Gordon Bock is co-author of The Vintage House: A Guide to Successful Renovations and Additions. As an architectural historian and former editor-in-chief of Old House Journal, Gordon is an expert on how people can preserve what is essential in their vintage home while making it work for the needs and demands of modern life.
We interviewed him for a two-part Q & A in advance of the Window Hero Webinar he did with Indow.
Q What is the biggest mistake people make when they buy a vintage house?
Making changes right away. It’s counter intuitive but I encourage people to put the brakes on and live in the building for a while, even up to a year. Look at the building, understand it better, especially if it’s more than 50 years old. If it has additions, some of that work may be good while some parts may be failing. You get to realize why it was built the way it was, as well as how it performs in summer and winter.
If it’s 100 years old or older, it’s probably been almost two or three buildings over time. Previous owners have added on or changed features on the exterior. You might say, “This back door on the building looks a little funny. Why did they build it that way?” With mechanical issues, you may assume you need a new boiler but maybe it’s fine. Maybe your radiators just need to be adjusted.
Q In the book you write that, “We seem to prefer things that look brand new.” Can you talk more about that?
There’s always been a sort of movement – especially in our lifetime – towards “new.” The idea that new is better, that bigger is better. The old house or historic building movement isn’t to counter that but to simply give another perspective: that there’s value both culturally and even environmentally to preserving existing buildings that are well built.
Q Can you explain why it’s good for the environment to preserve existing buildings?
We can’t just keep building new buildings forever and ever. Many of the buildings built in the past were made to last 100 or 200 years and longer. If we take care of them and invest in rehabilitating them, we’re basically recycling them instead of throwing them in a landfill. It’s a sustainable building practice. Often these buildings are designed with features that predate our cheap energy environment like deep eaves that shield the solar gain in the summer and permit solar gain in the winter.
Q How has society’s appreciation for vintage houses changed?
Once upon a time – going back to the 1960s and 70s – the idea of owning a historic house or a vintage house and especially investing effort into it to restore and rehabilitate it, was almost an eccentric practice. It was a lot of work. You did it all yourself since there wasn’t a base of craftspeople to give you a hand. Banks didn’t want to loan money for it.
More recently, the media has helped change that. And the other thing that’s happened is that there’s a new appreciation for sustainable neighborhoods and walkability and so people have started to appreciate close-in neighborhoods. These are where the old houses are. All of a sudden these houses have greater assets: they’re often in mature neighborhoods with nice trees as well as near transit lines.
Q You’ve mentioned that it’s important to save the windows in a vintage house. Why is that?
There are two reasons. One is for aesthetic, architectural reasons: windows represent important character defining features. People covet their wavy glass more than ever before. The appreciation of historic windows is growing among old house devotees.
The second is sustainability. If you jump to the conclusion you need to replace the windows in your house, you’re throwing away windows that have probably lasted 50-100 years. Are your new window going to last that long? We know with historic windows that the wood is old growth wood and with simple maintenance, they can last for generations. There are simple techniques for making them efficient. Putting storm windows on outside or inside can improve their energy performance and costs less than replacing them. So it’s an architectural, cultural thing and it’s a dollars and cents environmental thing.
Q How did you come to appreciate old houses and vintage windows?
I had two seminal experiences as a young person. The first was that we had family property in Pennsylvania where my grandmother grew up. We spent summers there with the rest of my relatives. We chipped in and tried to keep the farmhouse patched together. I got to do work on the building and so I learned how houses worked. And then when I was a teenager, I had the good fortune to have a summer job on the coast of Maine working for folks who had a lovely seashore house near Boothbay Harbor – a classic Maine seaside coastal building. I got to appreciate and see first hand a lot of historic architecture.
People are interested in vintage houses or historic architecture for different reasons. Some appreciate the antiquity of it, “Oh, this is 200 years old” or “It’s the first in the town.” For a lot of people, though, the specific age has nothing to do with it. These aren’t fossils. They like the details and the house fits their lifestyle and view of the world and is something with a unique personality. It’s not a tract house where everything is the same.