Save the Windows

Historic windows are being massacred across the nation. They are the scapegoat for energy efficiency problems. Windows are the first to go. The media and the vinyl replacement window business seem to scheme together to get the general public to believe that vinyl double pane or triple pane windows will solve homeowners’ problems and save them a bundle. Rather than considering other solutions and analyzing whether or not replacement windows achieve their claims, beautiful, character defining windows are ripped from their frames and tossed to the curb.

A building that loses its historic windows loses so much of its character. Architectural styles are very much defined by window type: shape, frame, number of panes, type of glass, inset depth, and how the sash operates. The typical single pane replacement windows just destroy a building’s image. Interested in understanding why? Read “Repair or Replace, a Visual Look at the Impacts” — a colorful, image-filled, 18 page booklet put together by the NTHP. Want to learn about window styles and architectural styles? Read “Window Types – A Residential Field Guide” — a beautiful, colorful, helpful guide put together by the NTHP that will take you through window vocabulary and the uniqueness of each style

As a preservationist, I know I am not alone when I say that the windows suffering as the scapegoats makes me furious. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is continuing their stance on the benefits of historic windows with their new Save the Windows site — Why? Historic buildings are losing to new windows at an alarming rate and the amount of misinformation being shared is ridiculous relating to energy savings, sustainability, and historic preservation.


First of all, heat escapes through the roof. Is the roof insulated? What is in the attic?

Second of all, why would everyone believe all of the made up or likely altered statistics about windows spouted by the commercial industry selling vinyl replacement windows? Well, if you ask the industry, of course the new windows are better. It’s corporate America, people. What do you think they are going to say?

Third, new windows are NOT GREEN. Read this from the National Trust:

Tearing out historic windows for replacements wastes embodied energy – the energy required to extract the raw materials, transport them, make them into a new product, ship the product, and install it. What’s more, when we keep our existing windows, we avoid all the negative environmental impacts associated with the manufacture of new windows. For example, the manufacturing of some windows produces toxic byproducts. And, the new wood that manufacturers use today can’t begin to match the quality of old growth wood in older windows.

And here’s the kicker. New windows will often have a life span of just 10 to 20 years. Historic and older windows, when properly maintained, can last for many more decades. Furthermore, studies have shown that with proper weatherization and use of a good storm window, older windows can be made nearly as energy efficient as new windows – even in severe climates such as the Northeast.

Fourth, new windows are only maintenance free in that YOU CANNOT MAINTAIN THEM. They will have to be replaced, not repaired. From the National Trust:

Vinyl, aluminum, fiberglass, and composite windows are manufactured as a unit and are maintenance-free only because, in most instances, the components cannot be repaired. When a part fails, or the insulated glass seal breaks, the entire unit must be replaced. By comparison, older wood windows are composed of interlocking parts made from natural materials, and any part can be repaired or replaced.

Fifth, new windows will NOT SAVE YOU MONEY. Again, from the National Trust:

Window manufacturers are quick to tell you that their products will save you money. While replacement windows could save you about $50 a month on your heating or cooling bills, those savings come after you spend $12,000, on average, for replacement windows for the typical home. So if you heat or cool your home, say, six months a year, the savings are about $300 annually. At that rate, it would take 40 years to recoup in energy savings the amount of money spent on the new windows! And, by that time, your replacement windows will have needed replacing!

Did you see that — new windows will take 40 years to earn their keep. 40 YEARS!! There are so many things wrong with that. Are you even going to live in your house for 40 years? The savings only come after you’ve spent a ton of money on windows. And what happened to those old windows? They are sitting in a landfill, right? Well then you’ve used twice the energy: from the embodied energy of the existing windows and the resources required to manufacture new windows. And those new windows are likely off-gassing chemicals that you do not want floating around your house and in your lungs.

Do not believe everything (or dare I say anything) you read from new manufacturers.

How can you help? Share the information about the many, many benefits of keeping historic windows (financial! environmentally! historically!) by visiting Save the Windows, sharing it on twitter, on facebook, sending emails to your friends and family, sending a quick note to your senators, and by talking about historic windows!

Learn what you can do to keep your windows, save your money, and improve your energy efficiency. Start here: TEN REASONS TO REPAIR YOUR OLD WINDOWS.

Be green, be thoughtful, be respectful – save the windows! Love the windows!


13 thoughts on “Save the Windows

    • Kaitlin says:

      Sort of, but that’s not the whole story – just part of it. Obviously capitalism is a part of American culture, but windows aren’t really representative of capitalism, per say. The issue of windows is truly an economic, environmental, and heritage issue. People just refuse to believe that older windows could possibly be better than new windows. A lot has to do with the tight building envelope phenomenon and how no air should escape at all. Well, buildings need to breathe, for longevity of materials and for the health of the occupants.

      • kvl says:

        Agreed, but i think in the bigger picture people just want new windows b/c they want stuff, and new stuff at that. especially when the tv says that they need it. people are dumb and mediated.

        out with the old, in the with the new!

        personally, i love old windows, and the draft is refreshing and unstuffy. but i don’t watch tv.

  1. Maria says:

    This is so appropriate! I have a guy coming over today to take measurements for storm windows so I can protect my nice 96 year old wood ones. Vinyl windows suck. There is one replacement window in the house, its in the bathroom, and it was one of the things that had to be fixed before we moved in since the glue went bad, the 96 year old windows are all in good shape!

    • Kaitlin says:

      Maria, I hope you had good luck with your storm window measurements! I adore wood storm windows. My dream house has original wood sash windows with wood storms.

  2. Nicholas says:

    I’m taking a class this quarter specifically on repair and maintenance of historic windows (and doors)….and it seems so easy to understand standing in our shoes. Seems a lot of our work is about influence – about bringing people around to the facts and common sense – and if they don’t have the desire to maintain the windows themselves, then we can help. I’d rather repair an historic window than deal with the challenge of repairing a replacement window any day! Would totally repeat everything you’ve said, but I’ll just say that I agree!

    • Kaitlin says:

      Nicholas, sounds like a great class. In my conservation class, I had a conditions assessment about the documentation, assessment, and treatment recommendations for windows. I completely agree about influence, facts, and common sense. Here’s to the windows. =)

  3. Woodstone says:

    If a new custom finished, hardwood window, with true divided light (not simulated)insulating glass, and the same details, appearance and function as the original, was available, and it provided energy efficiency, easy maintenance and a useful life longer than that of the original, wouldn’t it be worth considering?

    See Woodstone® historic windows. Visit our web site – woodstone. com. View the Woodstone video, email us or join the Woodstone blog. Educate yourself and then decide.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Windows such as Woodstone windows seem great and would be excellent options for windows that NEED to be replaced. But, if the original windows are cheaper to repair and are in good repairable condition, then that should always be first choice. New windows are still new windows that are consuming resources and shouldn’t replace viable existing windows.

      • Woodstone says:

        Keep in mind that restored windows typically don’t/ can’t include high performance glazing and storm sash, whether installed in the inside or the outside, significantly change the architectural appearance of the window.

        With regard to using valuable resources, Woodstone is a member of the New Hampshire Chapter of the Green Building Council, we provide LEED® evaluations for all of our products, and use we use lumber from managed forests that is highly resistant to decay. So be sure to combine the efficient use of resources with the significantly increased energy efficiency of a replicate window and the prospect that the replicate window will provide a significantly longer useful life before requiring additional maintenance in the balance between cost to restore vs. replicate.

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