Historic Windows: The Love-Hate Relationship

The many architectural styles, one-of-a-kind detailing and old-time craftsmanship of historic windows can make a heart swoon. Yet while windows play a fundamental role in establishing the character of a home, many homeowners aren’t sure how to deal with them from an energy and maintenance standpoint.  If the beautiful windows that first won you over are now giving you a cold, drafty feel, don’t throw in the towel just yet!  All it takes is a little more understanding and you’ll be back in love with those irresistible, one of a kind windows in no time. 

historic home
The windows on this Savannah, GA home contribute to its unique character.

Love At First Sight

Historic Window Styles

Style is everything, at least when it comes to historic windows! Homes of different architectural styles have different shapes, proportions, patterns and materials. If you’re interested in learning more about the style of windows found on your own home (or a home you are thinking about purchasing), I recommend downloading the National Trust For Historic Preservation’s Windows Field Guide for free. Below is a visual overview of the types of windows discussed in the guide. For each window type the guide has five or six different photos and written descriptions of the style.

window styles
Historic window styles.

Many homeowners find that the more they know about the architectural history of their home, including the windows, the more they come to appreciate their uniqueness and contribution to the overall feel of the home, both inside and outside. You may find yourself looking to learn more, possibly developing an interest in reviving a number of historic elements of your house. Or you may simply have a better understanding of how to integrate your historic windows with contemporary interior design styles, making two totally different time periods feel as if they were always meant to go together.

Cold Feet

Making Historic Windows Energy-Efficient

When I first moved into a large historic home in Detroit’s Boston Edison neighborhood, I found myself sleeping with three to four blankets and using the fireplace to generate heat that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Besides the home’s size, one of the reasons it was difficult to keep the house warm was the beautiful, historic single pane windows. 

Interior Storm Window
These interior storm windows provide an extra layer of glass, creating an insulating air space.

Fortunately, you don’t need to replace your historic windows to save energy and make your home feel more comfortable. In fact, window replacement in historic homes can be a challenge. Older windows have expanded and contracted with weather changes and may have shifted in other ways as the home settled on its foundations, resulting in window openings that may no longer be square. If there is not a good fit between the new window and the existing opening cold air will infiltrate through any gaps. In addition to these uncertainties regarding performance, replacing historic windows with new ones will impact the special character of your home and can be expensive. For all of these reasons, you will want to consider increasing the energy performance of your existing windows by installing complementary storm windows.

Storm windows, which can be installed on the interior or exterior of the home, provide an additional layer of glass or plexiglass to your windows, creating an insulating air gap that makes your old single-pane windows work like double-pane windows. The advantage of interior storm windows are that they do not impact appearance of historic exterior , they are easy to install in upper story windows  (no ladder necessary) and they can easily be removed or re-installed, giving you the flexibility to use your storm windows seasonally if desired. On the other hand, exterior storm windows will protect historic wood frames from harsh weather and exterior wear, requiring less frequent maintenance.

Exterior Storm Window
Before and After: The image on the right includes an exterior storm window.

Storm windows come in many different aesthetic styles and can be custom made by a storm window specialty company like Allied Window, Kaufmann Window or Spencer Works to fit unique shapes.  Some states may also provide incentives for installing storm windows in an effort to make an older home for energy efficient. To see if there are any incentives in your area, visit http://www.dsireusa.org/.

Happily Ever After

Restoration and Repair of Historic Windows

Believe it or not, historic windows are generally more durable and easier to repair than contemporary windows. For example, the wood used in historic windows is likely to be more durable because the wood grew naturally rather than in a tree farm. The wood is often more dense and typically local (adapts well to your local environment). Wood used today is more sappy, and the sugars can attract insects. Density in old, slow-growth wood makes it mill well and also hold paint and stain well. It is more rot-resistant and less attractive to insects. Today the hardest woods are the most expensive and therefore less common.

Wood Window Parts
Historic wood windows are made up of many parts that can be individually repaired or replaced.

Today’s windows come pre-assembled as a single unit, which means if part of the window fails the entire unit needs to be replaced. Fortunately, since old windows were crafted from individual parts which can repaired or replaced as needed. The drawing above shows all the different parts that make up a traditional window. As you can see, historic wood window construction required a lot more craftsmanship than the factory-produced window units made today. To find a contractor in your area that is experienced with historic window repair and restoration, visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Map of Old-Window-Friendly Contractors.

Owning a historic home can have its challenges, but the complexity of historic windows is also one of their virtues. The more you understand about your historic windows, the more you will come to appreciate and care for them. The historic windows that first caught your eye can last a lifetime with style and grace.

1 comment:

  1. Those are great window designs. I would love to use one of them as my inspiration for my future house. Anyway, security shutters Perth will also add beauty and at the same time, security to the entire house. Rollers will also protect the windows from extreme heat that may damage the integrity of the iron with paint and glass.