Old Windows: Preserving and restoring the soul of the house

Nov 1, 2007

Are you thinking of buying new windows in order to be energy efficient and save money? Think again! Your home’s original windows can be made to be as energy efficient as modern replacement windows -- with the added advantage of retaining the architectural integrity of your home.

In Maplewood, as in many older towns, beautiful historic windows are being replaced with newer, less attractive ones that are likely to be less energy efficient and less environmentally friendly. And that doesn’t take into consideration the aesthetic impact.

On October 21st, 2007 almost 100 people came to Durand-Hedden for a workshop to learn how to repair and improve the functioning of their older original windows. As Rick Wessler of Preservation Maplewood noted, just getting their windows to move up or down a few inches would be a victory for many of those attending.

The workshop was co-sponsored by Durand- Hedden and Preservation Maplewood, a volunteer association of concerned homeowners dedicated to the conservation of Maplewood's unique historic architecture, and supported by the Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission.

Paul Lewis, of the handyman company "Two Guys from Newstead," praised the virtues of older windows, while explaining, step-by-step, how to repair and rejuvenate them. Mr. Lewis dissected and then reassembled a 90-year-old double-hung window that had been removed from a local house but now, in Rick Wessler’s words, is “finding a new life in preventing others from suffering the same fate.”

Through some simple steps, Mr. Lewis showed how easy it is to repair old windows and stem heat loss.

Do New Windows Save You Money?

Many companies aggressively market “replacement windows,” claiming that new windows will “cost nothing” by slashing energy bills and requiring “no maintenance.”

A study referenced in Old House Journal (Sept.-Oct. 2007), done by a professional engineer, found that adding a single-pane storm window over a single-pane original window pays for itself in 4.5 years, compared with replacing a single-pane window with a double-pane thermal replacement window, which pays for itself in 40.5 years.
A low-e glass double-pane thermal replacement of a single-pane window with storm window saves far less energy, and the estimated $550 cost of the window pays for itself in – 240 years! Add to that the environmental burden of old windows as landfill.

Local historic preservation societies in New Jersey have begun to be more vocal in addressing the myths put forth by replacement window companies, such as this information from the Plainfield Historical Society:

  • Myth 1: No maintenance. This claim was made of aluminum siding once, and it has been replaced by vinyl because it did not last. Vinyl has a life expectancy of 20 years, and it is very expensive to paint aluminum or vinyl. Furthermore, the seals around double-glazed windows can fail in 10-15 years, resulting in condensation between the panes – requiring replacement. Wood, on the other hand, can last for 200 years when it is continually painted.
  • Myth 2: Less expensive. The City of Bridgeton, NJ Community Development Agency found that to repair existing window sashes for one house cost $700. To replace the same windows would have cost $3,000.
    As Mr. Lewis demonstrated, old windows are made to be repaired. They can be taken apart to insert new rails or muntins, broken parts can be replaced or fixed. When windows stop functioning or begin to deteriorate, it is due to lack of maintenance, not the need for replacement.
  • Myth 3: Less heat loss. Thermal studies of houses have shown that in most cases only 20% of the heat loss is through windows. The remaining 80% is through roofs, walls, floors, and chimneys. Under-insulated roofs or joints where roofs meet walls are where the most heat is lost. Thus, reducing heat loss through windows by 50% will result in only a 10% decrease in overall heat loss in the building.

The Visual Impact of Windows

If eyes are the windows of the soul, windows are the soul of the house. Once you attune your eye to the rhythm and beauty of old windows in old houses (and 80% of Maplewood’s houses were built before 1930), the jarring flatness of new windows, with flat, low-profile or snap-in muntins (the wood strips between panes) becomes apparent.

Unlike the McMansions of other towns, where every house seems to have a faux-Palladian window, each house style in our town — Colonial Revival, Italianate, Tudor Revival or Arts and Crafts — was built with windows appropriate to that style. Retaining that character and beauty is important – and possible with the help of many old house and old window resources in the area.

For further information, lists of local contractors who work on refurbishing older windows, as well businesses providing ageappropriate window tools, parts and hardware, and for answers to questions on window repair, contact Preservation Maplewood at info@preservationmaplewood.org or call 973-762-1443.

Read more about:

Architecture Houses

Support Us

Membership in the Durand-Hedden House & Garden Association is open to all. Please consider your membership an invitation to join us as a volunteer or docent educator.