted this far- probably without maintenance? As an institution/commercial setting, it should be attractive for it’s future that these windows can have a maintenance schedule and can be fixed as time goes on rather than a replacement schedule – which will be more costly. Plus, either case the residents will probably have to be vacated…you can start on the 10% that is unoccupied. Think of all the material NOT going in a landfill. This may just be your opportunity to learn something new, and it sounds like a great project.

  5. John Leeke

    August 8, 2011

    Lew writes,
    >>…these self serving articles pumping the overstated assumption that every window should and can be saved, in every circumstance, no matter what the consequences and cost – are is pure BS…<>no restorer will provide any type of assurance as to the ability of our residents to even be able to open the units, post rehab…<<

    This is because it is not the historic window specialist's job to provide this assurance. How could you expect a window specialist to assess the physical abilities of your residents? This is far beyond their area of expertise. The way for you to acquire this assurance is to provide it yourself; after all, it is your project and they are your residents. To do this assemble a window design team that includes you, a historic window specialist, a resident, and (from the sound of your concerns) a physical therapist who can assess the physical abilities of your residents. You hire the experienced and effective window specialist to do one or two sample windows and then have some of your residents operate the windows under the supervision of the team. If they cannot operate the windows, then the physical therapist makes recommendations and the window specialist makes changes in the treatments done to the windows so the residents CAN operate them. They you and the window specialists set those treatments as the standard for your project. There are a wide range of treatments that can be done to existing windows so they can be operated by literally anyone, including "one finger operation" by a normally capable person (less than 1.5 pounds of force on two lifts) to a powered lift with a push button remote control from anywhere in the room for a resident with very limited capabilities.

    Let me know if you cannot find an experienced and effective historic window specialist. I've got a list of over 270 of them all across the country.

    Is this more work than simply writing a check for a bunch of disposable windows? Of course it is. "Convenience" is just one of the ways the disposable window industry bamboozles the American consumer into buying stuff they don't really need.

    It is the explicit purpose of the historic tax credits program to give you the funds to do things like save the fine old windows. If you do it effectively you will even have some of those funds left over to support other aspects of your project.

    Saving the old windows almost always costs less than replacing them with disposable windows, especially if you count in the fact that the disposable windows will need to be replaced again in 10 or 20 years.

    Good luck with your windows and your project. Providing housing for seniors and the disabled is a noble endeavor.