If you read my last post about restoring the side elevation of my house, you probably picked up on the fact that I’m in need of a few new windows to properly execute my plan of removing non-original additions and restoring the original architecture. The actual framing and installation of a new window is all pretty simple, even on an old house, but actually finding the right windows at a price point I could afford was a much bigger challenge.
“Why not just replace your original windows? Aren’t they drafty and outmoded and horrible anyway?” is what you might be thinking. This is not a conversation you want to start with me because you will never get out of it. Here is kind of my pitch for old windows, though, because I can’t not.
Almost every single window on my house is original to the time it was built, and I could not be more grateful for that fact. They’re beautifully crafted out of old-growth lumber that—decently maintained—lasts literal hundreds of years. Old windows are normally fairly easily restored and repaired, and when combined with a storm window, comparably energy-efficient to a new window in good working order…the difference being that a new window’s life-expectancy is only about 15-20 years.
In climates with harsh winters especially (like where I live!), people very often replace their original windows with new, thinking that they’ll be increasing their energy efficiency. And while that’s moderately true (again, depending on the quality and condition of the replacement!), windows are EXPENSIVE motherfuckers and so the cost of buying new windows (not to mention having them installed) typically ends up costing far more money than you’re saving on utility bills throughout the life of those windows…a cost you then have to incur AGAIN in a couple decades when those new windows inevitably fail. New windows are difficult or often impossible to repair yourself, too. If a neighborhood kid hits a baseball through one of my window panes, all I have to do is spend about $10 on a new piece of glass and a couple hours removing the broken pane and installing the new one. When a new window breaks, you’re usually looking at a completely new sash, which has to be ordered, and then installed by a service tech, and if the company has stopped making that model, you might need a new window altogether. Just because of some broken glass! The window industry has been very effective with marketing new windows to consumers, but when compared to an original wood sash, I don’t think the replacement argument holds up to any kind of scrutiny. And EVEN if we accept that the energy-efficiency argument is true, think about the amount of waste generated by the production of the new windows, the disposal of the old windows, and then the continued disposal of the new windows every couple of decades in perpetuity. That’s a lot of shit in the landfill!
All of this is to say nothing of the actual preservation of a historic structure, which new windows have a funny way of destroying. The first way this happens is when consumers change the style: as a very general rule, the older the house, the more divided the lite pattern is on the window. I primarily have six-over-six windows, which means there are six window panes on the top sash and six on the bottom, divided by wood muntins. That pattern is typical of this style of architecture and is how the house was intended to look, but matching that lite pattern on a decent quality new window significantly drives up costs. So very often consumers switch to one-over-one windows with no lite pattern to keep costs down, and then the house looks totally different and almost always much worse. The second way this happens is because replacement windows generally come with their own jambs to fit within the existing window frame (not all—there are things called “sash kits” that allow your to reuse your existing jamb, assuming it’s very square), so even at a custom size, you’re losing an inch or two of the sash opening because you have to accommodate the new jamb. Which leads me to the third way windows get messed up—custom sizes. Almost all window retailers do offer the option for replacements to be fabricated at custom sizes, but it costs more than a standardized stock size…which often doesn’t jive with the dimensions of an old window. As a result, consumers decrease the size of their windows to accommodate a stock size, and then their house looks all wrong because chances are that the original size is scaled appropriately to the house.
The fourth issue is materials, which is both an issue from the inside and the outside. There are a lot of options out there, but in general you’re looking at:
- Cheapest: vinyl interior, vinyl exterior. Vinyl, as far as I’m concerned, is the work of the devil and will have the same place in history as plastic 70s paneling and asbestos siding. Vinyl expands and contracts with heat, dries out, becomes brittle, breaks, bends, warps…I really dislike vinyl, as you can probably deduce. It’s cheap and fast and bad.
- More expensive: Wood interior, vinyl-clad exterior. These can actually be pretty fine, especially if you’re trying to restore the original appearance of a structure where the original windows were already removed. Most companies offer a few color options, too, and somehow black vinyl looks LEAPS AND BOUNDS better than white vinyl and is very often appropriate for an old house (and handsome on a new house!). I wish more people considered black sashes.
- Most expensive, I think?: Wood interior, aluminum-clad exterior. These are spendy but far more durable than their vinyl/vinyl counterparts, and typically look the best.
