The Delaware Valley is an area rich in older and historical homes dating from the early colonial period through the early 20th century. Farmhouses, Georgian Mansions, Victorians, 19th century townhouses and a wide range of other styles are found throughout the area.
Owning this type of home does present some challenges and one major concern of potential buyers and owner is the windows. Many older homes have beautiful, original old growth wood windows but they are often painted shut, don't open or close correctly, are badly weathered or rotted, have broken glass, missing sash cords and worse. Restoration means bringing your old windows back to like-new condition - removing all paint, replacing glass, repairing locks, sash ropes or chains, sealing them tightly, applying a beautiful, long-lasting and protective finish - and making them work as they were designed to do.
So ... Should they stay or should they go?
We love old houses here at Old Village so we're biased, but we'll try to layout below why we think its best to restore those old windows whenever possible.
Homes with historic designations, in historic districts or overlays usually have restrictions on what can be modified on the home and especially on the front facade. Some areas may allow 'historically accurate replacement windows' and other locations may not. If restrictions apply to your home then you probably can't or shouldn't replace your windows.
The Character of Your Home
If you're an owner of an older home then you probably bought it because you have an appreciation and affection for older homes - maybe because they are older and have stood the test of time. They have character - and imperfections that are part of that character. Your windows may have blown glass, and actually have multiple panes rather than just a cosmetic plastic grid. They are made of wood that was cut down 100 or 200 years ago and is still in service today. They are built into an arch or are an odd shape. They are part of the fabric of the home, part of its character, part of the reason you bought it, and part of the value that you hope to maintain. Why would you want to get rid of them?
"Few elements of a building contribute more to its architectural character than do the window sashes. The character of the sash is obvious from the exterior even when (as was often the case) its exterior face was painted black or another dark color. There is a great difference between a window opening filled with twelve-over-eight sashes and one filled with two-over-two sashes.
Any historic building with its original sashes and glazing therefore retains a higher degree of architectural integrity than a comparable structure in which the sashes have been replaced. Where original sashes survive, their preservation should be a paramount concern of the building’s owner. "
So What's Wrong with Replacement Windows?
There are a lot of fine replacement windows out there and for many home owners using replacement windows might easily be the right choice. But there are some disadvantages when compared to most original wooden windows in older homes. Replacement windows are available in a number of materials, but vinyl is the most popular with about 50% of the market. Vinyl has a number of advantages including a lifespan of 20-40 years (longer than other replacement materials (Improvement Center) but also a number of disadvantages as described by (The international Association of Home Inspectors.
- They have the tendency to sag due to their flexibility. Their flexibility also limits their size and the weight of the glass they frame.
- Many people find them less elegant or natural-looking than wood.
- Vinyl window frames can soften, warp, twist and bow if heat builds up within the frame.
- They are not particularly strong or rigid.
- They have the tendency to discolor over time, especially when subjected to extreme weather conditions.
- They are difficult to paint. Most paints will not easily adhere to vinyl, and some primers can weaken the vinyl.
- Life-Expectancy Wood Replacement Windows have a life expectancy of 30+ years but most other materials may last only 20 years or less (Improvement Center) But the solid wood products sold today do not stand up as well to the elements as the wood used 50 or 100 years ago. (This is mostly because the lumber is farmed quickly rather than naturally grown slowly.) (Money)
- Warranties A quick look at some warranties show that some companies do offer 'life-time' warranties for their windows but the warranty covers less after 20 years or so. (thewindowdog.com) Warranties also do not always cover broken glass which can be expensive.
- Fogginess and Condensation Just about all modern windows are double or triple paned with an inert gas between the panes for insulation. Expansion and contraction can cause the seals on these windows to deteriorate and this can let outside air into the window, reducing its insulating value and also letting moisture in which can cause condensation and fogginess. (Improvement Center) Vinyl expands and contracts more than wood and other materials so this problem can be worse with vinyl and can also vary with the brand, price, etc.
- Reduced Viewing Area Replacement windows also can actually have less 'window' there than the original window. Since the replacement window and its frame has to fit inside the original frame, you actually get less window to look out and for sun light to come in You might notice the difference ,.. or not.
