Should You Keep Your Original Windows?

By Scott Sidler • July 1, 2019

should you keep your original windowsYou’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.

Materials Matter

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.

Aesthetics

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.

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23 thoughts on “Should You Keep Your Original Windows?”

  1. We just bought a 1925 craftsman that has all of its original windows: one of which is in the bathroom right next to the shower. The old owners had a clawfoot with a shower curtain that ran all around the tub. We decided to replace with a drop-in with a glass partition. What is the best way to protect the window from the shower?

  2. I’ve got a century house I(m restoring. I’m going to restore the French casements which are street facing. But all the non-street facing windows are painted shut double hungs. The house is near a lake with breezes that are lovely in the summer but deadly in the winter which lasts much longer. I’m inclined to replace the double hungs with Marvin Pultruded fiberglass windows. They cost the same as a restoration (which is more of a statement about the size of the labor force available for restoration) and will give me twice the airtflow with no storm windows. Talk me out of it.

  3. I just started restoring my 1930’s cape windows. A few need repair which I am thankfully ready and able to fix after reading this blog except for two windows that I am at a loss on how to repair. I used Dumond peel away stripper and on one window on the muttons, I got a lot of furring (wood splinter lift). It’s like the peel away pull the wood up with it. The muttons are very thin so I have been very gentle on them. The other window just has one spot that has furring – Thankfully on the top so it won’t show. What is the best way to handle furring when it happens?

  4. My husband and I are renovating a Greek Revival built in 1845. Unfortunately all the original windows are long gone and replaced with double pane windows that are horribly drafty and leaky when we bought the house four years ago.

    We wanted to be historically accurate on a a limited budget so my husband started making them himself. We found a company that hand blows the wavy glass for authenticity sake. He also made them so that they tilt inward for easy cleaning, and made storms and screens to fit. We opted to use plexiglas for the storms after we had a couple large hawks, on separate occasions, fly into the glass storm windows breaking them. Plexiglass is easier on the birds and our wallets, and is barely indistinguishable from real glass.

    The windows are super energy efficient with no drafts whatsoever in our northern Ohio winters and my husband loved making them. I would include a picture but I don’t think I can on this site. We couldn’t be more happy with the outcome .

  5. For background reference, I live in a very small town that does not seem to take interest in the rehabilitation of the many beautiful old homes here (mine is 111 years old!). The nearest sizable city is 150 miles away, & I’m not even sure where to start improvements.
    At some point insulation was laid in the attic, but there is none in the exterior walls, & all but 3 upstairs windows are painted into the frames. The attic insulation is doing very little as far as what its’ name implies.
    The original windows are beautiful, but have no screens since they can’t be opened, therefore no breezes during the summer. I can’t attest to their condition because I don’t know what to look for, although one frame was busted up for an air conditioner install. Would it be worth it to use the originals as hanging storm windows & put in their place maybe single pane with screens ones? Is this possible? Stupid?
    Previous owners made poor decisions in trying to tighten the house up, & there aren’t the usual energy audit venues one could find in a larger city.
    I’m having a hard time imagining another winter here & keeping my thermostat at 62 degrees – the natural gas furnace is <10 years old, but its efficiency is lessened by the overall draftiness of the house.
    Is there any help me & my home? That is affordable? I haven't even begun to start thinking about the plumbing & wiring yet…that's another post!

  6. Replacement windows are absolute junk in every respect, as Scott has pointed out. Who would replace old growth cedar for cheap (always white) vinyl? The proportions are wrong, wrong, wrong. I can’t even look at houses that have those contraptions installed. The worst ever is the fake mullioned windows, featuring six small panes on both upper and lower sash, as if the building was constructed in the 18th century. Yuck. Total aesthetic fail. And please don’t get me going about doors!

  7. How exactly does one restore 1960s metal (aluminum? steel?) windows? I am in this quandry with an otherwise very solid and energy efficient house in south Georgia, where 90+ degree summer heat results in $500+ electric bills. The original single-pane windows barely separate the outside from the inside, AND several of the panes are cracked all the way through. A replacement quote is slightly over $10,000. Which way to go?