The major thing in common with nearly all new windows is that the glass is insulated—meaning that there are actually two panes of glass separated by about a 1/4″, which essentially serves the same function as a storm window would on an old window. Windows, of course, will always allow for more heat loss and transfer than a solid insulated wall, but insulated windows do serve a benefit. Of course, they come with their own problems…if one of the panes is faulty or broken, you sometimes see condensation building up between the two panes, and again, the repair is much more difficult and costly than an old wood sash.
The means by which windows are insulated—and the divided lite pattern is executed—also has a big range of options and prices. These are things you’ve all probably seen out in the wild. I think I have this right:
Cheapest: No division at all, one-over-one sashes.
More expensive: snap-on grilles, which is exactly what it sounds like. The grilles are either wood or vinyl, and snap on the interior, exterior, or sometimes both. The appearance is usually very flat and kinda sad, especially if the grilles are only on the interior (ugly from outside) or the exterior (ugly from inside).
More expensive: integrated grilles. This is when there’s a (usually plastic) grille between the two panes of glass. I really don’t understand the appeal because they look bad and fake from both the interior and exterior. I guess the benefit is that they’re a little easier to clean.
Most expensive: Simulated Divided Light. There ARE some really nice options here, again, especially if you’re trying to restore windows that are already gone. One of my favorite makeovers of all time—Steve’s house at An Urban Cottage—used Marvin’s Ultimate Double-Hung windows which are wood interior, aluminum-clad exterior, with simulated divided light, and I think we can all agree that they look great. This is done by putting a grill on the interior and the exterior, with slim bars between the insulated glass, too, aligned with the grilles. They’re a nice way to approximate an original appearance. They’re still one big piece of glass separated slightly from another big piece of glass, and the divided lite pattern is purely aesthetic, but they can look very nice. Of course, they’re costly! The photo above is, I think, is cheaper Jeld-Wen window, but you get the idea. That’s the interior you’re looking at, and you’ll see below that the muntin profile is kind of a bummer compared to my original windows.
Before I shut up: if you’re considering replacing your original windows because the restoration seems daunting (since we’ve already debunked the financial and environmental benefit) or too time-consuming, quote out hiring out the reglazing! It may be less expensive than new windows, particularly if you’re paying to have them installed. And better for your house!
And! If you might want to give the restoration a try on your own, there are some great resources online! A small sampling:
SO! With all these different products out there, you might think finding a suitable match for my old windows wouldn’t be too difficult! But it was! Of course it was. If I’m doing it, it’s a pain in the ass. That’s the rule.
First I thought to myself, “self, buy yourself some of those nice Marvin Ultimate Double-Hungs and call it a day!” but then two things happened: I saw one up close, and I got a quote. It IS a very nice window, but remember that I’m installing my new windows adjacent to original windows, and they look different enough that I thought it the new ones would stick out like sore thumbs. Then the price came in at around $1,500 for ONE window, and I need/want several, and that’s a lotta money. That led me to looking at similar simulated divided lite new windows that were also quite nice but cheaper brands. Windsor seemed to have the nicest product but all the aesthetic issue with the Marvin also applied to the Windsor windows. I think the price came in at about $650 per window, which was better but still a ton of money for something that isn’t even really what I want.
I looked into having windows custom-made, which would have been TOTALLY BALLER because I could have specified the muntin profile, the sill dimensions, the stops, the width of the stiles and rails…but that looked like about a $1,500/window endeavor, too, and again…just too much money for me. I also tried to just source old sashes, figuring I could probably figure out how to make the jambs and everything myself. If I’d needed one window that might have been possible, but I need several and the sizes have to be VERY specific, so that seemed like a total long shot and incredibly impractical.
THEN SOMETHING GREAT HAPPENED. There’s this store about half an hour from my house called The Door Jamb, and they are THE BEST. It’s a family-owned small business and they know everything about windows and doors. They have an enormous stock of windows and doors that are overstock and stuff (but all brand new), so if you can be a little flexible on sizes, they’re a great company to do business with. They can ALSO order new windows and doors (and shutters and storms!) from several retailers, which you’d think would price out more expensive than the big-box stores but I’ve always found them to be far less expensive which makes me love them even more.
So I’m in the store and I see what looks like an old window sash, but is clearly new. It’s single-glaze, with a muntin profile that looks mighty familiar, and even the glass is held in with glazing putty on the exterior…just like my old windows! So naturally I freaked out and got really excited and had to know what this thing was that I’ve been looking for all my life…or at least for the last year or so.
