I recently learned of yet another window project gone awry. The 1920 Lake Ave. fire station in Saratoga Springs, NY is due for a renovation. It needs some structural repairs to its floors, some framing repairs, and also window repairs for its almost 100 year old windows.
The architect for the job decided that the best way to handle the windows would be to keep the old jambs, trash the original sash (which only lasted 95 years) and build new sashes with IGUs (insulated glass units). The plans also call for foaming in the weight pockets so that they are no longer functional.
I’ve gone into the ridiculous replacement mentality and why replacement windows are not what the manufacturers make them to be in other posts.
I understand individual homeowners not being up to date on this, but our architects are supposed to be the smartest people in the room. They should be the ones who research building design and renovation best practices constantly, but apparently, not enough of them do.
The truth is out there if these architects would either be open to learning something new or realize that there may be a better way to deal with our old building stock.
So, in the interest of educating our architects, I have a few things they need to know. If you’re friends with an architect, please send this to them as a little bit on continuing education.
No. 1 Old Windows Work
They are simple, they are easy to fix, easy to maintain, and they last decades longer than any replacement window you can spec. Don’t believe me? Think how many of your replacement windows (be they vinyl, aluminum, clad, wood or whatever) will last over 100 years with proper maintenance. None.
Ropes break and can be repaired, putty wears out and is repaired, glass breaks and is replaced with a trip to the glass store, wood is damaged and can be repaired by a local carpenter or handyman.
How about with replacement windows? Spring tensioners fail and must be sourced from the manufacturer (if they are still making them), Rubber seals wear out and must be replaced with a proprietary product that only one or two manufacturers in the world make to fit your exact unit, glass breaks and in most cases, the whole sash or window unit must be replaced, vinyl breaks and the whole window must be replaced.
Replacement windows are not what they appear to be.
No. 2 IGUs Suck
If IGUs were a superior product, I wouldn’t have a problem with people replacing their old glass with an IGU, but the fact is that hey suck. That’s not a technical term, I know, but here’s the problem. They have a very short lifespan before they are absolutely worthless. Once the desiccant wears out (5-20 years,) then the windows fog up and cannot be effectively repaired. The whole unit must be removed and replaced. That is not efficient.
But with energy requirements, what other options do you have? Well, according to scientific testing by the WPSC, a single-paned wood window, properly weatherstripped with an exterior storm added will exceed the 2012 IRC Energy Efficiency requirements. Look at the science for yourself!
No. 3 Newer Isn’t Always Better
Don’t get stuck specifying the newest and greatest products just because they are new. Some of them are great, yes, but every generation has had their share of mistakes using untested products. Anyone remember asbestos, polybutylene, lead paint, masonite siding? Manufacturers will tell you anything to convince you to spec their products. Don’t fall for the hype.
If you’re designing or renovating buildings for the long haul, shouldn’t you give more precedence to materials and techniques that have been tested in the field for generations with good results?
No. 4 Air Sealing, Not Insulation
Cramming old buildings full of insulation to bring them up to current energy codes doesn’t fix anything if you’re not insulating wisely. Spraying foam in window weight pockets usually creates more damage in the future because these buildings have no building wrap or drainage fields.
If the building is receiving a full face off renovation, then the proper protections can be done to ensure that the insulation will provide a benefit and not cause damage, but simply opening up the walls and telling the GC to pile some fiberglass batts or spray foam in doesn’t help anyone.
No. 5 Protect Our History
You are the first and last line of defense when it comes to protecting our built environment. Clients (be they developers, cities, counties, or whoever) look to you to tell them how the work should be done.
The contractors have to follow your instructions, whether they believe in them or not. Our job, as contractors, is to execute your specs as precisely as we can. Sometimes those specs are spot on and sometimes they are a mess. But we contractors have very little say, even though we are the ones doing the work. Help us do a good job!
No. 6 Listen to the Trades
I recently had a local architect contact me to help them draft some specifications for a historic door restoration portion on a commercial project. I was so blown away that they asked how I would do the job, what materials and techniques we would use, what the industry standards were, etc.
This architect was wise enough to realize that they didn’t know everything and they should ask someone who specializes in the field of work they are writing specs for. Awesome, but very rare!
If you are writing specs for a project that involves historic windows, don’t just call Pella for their opinion, try asking the WPA for a local window specialist. If it’s a masonry building, find a company the specializes in historic masonry. Most tradespeople are happy to share what they know for free if they were only asked. And we want architects to ask because it makes our jobs easier!
If I’ve offended my architect friends, I apologize. We need you guys and girls to get the work done. You understand buildings in a way that we trades never will. But, give us a little credit too. We work with these buildings with our own hands and know them intimately. If we could all be a little more open to learning from each other, think of what we could accomplish together.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.
8 thoughts on “6 Things I Wish Architects Knew”
Very well said.
If we all acted on your last sentence of your article, it would change the world.
I just purchased a 100+ y.o. cottage with a mixture of windows. I have a few vinyl windows on one side of the house, tall and narrow. Single pane in the doors. and 2 large no-open original windows in the front of the house and along the opposite side I have 2 slide open windows, one of which is 2 side by side and fogging and another wood framed window that does not open and has as narrow side slot that has a wood door with shutters that are fixed and screens on both sides. The bathroom window is an 70s type side window. It is these 3 windows that I’d like to replace as soon as possible, beginning with the window that doesn’t open and the side slot. It’s a hideous window and highly impractical for cleaning and getting any decent amount of air flow. I’m in the Pacific NW and last summer was terribly hot and we expect more of the same. Any suggestions? Thank you!
I would see if you can find someone local to make you new historic replicas to match the original windows. If you can’t, drop me a line and we can build and ship them to you!
I live in a historic house…most of the original windows are still intact except for 3 which were replaced by 3 yucky vinyl windows by my Mom while I was away at school. I was not happy to see those windows when I came home for a visit.
Now that my Mom is sick and unable to keep up the house, it’s my responsibility. It seems to be difficult to find a local person who can do historic replicas *properly. Would you be able to help me, please?
A rehab lover
Here’s a question related to the topic-
How possible/feasible is it to add onto an 1895 Queen Anne a “cottage like” building that contains handicap accessible living space for two aging parents?
Is there somewhere one can even get a “prefab” structure that could be appropriately modified?
Any suggestions to start thinking how “practical” such a thing would be?
Mike you might want to see if there are some old property plots with the original house. A town or county may have records. The reason is some additions may have been dotted out but never added. Also its possible the original structure was expanded. Even with the same architect it’s likely newer materials were incorporated, at the time. Depending on the size it’s possible you could invert a section of the original structure leaving the roof in place to add an entry ramp. The doorsizes will be a hassle if they’re not at least 30 to 36 inches wide, but if you use some boiled linseed oilspray and a reciprocating saw you should be able to cut wider or new door ways and repaste the cuts into the old sections and plaster. But you’re going to need to make sure the support framing remains in tact. The door areas will need trim and this will be where some of the cost comes AFTER the entry is modified. Another factor to include is bathroom use and access space and styles. Walkin showers with space for a wash seat are easier to use than step in tubs. The door expansion here depends on the original sizes also- and the can be a high cost UNLESS you can buy or create a bath ledge swivel seat for the tub.
I was looking at a house a couple of months ago. It was a foreclosure. Someone had stolen all of the bottom sash panels from the windows. I called the manufacturer of the Windows and though they were only about 4 or 5 years old they weren’t being made anymore. Because of this the only option was to completely replace the entire window unit! An old style window I could have pretty easily found the sashes or had a carpenter build them for me.
Absolutely John! It happens all too often.