Calling all window experts: Suggestions, please! - Fine Homebuilding

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The Deans of Green

The Deans of Green

Calling all window experts: Suggestions, please!

comments (7) October 31st, 2008 in Blogs
Can this window be saved? Turns out, it has to be.Click To Enlarge

Can this window be saved? Turns out, it has to be.

Posted by: Rick Arnold

One of the most cost-effective energy upgrades to an existing house is replacing the old windows. Not only do replacements provide more insulation, but their installation also provides the opportunity to air-seal around each unit. Especially here in New England, it’s often possible to see payback in as little as five years.

On this historic-building project, we have a mixture of double-hung windows. Some seem to be original (1750s) while others have been altered, repaired, and replaced over the years. Judging by the hardware and the glass, I would say that except for a stray pane of glass here and there, none has been replaced since the 1800s.

Unfortunately, the one thing they have in common is that they are all in bad shape. While the majority of the frames are not too bad and can be worked on, the sash in most are not worth saving. Much of the wood is rotted, and many are held together with modern L-brackets. The ones that seem to be in better shape have been sealed shut with layers of interior paint.

We asked the historic commission about replacing the windows. We brought in a sample of a modern, energy-efficient window that replicates the historic look in the dimensions of the wood frame, sill, and sash, and also the look of the glazing, in that it is true divided lite.

No way, no how, forget about it!

I can understand some of the resistance to the change. The existing glass panes are beautiful with their imperfections (waviness, distortion, and small bubbles), but it would have been nice to have the replacement option for some of the less visible units around back.

In the meantime, I got a quote from a local historic-building restoration company to repair the existing sash. The estimate range was from $500 to $1600 per window (per sash, actually) to get them back to properly functioning, structurally secure units. But there is no guarantee of success because many of the units are only 7/8 in. thick and very flimsy.

So if we take an average of $1000 per window, that comes to about $45,000. To that I say: No way, no how, forget about it!

So what now? I know we can install storm windows on the outside (which many already have) and also on the inside to improve energy performance, but there is still the issue of being able to operate the sashes during nice weather without them falling apart.

I would appreciate any suggestions.

posted in: Blogs, green building, weatherizing, water and moisture control, restorations, windows

Comments (7)

ohioguy7 ohioguy7 writes: It seems to me that we need some national, or international standards for energy efficent windows. As someone said here so-called modern replacement windows can start to break down in less than 10 years! Would someone please explain all of that and if there is any way to judge windows better?
I had some windows put in last year, it was confusing as to who offered what and how good they were. While they all offered warrenties I suspect that some of these smaller firms would not even be around in a couple years. The bigger firms were very expensive.
It does seem that the plastics used must weaken with age. In the best interest's of the world, the US, and individuals we must have standards that insure home products will last for as many years as possible, hopefully 20-40 at a minimum.
Also can anyone suggest good information on weaterization, the good, bad, and ugly, etc.; are there ways to judge or insure a balance between investing in windows, attic or wall insulation, etc.? Example: maybe investing in insulation is not effective if windows are terrible, or vice versa?
Posted: 10:02 pm on March 9th

oldewindows oldewindows writes: I am a professional window restorer based in New England. Many windows have been neglected for decades. Some are beyond recovery however the vast majority can be recovered to their original beauty and function. The question always comes down to cost. Sad to say but many structurally sound antique windows have been destroyed just because they look bad or the ropes are broken or they rattle. High end replacement windows costing $1,000 and more make repair and restoration more viable.

A prior post refers to the lead paint danger in restoration and repair. By using steam for deglazing and tools such as the ProScraper vacuum scraper you can significantly reduce the hazard. For more information go to

Most people with old houses replace their windows because they are drafty or just look bad. They frequently have storm windows that are broken or not even closed. Over 90 percent of the windows I have restored had no weather stripping installed. Proper weather stripping old windows and ensuring that storm windows are functional and properly sealed will vastly improve the energy efficiency. This is far less expensive than restoration or replacement. Although old storm windows may be unattractive, there are many alternatives that are functional and more attractive. and traditional wood storm with removable or sliding panels that do not require removal seasonally. Storm windows serve several purposes including protecting the sash from the elements.