“They call it a barn sash.”
“It’s single-glaze, so nobody would put that on a house.”
“I would. All my windows are already single-glaze. Do they make it in a double-hung?”
“I think so.”
“Can they do custom sizes?”
The windows are by Brosco, which seems like a really great company from what I can deduce online, which admittedly is not a lot. But here is what I can report!
- One way they measure the windows is by the sash opening—that is, the size of the actual opening of the window rather than the size of the opening you need in your surrounding framing to fit the window into the wall. This made ordering VASTLY easier since trying to work backwards to a sash opening (which is really what I need to match—the rough opening will be new framing so it doesn’t matter so much) from a rough-opening dimension would have been tricky without the actual window in hand.
- After quoting out so many different options, I was DELIGHTED to find out that my windows would come in at about $350 per window…roughly half what the other options were going to cost! And VASTLY closer to what I was really looking for all along.
- All my sizes were stock with Brosco! This was somewhat unbelievable to me. I might be off by a fraction of an inch, but they’re pretty damn close and I can live with that! It seems like custom sizes roughly doubles the cost, so this was a hugely lucky break.
Let’s compare, shall we?!
Here is the stile, rail, stops, and sash cord of one of my original windows. Old double-hung windows are typically weighted—there is a metal weight concealed behind the casing on either side of the sash, so when you open the window, the weights counterbalance the weight of the sash and allow the window to remain open. Those Marvin Ultimate Double-Hungs seem to be the only window on the market where you can actually get something very close to this, although they use metal chain rather than rope and I’m unclear on whether it does anything other than look good.
This is the same(ish) angle of one of the new Brosco windows! So the pullies and weights have been eliminated for a modern balance system, but otherwise? It’s SO super similar. I’m looking at the proportions of rails and stiles and the profile of the way the wood is routed around the glass and it’s almost identical. I think I can fairly easily tack on a couple of “stops” that will make it look almost identical. The modern balance system is kind of a bummer, but once everything is painted, you’d have to be looking REALLY close to deduce original from not.
Outside, here’s an old gunked-up muntin for your viewing pleasure.
And on the Brosco! It looks different but it’s actually very much the same—this just doesn’t have 150 years of paint and old glazing putty on it. The glazing job is so clean on these!
This is the interior muntin profile of an original window, which I thought I’d never match without going completely custom.
Brosco, baby, you get me. I don’t even think it’s close, I think it’s…identical?? How gorgeous is THAT? This is the kind of stuff that is like make-you-weep-amazing when you’re trying to restore an old house. I’m sure 99% of everyone has stopped reading at this point, haha.
SO ANYWAY. I bought a few for all of the locations we talked about last week, and Edwin and I have been hard at work installing them! It’s, like, the most exciting.
That’s where that closet door use to be in my dining room bay window! We’ve demolished a lot of the old solarium, but are leaving the main structure intact as long as we can to keep the house from being exposed longer than it needs to be. I can insulate and put up a lot of siding and stuff before we have to totally rip it off, so that’s the plan!
We framed the rough opening a little bigger than necessary to give me some wiggle room to make things as aligned as possible with the originals.
LOOOOOOOOK! Isn’t that really really good?? I’m so thrilled, and I think with a couple minor tweaks I can make the new windows match even closer. Even right now, though, I’m just SO THRILLED I can’t even express! Replicating my millwork on the interior is sure to be another big challenge, but it’s not as though that needs to get finished with the same pressure that putting the exterior back together does. It’s going to be crazy how much light the dining room will have now!
Now I have to think about storm windows! Part of the thing with getting single-glaze windows that doesn’t bother me at all is that they’ll match the originals, so whether that means sticking an aluminum storm on the outside, or getting interior storms, or maybe trying to make my own wood storms (yikes!), at least everything will be uniform and the new windows won’t scream that they’re new work from either the inside or the outside.
Does anyone have interior storm windows? How do you like them? I love the idea but admittedly hesitate because I feel like my crappy aluminum triple-tracks, while unattractive, do protect the original windows from the elements. I’d remove and spray-paint the frames black which does DRASTICALLY improve their appearance, but they’re never going to be particularly attractive. I have a few months to think about it before it starts getting cold, so I’d love to hear thoughts on the topic!