In an old house with single-glass panes in rattling wooden sash, there's usually just one obvious choice —replace these sad sash windows with secure, tight, energy-efficient units that have operable screens, tilt-out options for cleaning, and maintenance-free exteriors. “With windows like these,” explains Les Brownell, owner of Vermont-based Windows & Doors By Brownell (while picking at a curling chunk of glazing compound that's falling away from a peeling double-hung), “there's no point trying to salvage them.”
Brownell, like most window replacement contractors, will candidly point out the few minor drawbacks of replacement units: The thicker frame slightly reduces the glass size; internal grilles and hard corners won't have the same character as the sculpted muntins of Victorian-era originals. But even these issues can be solved if the budget's big enough. “On an upscale job,” Brownell says, “the best choice is to pull out the jambs as well as the sash, not just install an infill.” Brownell, who has built his company around strong brand awareness for Marvin, is comfortable with matching any style and any opening. “Marvin can pretty much do anything we ask,” he says.
Counterpoint “Replacement is an easy sell,” argues John Leeke, a historic preservation consultant and director of Historic HomeWorks in Portland, Maine, which trains tradespeople and savvy homeowners in understanding and maintaining older buildings. “It's become so automatic, people rarely ask about alternatives.” Leeke builds a strong a case for saving original wood sash by examining the energy issues first. “If you address the air leaks — which is relatively straightforward if you're willing to disassemble the window — it's hard to make an energy-payback argument, even with the increasing cost of energy. If the air sealing is addressed, the comfort issue will largely be addressed, as well,” he says. Radiant heat loss will be higher, but not radically noticeable.
Leeke, who offers detailed technical guidelines for saving wood windows at www.historichomeworks.com, admits that the appeal for preserving existing windows is an easier sell at the higher end of the market. “People who buy an older home are often attracted by its character. You can win this client's confidence if you can describe what really gives an old home charm. Windows are right up there: The sculpted molding, the optical distortion of old glass, the proportions — these are all details that have real value.”
Leeke's approach might make better business sense for remodelers as well. “What do most remodelers make their money on —pushing product or selling skilled labor?” Leeke asks. “Repairing and maintaining wood windows does take skill and attention, but that's what good remodelers do. And they have the opportunity to come back for the maintenance work.”