You’ve got an old house. You’ve got old windows. You love them. You hate them. But should you keep your original windows? That’s the question that so many homeowners are faced with. With the push toward green building and energy efficiency it seems like a forgone conclusion that replacing original single-pane wood or steel windows is a no brainer.
Before you jump on the replacement window bandwagon there are a lot of things you need to consider. Replacement windows are a major expense on any home and understanding all the impacts of that decision is important because once you remove your original windows they can’t come back. The landfill has a strict “no returns” policy.
So, let’s look at some facts about what’s involved in replacing your windows and if it’s a good idea.
If your windows were built before about 1960 then they are likely made of old-growth wood which is far superior to today’s woods. Old-growth wood is more rot-resistant, insect resistant, and more dimensionally stable that anything at the lumberyard today. There’s really no comparison. Windows today are largely built from cheap vinyl, flimsy aluminum or poor quality new-growth wood compared to their historic cousins.
Ask any remodeler who works on pre-war buildings and they will expound on the difficulties of trying to cut or nail into this old lumber. The wood is so hard nails bend and refuse to go in straight, saw blades wear out in half the time. It’s great stuff for longevity, but those old timers must have had one helluva time working with it.
The same goes for original steel windows. The solid steel construction of these windows provides one of the most solid and secure windows you could ever have installed even compared to today’s standards. In parts of the country prone to hurricanes or other extreme weather swapping out an original steel window (which was typically mortared into the building so securely that you have to tear out portions the opening just to get it out) for an impact rated window is insanity.
The solid steel construction of these windows far exceeds the strength of any residential window available on the market today.
What About Energy Efficiency?
Aren’t double-pane windows more energy efficient? It depends. Yes, two panes of glass is more efficient than one and three is more efficient than two, but the real question about efficiency should cover the whole window assembly rather than just the glass.
According to the Window Preservation Standards Collaborative which completed third party testing on historic windows in 2010 and again in 2015, a weatherstripped single-pane window with a quality storm window installed exceeded the 2012 IECC building code requirements for air infiltration. Air infiltration is one of the major causes of energy loss in homes.
The efficiency of a window also largely depends on the condition it is in. Any window (even a replacement window) that has been neglected and not maintained for 20 years will perform poorly when compared to a brand new or restored unit. We need to be comparing apples to apples when it comes to energy efficiency of old and new windows.
“Most old windows have not been well cared for, so we think of them as troublesome,” says Sally Zimmerman, senior preservation services manager at Historic New England. But those same troubles that original windows seem to have can be resolved fairly easily since they were designed with repair in mind compared replacement windows which were designed to be replaced when they wear out.
But there is a glimmer of hope. “We’re seeing a trend over just the last 10 years where people are just starting to acknowledge that efficiency is not just found in the monthly heating bills but the lifetime value of maintaining historic windows to keep waste out of the landfill,” says Alison Hardy, President of the Window Preservation Alliance.
Convenience vs. Payback
In our microwave culture it’s no wonder many people are dissuaded from restoration in favor of replacement. It’s beyond simple to call a replacement window company and have all your original windows replaced. The convenience is unparalleled in the remodeling industry because there are just so many companies doing that kind of work. They can have a whole house of windows removed and replacements installed in just a day or two.
Restoring old windows is a bit harder. The restoration process can take weeks depending on the level of neglect, and that’s if you can even find a restorer in your area. There are very few companies across the company that even know how to restore original windows. You can check out my directory for restoration companies in your area here.
So, the convenience factor is tilted heavily in the favor of replacement, but what about the payback period? How long will it take to recoup the hefty investment of replacement windows? The numbers vary depending on the type of replacement and costs but assuming an average replacement window price of about $1,100 (including installation) the payback period most often extends to 20 years or more which is beyond the useful lifespan of most replacement windows!
That is assuming those replacement windows perform just as good in year 20 as they did in year one which is never the case. And since most replacement windows are not designed to be repaired or maintained, but rather replaced when they wear out that puts the homeowner into a terrible cycle of buying all new windows every 15-25 years which is incredibly wasteful.
Sure you may not live in the house in 20 years when the windows need replacement, but if we are looking truthfully at the long term energy efficiency and payback the facts remain. Just pray you aren’t the new owner of a house that had its windows replaced 20 years ago because now that expense will fall to you.
I don’t know many people who would argue the point that original windows in good repair are vastly more attractive than replacement windows. It just seems that the aesthetics lose to the energy efficiency myths and people give in to replacement. On a historic house nothing looks more attractive than original restored windows. They fit the scale and architecture of the original structure and complement the lines and proportions better than any replacement window can because they were designed and built for that specific building rather than being mass produced in a factory.
The value of retaining that historic character and attractive aesthetics shouldn’t be downplayed because the value can clearly be seen when driving through high end historic neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods you’ll notice that the majority of houses retain their original windows compared to neighborhoods with lower property values where the homes sport largely replacement windows.
So now that’s you’ve heard the facts (and some opinions) what’s your take? Should you keep your original windows or do you think replacement windows are just as good? It’s an extremely contentious debate in historic preservation circles and the green building community. Comment down below and let me know your thoughts.
Founder & Senior Editor
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.