Energy audits are very beneficial but as one New England energy audit company states "if window companies used a blower test, they would not sell many windows because 9 times out of time the windows are not the biggest energy problem."

For more information on window restoration for homeowners and professionals, go to

Posted: 9:44 pm on February 16th

DIYBungalow DIYBungalow writes: I agree with Donald's approach. I understand that many old windows have been horribly neglected over the years and nothing in the world can regenerate rotten wood. However, an average double hung single pane window (which means that BOTH sashes are moveable --paint not withstanding) can be more energy efficient than the latest in muliti-pane, UV filtering, hermetically sealed, modern monstrosity in production today. How? With storm windows or shutters.

I'm not talking about those cheesy aluminum pieces of architectural profanity which transfer heat in and out of your home faster than you can say "dumb idea", but historically accurate wood framed sashes that hang just inside the window box and cover the entire window or real shutters that close over the window creating a dead space between the glass and the outside world. Storm windows can be a single pane or divided in whatever way complements the permanent window and are 100% historically accurate. I would go so far as to say storms or shutters are an historical imperative. Back when your old windows were first installed, a homeowner would be ridiculed if they installed windows without storms or shutters. It would be similar to installing a modern double pane window without the second pane.

Not only are they historically accurate (you'll be re-introducing something to the house that the historic commission hasn't seen in years and they should be kissing your feet), but they work better than anything else. Studies have shown that the space bewteen the panes is the primary indicator of energy efficiency regardless of type of glass, glazing, or sash/frame material (aluminum excepted). A storm window will give you a good 4" or more bewteen your "panes" creating uber efficiency. In addition to their efficency, they are versitile. In the summer months you can swap the storm window for a metal screen providing historically accurate "tinting" to your windows to keep those southern rooms cool. With the screens in place you can take advantage of the "double hung" aspect and open both sashes creating a convection brease replacing stale indoor air in less time than you could ever hope to do with a whole house fan.

The biggest draw to "old-fashioned" window technology is the long term cost and environmental impact. A well maintained wooden window will last several hundred years while a modern energy efficient window will have to be replaced much sooner. The UV resistant sealant keeping your modern double pane glass clear and efficient will break down within 7-10 years. If you have a vynl frame that will be shot to death by UV radiation shortly thereafter. Even "wood" windows built today incorporate non-wood materials that render them either inefficient (in the case of metal tracks and operating mechanisms) or obsolete (in the case of vynl and plastic parts that break down or wear out and will eventually no longer be available
forcing you to replace the whole window - again) and will inescapably be constructed of inferior wood compared to your originals. All the money the world can't (legally)buy new windows constructed of the dense grain wood from old growth forrests that your originals are made of. Your single pane originals will only need simple maintainance in the form of replacing sash cords and glazing as needed (which will be seldom), and keeping the finish in good shape (something to do every few years). Thise are very easy DIY duties but can be hired out almost as easily.

I have storm windows and screens for the windows of my hisotric home and am very please with them. They do take more work than a modern window because those sorms and screens don't swap themselves out at the change of seasons but the energy efficiency is unparalleled. If there is any hope of saving the existing windows, do it! If not I have to side with the historic commission but on the grounds of energy efficency and environmental impact. The fact that you will preserving the historic integrity of your home is just a very nice side benefit. Remember, those people weren't stupid that lived back then; they knew how to keep their homes comfortable without central heat & air conditioning!
Posted: 4:36 pm on February 16th

DonaldHWagstaff DonaldHWagstaff writes: I see maybe what i wrote earlier was a bit unclear and even a bit flip. But windows are crucial and I have seen many tragic efforts at boosting efficiency really trash an otherwise lovely old house so I tend to sympathize with historical commissions even though I have confronted them in practical matters myself.