  8. How exactly does one restore 1960s metal (aluminum? steel?) windows? I am in this quandry with an otherwise very solid and energy efficient house in south Georgia, where 90+ degree summer heat results in $500+ electric bills. The original single-pane windows barely separate the outside from the inside, AND several of the panes are cracked all the way through. A replacement quote is slightly over $10,000. Which way to go?

  9. In my experience, old windows allow an old house to breathe. I have seen too many cases of a house being ‘sealed up’ and the homeowner trying to deal with the resultant problems.
    And in terms of energy efficiency, I remember reading an academic paper some years ago that concluded that heavy curtains used with traditional windows were almost as efficient as double glazing especially if the windows were well fitted to the frame to stop draughts. Admittedly double glazing has improved since then.
    I work on windows in the UK that are generally over ninety years old and have had minimal repairs over the years but are still fully functional, whilst I watch modern windows that have been installed just 20 years or less being replaced. There must be a lot of energy used in producing the materials for these new windows so hopefully someone can explain how they are saving more energy and are more cost effective than the traditional windows they are replacing.

  10. I have a 105 year old house. It has original windows inside, yet at some point someone put aluminum windows on the outside. They are horrible!!! Very hard to get apart to clean. Also currently have one stuck closed. I don’t know where to start. I also need to paint the trim outside and have tried everything to get a few prepped. The putty holding the glass in has fallen out in chunks. I’m fearful if I had a big storm windows would blow in on me. Does anyone have any tips?

    1. Lori, it sounds like you have triple track aluminum storm windows over your original windows. I would contact some local storm window dealers to see if you can get some quotes for repair or replacement of the storm windows, but definitely retain the original wood windows.

      1. That’s what they are called? Triple stack? I absolutely hate them. It takes two people to take them apart and clean them, then you have to remember how to put them back together. Yes my inside windows have some original glass that is wavy in places. Six panes in the upper windows. Do you know what was used for storm windows when this house was built? I can’t believe when we moved in 35 years ago there was a big stack of screens in the garage, had hooks at the top. I’m sure they put them on in the spring. I told my husband to toss them. Wish I still had them. As for finding somebody to help me with these triple stack windows, I’m stymied. I live in the Oklahoma panhandle, and can’t imagine where to start asking.

          1. I looked at Spencer Works website, then called them and spoke with a very nice helpful man. Their windows are exactly what I need! They are similar to what was left in my garage in a stack when I moved in here 35 years ago. He suggested I order one for one of the smaller windows and go from there. I can’t wait to start getting rid of these old aluminum storm windows! Thanks.

  11. I restored most of my double hung windows 25 years ago, (while pregnant no less) including storm windows and screens. The house is circa 1930. They now need to be done again, but I’m 25 years older! Struggling with the decision. I live next to salt water and coastal weather is hard on everything. But I do love the originals!

    1. Bernadette, 25 years is not a bad run. You can probably get by with some more intensive maintenance if they have been kept up during that time. If not, maybe have a professional restore the windows in small batches to make it affordable and save you the time?

  12. Unfortunately, old windows and frames just don’t have the security that is needed today in many of the larger cities where these historic homes are or are being encroached on by these growing cities. Then you also have weather related events tossed into the mix, as well.

    1. Curious, but what security features do new windows have that old ones don’t? Most old windows have locks or locks easily be installed. I live in the city in an area where security is a concern, but my first line of defense against burglars is not necessarily my windows.

      1. I don’t see any security advantages to new windows unless you have impact glass installed. You can install glass break sensors, cameras, motion detectors, etc all installed on old windows just as easily as on new windows.

    2. Don’t have the security that’s needed? How is that when most of them are painted shut? If they’re restored, they lock as windows have for decades and centuries. It’s easier breaking in a door than a window in most cases. Plus, we have inexpensive cameras, security services and devices that augment any security needs one would have.

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