Rarely do you see photos that show, without a doubt, that old windows are better than new ones. They obviously have more character with each pane set in a slightly different plane than its neighbor, creating a prismatic effect. But they’re better in other ways too.
Virginia Hesse, Principal Historical Architect, has one such photo hanging over her desk at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.
It’s a snapshot of a two windows side by side on the old Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company campus, at its peak the largest industrial complex in the country. Today it’s known as The Foundry.
On the left hand side of the photograph is a 24-over-24 wood true-divided light window dating from the late 19th century. On the right side an aluminium replica that was a mockup for a window replacement project. The former industrial complex is so vast it’s no longer possible to maintain the existing wood windows, which were once cared for by a crew that spent all its time – all it ever did – canvassing the vast complex carefully maintaining the divided light windows.
On the day the photo was taken, Virginia was supposed to go over and look at the mockup, see if this new replacement window, which wouldn’t require any maintenance, was a close enough visual match in the historic building. Of course, she preferred the old windows but understood the labor wasn’t there to restore the many thousands of them on the 26-acre industrial campus.
That same morning, a delivery of lumber was being hoisted six stories in a sling on the outside of the building. When it got to the top, a couple of two-by-fours fell. One piece punched into the old window, knocking out three of its 24 panes. The other punched into the new mockup window that looked like a divided light window but in reality was just two large sheets of insulated glass with an aluminum grid over it made to look like muntins. That window was completely destroyed.
“”Maintenance free” (windows) means they cannot be maintained,” she said, adding about historic wood windows: “It shows how infinitely repairable they are – if you maintain them, they will last indefinitely.”
Homeowners should always look at old window restoration before replacing them. Too often they get taken in by arguments that replacement windows will conserve energy better since old windows are just drafty and inefficient. Sadly, there are many more contractors quick to replace windows than there are craftspeople who can repair them.
“Windows preserve the historic fabric,” Virginia said. “Repair before replace. Historic wood windows are repairable. Replacement windows are not.”