Anyway I'm facing almost exactly the same problem just now - along with about a hundred other equally pressing matters - in restoring a house although this time not under the constraints of any official oversight. So here is what I have done so far and am really pleased with. I hauled out the top fixed sash and the lowed sliding sash. In the upper one the putty was loose in places but the glass still tight, wood all around sound. The lower sliding sash was in very poor shape- also had L brackets and even some straight brackets next to that. First thing to do was chip out the putty and set the glass pane aside, very nice rippled glass- irreplaceable, not to be compared with the historical glass- sorry, that's my opinion, read David Pye. Luckily the frame was pinned with wooden pegs ( draw-boarded) at the four corners and the center muntin. With the pins punched through I had the five parts in hand. The bottom rail was beyond saving except for what I could split out of it for 6 new pegs. Then I cut the stiles and muntin back well beyond the rot, used a japanese birds mouth scarf to splice on new wood, the moulding or profile was easy enough to extend with a rabbit plane, cut the mortices and made a new bottom rail, pinned it all back together, rubbed in some thinned linseed oil, reset the glass and placed them back in the window frame. But that is not all. I saw in the window frames there, fragments of old hinges, And up in the attic was a shutter, It had been sawn in half and nailed against a wall but it could be fixed. And out in the old chicken coop was another shutter and when I put them in the right window frame they lined up just right with the hinges. And now, every night in the winter and on very cold days I close up the shutters and every morning I open them to let in the sunshine and we won't go into the efficiency of these shutters compared to. let's say other alternatives.
Posted: 7:06 pm on February 7th

MFournier MFournier writes: Wow I just read my own post and does anyone know how to edit a post once I post it? Typos all though it wish I had proofed it before posting. So Sorry for the typos I hope you can get the idea anyway.

Also some final thoughts on the windows

Installing storm windows won't fix the old sash and if you intend to be able to open and close them, they must be in good shape that means repairing them and if the inside sash is in good repair you get a much more efficient system with the storms.

I have the same issue on my own house. I did enough repair to the exterior as to keep it water tight (the damage to a house frame if water gets in the wall because of a damaged window frame or sill can be huge)

BEFORE DOING ANY OF THIS HAVE YOUR WINDOWS CHECKED FOR LEAD you do not want to be using a heater or heat gun on lead paint yourself it must be commercially stripped.

But you can repair the windows yourself it takes some time but it is a project most DIYers can do but expect to have the sashes out for a day or two so best to do it in the summer :)

I recommend Abatron Epoxy systems to repair the rotted areas and you may need to glue new pieces of wood where the years of abuse and reglazing has damaged or worn down the dividers between the glass. Abatron products are great but I find you need real wood to hold the glazing points. I cut a 1/8" kerf in the muntin bar and then glue in a new piece of wood to replace the damaged pieces
Here is some help on the process of fixing an old sash

After repairing my windows I bought plexiglass sheets and a snap in frame system that goes on the inside that I install in the winter. I got the idea from historic deerfield houses basically it is an interior storm window. Same principle as those plastic shrink wrap sheets you tape on and smooth out with a hair dryer only these are reusable.

Of course If you can afford it I see no reason why any historic regulation would stop you from replacing old windows with historically accurate reproductions in many cases you would have so much repair that most of the sash wouldn't be original anyway so I do not understand the obsession of keeping badly damaged windows.

You can even save the old panes of glass (saves buying restoration glass) and have them installed in new sashes. more costly then DIY repair of the old sash but if lead paint is found you must also consider the cost of lead abatement because windows cause lead dust every time you operate the window unless you intend on sealing them closed.

