Forum on Historic Windows: Part 1

Posted on: March 26th, 2009 by Guest Writer 4 Comments
Check out window tips from the latest issue of Preservation magazine.

Check out helpful window tips from the latest issue of Preservation magazine.

A few weeks ago, a member on Forum-L (the discussion list for Forum, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s professional membership) raised a question regarding window deterioration. And, as is the case with many topics pertinent to energy efficiency and sustainability, the thread got a lot of attention.

As a result, we asked three of the contributors to the conversation to answer two follow-up questions on the topic. The first question dealing with reasons behind replacement is answered below. Tomorrow, we will post the answers to the second question involving cost considerations.

And of course, please feel free to discuss your own thoughts and opinions on historic windows by leaving a comment below.

Question: What are the most common reasons that homeowners use to replace a historic window? What are the reasons that homeowners should not replace a historic window?

The most common reasons that homeowners use to replace a historic window are that they’re hard to open or that the ropes are broken. Drafty. Some of the windows are showing signs of decay. People want to save energy.

As for reasons they shouldn't. Original windows look better and have character. It is cheaper to fix them and put on storm windows. They are usually a hundred years old and will last another hundred if they are cared for. New windows will last fifteen to fifty years tops, and they will need new glass in five to twenty years usually, and their plastic parts will break down sooner than that, and they are mostly not replaceable. The payback in real energy savings is slight and the cost recovery time is something like 40 years.

- Chris Sturbaum owns Golden Hands Construction in Bloomington, IN. They have been in operation since 1979.

This is a loaded question because the reasons are broad and all encompassing. However, that said, the calls we receive for window restoration fall into three general categories: a) new homeowners planning to replace all of their windows (this is particularly problematic when the call comes from "flippers," or owners buying older houses to simply rehab and sell with no intention of living in them and no personal care for the property, just maximizing profit.), b) new or existing homeowners planning an addition or remodeling to include new windows, or c) a cold winter, hot summer or high energy bill that spurs them to consider replacements.

We are most often called when a new owner has acquired a property and is planning major rehabilitation work to the entire house. They are weighing window restoration against complete window replacement. They typically need to be personally enlightened (i.e. consumer education) in the first place because the window replacement market is very accessible and convenient. Most architects, contractors, sales people and suppliers financially benefit more from window replacement, so no one should have difficulty comprehending why the window replacement market is so prolific; many of these professionals simply want a known quantity and zero-risk approach.

As for the second part of the question, not replacing a window, the answer is "all of the above." A properly-restored historic window provides better service over the life of the window; is more comfortable (with a proper storm window); will perform better in terms of energy over the life of the window if properly maintained (with a proper storm); is easy to maintain compared to new windows after the first few years of service; and will cost less than replacement over the life of the building.

That said, window restoration is not convenient, as it requires some personal sacrifice on the part of the owner if the house is occupied during the work. One way we have tried to address this is to use translucent board-up materials (with or without temporary operable vents) so they at least get daylight and/or ventilation through the openings. More often than not, the work is staggered around the house. Meanwhile, reducing removal/reinstallation to just a few windows at a time increases logistics and costs substantially unless they are dealing with a local handyman one window at a time.

And of course, sustainability!

- Neal Vogel of Restoric, LLC, a firm located in Wilmette, IL that provides restoration of historic structures.

I think that most “average” homeowners look to replace their windows because of their concern over energy bills, and their expectation that a newer-insulated window will help to reduce the energy loss associated with their existing windows, and that they’ll have a tighter seal and therefore be less likely to be “drafty”. Once a homeowner has decided to replace their windows, cost becomes a primary consideration.

I know that many of the staunch “preservation supporters” will be grinding their teeth about now – they’re thinking to themselves “people should have existing windows repaired, they shouldn’t be replacing them!” Unfortunately, that’s not always the preferred alternative for a variety of reasons. Some markets, for example, don’t have a ready supply of specialists that can provide restoration/preservation services. In some other areas, the most highly regarded restoration specialists don’t have the depth of staff to meet the needs of homeowners within a realistic time frame. Some may not be able to do the job for months because of their backlog. Once the homeowner has decided that they’re going to replace their windows, many will choose products with price as a determining factor. This is frequently because the homeowner has a shorter term view. The U.S. Census indicates that the median length of time in a home is nine years, so many homeowners will look for a shorter term “fix”, taking the stance that the next owner can use historically accurate windows if he or she wants to.

As for reasons not to replace your windows, I’ll be shocked and disappointed if someone doesn’t say, “The existing windows help to keep the home original, and therefore will enhance the value of the property”. True enough if you’re dealing with an educated buyer. However, that’s not always the case. Real estate is first and foremost about location, and since many historic neighborhoods are well-located, some buyers care more about the location than they do about the “authenticity factor." This is, in part, one of the factors that drives the McMansion effect, where historic homes are purchased and demolished in favor of constructing a new home. People want the location more than they want the structure.

So, in my opinion, the original windows will appeal to a certain segment of the buying public, but they’ll be a detriment to another segment of the buying public. Some will see it as an opportunity to own a more “complete” home, while others will see it as an expense that they’ll incur to replace the windows as soon as they close.

- Jeff Donohoe of Donohoe Associates, an economics and real estate consulting firm located in Manchester, NH.

Want to learn more? Visit for resources on historic windows, including Window Know How: A Guide to Going Green, our Green Home Tips and our Tip Sheet for Historic Wood Windows. Also, check out the National Park Services’ technical preservation services page for additional resources.

- Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is a program assistant for the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Forum members can read past messages from Forum-L on Forum Online, which is now located at If it is your first time visiting the new site, please follow these instructions.

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4 Responses

  1. PreservationNation » Blog Archive » Forum on Historic Windows: Part 2

    March 27, 2009

    […] in Forum on Historic Windows: Part 1, we opened the floor for discussion on the common reasons for and against restoring historic […]

  2. Martin J Sullivan

    May 3, 2009

    We have been restoring windows for over 20 years. In that time, we have come across less than a dozen windows that were beyond repair. Real craftsmen know how to repair or replace any part of these windows. The slding sash window was designed originally in England following the Great Fire and has truly stood the test of time. When properly restored, they are an excellent window. Removal of excess paint that blocks working parts, candle wax as a lubricant, good quality wood against rot fast repairs makes it far cheaper to restore historic windows as against any modern replacement. We expect our preservation work at Drayton to last several lifetimes and this is due to the quality of the lumber, spanish cedar. If everyone took prid e in doing the job properly, future generations will continue to learn to appreciate and respect their history, quality restoration and beauty. Any questions, please contact us via the website for free advice.

  3. vera

    November 16, 2009

    how do i replace the chord and the weights? how to take the window apart? can you please share with me your experience. this is about repairing a Victorian house in Galveston, Texas.

    thank you, Vera

  4. lee david

    November 18, 2009

    Vera, try contacting galveston historical foundation,
    Also, check out our information on windows at this link: