Recreating the craftsmanship of the past is always a challenge for remodelers with clients who want to preserve the traditional feel of an older home. Windows are an especially tricky area. The look of historic windows can be critical to the character of an older home, but preserving or replicating that look isn't easy.
The problem, contractors say, is that it's often hard to get newer manufactured windows to look right on an older house.
These windows were designed to match a historical double-hung profile, and, the manufacturer claims, outperform the original. Some contractors say that improved performance negates the challenges of finding components that are truly historically accurate.
Credit: Anderson Windows
“One of the things that typically falls apart when you're trying to replicate a historic window is the dimensions,” says Michael Klement, president of Architectural Resource in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The face dimension, stiles and rails, the window sash, vertical or horizontal components — historically, they were larger than what they're doing now.” Jamb liners are troublesome as well, Klement says, because newer liners are often made from vinyl or some other synthetic, rather than from traditional wood.
“We have to be realistic when we say ‘match that look',” Klement says. “We're going to do a lot in terms of scale, proportion, sight lines, etc., but it will not be exact.”
Another challenge, Klement says, arises from the fact that today's wood windows are usually made of pine. “Typically with a Craftsman house, you want to go with a stained look, which is tricky with pine: It's not going to stain out to match,” he says. “We're just very careful with the staining. It takes patience and sometimes a couple of tries to get it right.”
In recent years, however, manufacturers have made a greater effort to create products that match historical profiles. For example, most manufacturers offer simulated divider lites — cosmetic grilles that are surface-applied to the glass, with spacer bars between the panes. “The intent is to give it the look of a historical window but with an uninterrupted pane of glass,” Klement says.
It's also possible to give a newer unit a more traditional look by dressing it up with custom trim. Klement recalls a remodel of an Italianate house that had a large arch-top double-hung. A custom-manufactured window “wasn't in the budget,” he says. “So we used exterior trim to create the look of the arch without actually [fabricating an arch-top window]. You have to be creative in how you approach these things.”
Keith Alward, president of Alward Construction in Berkeley, Calif., says he often has to build a thicker sill when installing manufacturers' windows. “A typical commercial window usually doesn't come with much of a sill,” he says, “so you might want to put in a nice sill that matches the house and let it sit on that. From a distance it will look like the original, even though it's a modern window.”