You may want to run that one by the historic committee. I doubt they want to be responsible for a heath issue in your home. Then again they are not the ones who must pay the lead abatement bill so they may still say no. kind of stupid if you ask me but not unheard of even the infamous TOH crew with all their historic experts have had problems with historic committees so good luck hope you get a solution that won't kill your budget.
Posted: 4:05 pm on February 4th

MFournier MFournier writes: Well don't you just hate historic committees. Adding storm windows will alter the exterior image of the house much more then historically accurate reproduction sash units.
And If the goal of the historic committee is to preserve as much of the original fabric of the building regardless if you install storms then at some point those sashes will need proper restoration ether by you or the next home owner. And yes to have a professional do it is expensive or a very time consuming DIY project (I know I have done it one 12 over 12 sash set takes 2 days or more to restore so $1000 per window is a conservative estimate depending of just how much needs to be be reworked. welcome to the cost of preservation.

But unless your goal is archaeological preservation of every piece of a structure then I see no reason a reproduction window should not be allowed it would be a exact reproduction of the original and except for carbon dating of the wood and glass no one could ever tell a old window restored to like new from a proper reproduction window.

Just one source of reproduction windows:

Of course these reproductions would be no more energy efficient then the originals were when they were new but if properly weather stripped they will be much better then the old worn out and rotted originals.

I see this issue as facing 2 diametrically opposed goals one is to restore an old structure back to it's as built condition and the other is to make it something it never was intended to be a modern energy efficient home. Some were in between these two goals is the preservationist which tries to save what is left as a restorer would do while also accepting changes made to the structure over the years of it's life and also deciding on appropriate updates that allow it to be a functioning modern home.
After all for many historic homes it is their value as a home first that is essential to saving them. If a structure can not meet a current purpose it technically has no current value except as a example of antiquity.

If the goal is to truly preserve a structure as built then you would save every pice repair everything as it was use only materials available at the time it was built and use only building methods used at that time. In other words you would be creating a museum not a home. And if you are the curator of a historic site then have at it and you can get a rich benefactor to pay for it.

But forget about central heat modern insulation and modern utilities after all a house from the 18th century did not have that so in a true historically accurate restoration you would have to remove all that stuff right?

You see how far you go is s judgment call so this brings us back to these historic committees that are making judgment calls as to just how far they are going to push restoration vs preservation vs allowing for modern convenances of a livable home of today. So I ask you this how do they determine that it is OK to add central heat but not allow modern windows so that you can keep that heat in and keep the cost of heating down. Also old homes were not built to be tightly insulated they do not have HVAC systems and updating them for modern living creates all kinds of problems that the original builders never accounted for so if they are going to allow for some changes they need to understand that the building is a system that must be updated as a whole.

Another problem is historic commissions are established to preserve the character and fabric of historic homes but they do this while putting the burden of the cost of this preservation solely on the home owner. We really need to change this and funding must be made available to offset the costs these historic commissions put on owners of historic homes. If committees are going to be dictating mandates then those mandates should be funded as well ether directly through preservation grants or indirectly though tax credits. Many towns have historic districts and make mandates on home owners that can mean very high costs of repairs and maintenance and higher heating costs. I feel the least they could do is provide much lower property tax on historic properties to help preserve these homes. Like the saying goes "Put your money were your mouth is" if the towns really value these homes for their historic value let them truly show their commitment to their preservation with monetary support and not just unfunded mandates.

As both a owner of a historic home and a home improvement contractor I am as big a supporter of preservation as anyone but I am also a realist and I fight every day to get historic committees to understand that if these historic structures are to be saved they must be allowed to be updated to be viable homes or accept for a few museum houses many will be lost. And most owners of historic homes really do want to preserve them but they are after all homes first and not a museum.
Posted: 1:42 pm on February 4th

DonaldHWagstaff DonaldHWagstaff writes: Fix those windows up good but keep them as they are and then check for any indication of whether or not there were ever shutters either outside or inside. Functional shutters not just decorative. That means place then also around the back.
Posted: 2:56 am on February 2nd

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