- Resale Value “Like mantelpieces and built-in cabinets, original wood windows are important architectural features,” says Atlanta Realtor Bill Golden. “Replace them with a downscale product, and you downscale the house.” (Money)
But Replacement Windows are Energy Efficient...
Improving the energy efficiency of your home is often one of the prime motivators when considering whether to restore or replace, and if your old windows are leaky then it is a very important consideration. But windows, once you eliminate the drafts, account for only a small percentage of the energy gained or lost from your home. When tested, restored and properly maintained replacement windows - with storm windows - have an energy efficiency comparable to replacement windows.
A study by the University of Vermont, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, and U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory concluded that energy considerations should not be a deciding factor when deciding to restore or replace old windows.
Over the course of the study, it became apparent that replacing an historic window does not necessarily result in greater energy savings than upgrading that same window. The decision to renovate or replace a window should not be based solely on energy considerations, as the differences in estimated first year savings between the upgrade options are small. Other factors to consider include life cycle costs, the historical significance of a window and its role in a building’s character, occupant comfort, ease of operation, and life-cycle costing, none of which were subjects of this study.
A study by Frank Shirley Architects concluded that:
"This study compares the life-cycle costs of two residential window systems in a pre-1940 house in Boston, Massachusetts. One is an original double-hung window with a new triple-track storm unit. The other is a new, vinyl, double-hung replacement window. Our results are obtained from an algorithm that yields the total present value of all costs associated with a window system over its entire life, including acquisition, installation, maintenance, and energy. Our study provided two notable findings: (1) the thermal performances of the two window systems are similar; and (2) taking all costs into account, it is more cost effective to add a storm window to an historical window, and it remains so at all times for the full 100-year life we considered. "
And a report by the Preservation Green Lab, a project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation concluded:
RETROFIT MEASURES CAN ACHIEVE PERFORMANCE RESULTS COMPARABLE TO NEW REPLACEMENT WINDOWS
There are readily-available retrofit measures that can achieve energy savings within the range of savings expected from new, high performance replacement windows. This challenges the common assumption that replacement windows alone provide the greatest benefit to homeowners.
...... for all cities, at least one and often two of the selected measures can achieve energy savings within the range of savings expected from new, high performance replacement windows. Specifically, interior window panels, exterior storm windows combined with cellular blinds, and in some cases even exterior storm windows alone fall within the range of performance for replacement windows.
ALMOST EVERY RETROFIT OPTION OFFERS A BETTER RETURN ON INVESTMENT THAN REPLACEMENT WINDOWS
Energy savings alone should not influence decisions to upgrade windows without consideration of initial investment. For all climates, the cost analysis shows that new, high performance windows are by far the most costly measure, averaging approximately $30,000 for materials, installation, and general construction commonly required for an existing home. In cold climates, all other retrofit measures, with the exception of weather stripping and heat reducing surface films, offer a higher average return on investment when compared to new, efficient replacement windows. In hot climates, all of the study retrofit measures offer a better average return on investment than new windows, with the exception of weather stripping.
So What Should You Do?
So what does this mean? What's best for me? If you have a newer home that for some reason needs new windows or an older home where the windows have already been replaced then you really don't have a choice, replacement windows are for you. Vinyl windows are the most popular and least expensive, but they also have some potential negatives as we've outlined above. Other materials include aluminum, fiberglass, wood, and wood with aluminum cladding. Talk to your distributor or contractor about what works best for your home. Go for the premium brand to get the best quality and maintain the value in your home.
if you have an older home with original - or maybe not original but still older - and the windows are not completely falling apart then restoration is likely a good choice. If you have large or odd sized or odd-shaped windows or windows with unique details then restoration may be your only choice short of having new windows custom built.
As we said above, we love Old Houses and all the details that make them unique - so we're biased. But the several studies that we found agree that, in the long run, restoring your old windows is a solid investment. Keeping your windows preserves the character of your home, there is no real trade-off in energy efficiency, the old growth original wood windows should last longer than new ones and restored and maintained old windows preserve and enhance the value of your home.
If restoration looks like your best option then Old Village Master Painters would love to help. Check out our window restoration page to see how we can bring your old windows back to like-new condition, and some photos of windows we have rescued.
Contact us at 215-540-0196 or use the Contact Button below to send us an email so we can answer any questions you might have about window restoration or any of the other painting, decorating and restoration services we offer.