The Craftsperson Column: Five Mistakes of Historic Homeowners – Windows

This is the first in a series of "Five Mistakes of Historic Homeowners" by Scott Sidler of Austin Home Restorations, Inc.

Being in the business of restoring and preserving historic structures I have seen many a house that made me cock my head in amazement at some of the frightening things people do to upgrade their old homes.

The phrase What were they thinking!? is an unfortunate cliche in our business. But every year people tear out important  and valuable architectural elements and replace them with off-the-shelf items from the local big-box hardware store all in the name of improvement or energy-efficiency.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that the science of building a house has been added to significantly in the last 100 years. And I’m not one to spit in the eye of progress when it comes to green products and energy saving upgrades. Quite to the contrary!

But the value of an historic home lies largely in its historic features. Remove or cover those up and you destroy the value of the home. So, in the interest of educating current and potential historic homeowners how to invest properly in the value of your historic home and to save some valuable historical elements from the landfill I’ve compiled a list of the five worst mistakes we see when it comes to restoring historic homes. Now, we’ll touch on the number 1 offense, windows.

This has got to be the most widespread mistake and my personal pet peeve. Historic wood windows are constantly being torn out of homes today and being replaced with inferior products. Metal, vinyl, double-paned, triple-paned, argon filled…are promoted as the solution to a drafty old house. And I’m not going to lie, they work! What? That’s right, they work. For a time these new windows are extremely efficient; however, they have a few flaws that make them a bad choice.

Photo by Scott Sidler.

First, is longevity. Many of these windows come with a 25, 35 or 50 year prorated warranty. That’s great, but what happens after that? Not that you’ll be in the house then, but your traditional historic wood windows were designed when families planned to live in a house for generations. There are countless original windows in homes built not just in the 19th but 18th and 17th centuries that are still in service today. Properly cared for these windows can last indefinitely.

The use of old growth lumber, which is more rot resistant than today’s lumber, combined with the simple design and function of most historic windows makes them extremely resilient. Historic windows are simple and everyone knows that the more complicated something is the easier it is to break. Argon gas seals leak causing multi-paned windows to fog up and fail. Spring tensioners wear out making it hard to open and close windows. Historic windows don’t have any of these issues.

Secondly, removing your home’s original windows inevitably destroys the character of a historic house. New windows were designed for the look of new houses. And while there are companies that make windows that look like historic ones they are not the same. Lacking this major architectural element almost guarantees a lower resale price for an historic home. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking newer is better. On an old home this is rarely the case.

More than likely, your windows are painted shut or rotting in a few places if they haven’t been cared for. Before you run to replace them call a restorer to bring them back to life. Your wallet will thank you and so will your sense of conservation. Historic windows are a superior product so why replace them with a good but inferior product?

Historic windows need a couple things to perform as good or better than new windows;

  1. They need to be properly weatherstripped.
  2. They need to be properly maintained and painted when necessary to prevent rot or other issues.
  3. Lastly, consider adding historical storm windows to dramatically increase their efficiency. You can add these on the outside or even better the inside to preserve your home’s appearance from the street.

If you can do these three things you will have windows that last centuries, retain your home’s value and meet even the toughest energy-efficiency standards today.

Scott Sidler is the owner of Austin Home Restorations, Inc. in Orlando, FL. (PS: His middle name is Austin, hence the company name!) Scott and his family live in a ca. 1759 Colonial-style home, the restoration of which kick-started his fascination with all things old. Follow more of Scott’s restoration projects at The Craftsman.

© HISTPRES, LLC + Scott Sidler, Austin Home Restorations, Inc., 2012

About the author: Scott Sidler

Scott Austin Sidler is crazy about all things historical, especially when it comes to the incredible craftsmanship that went into building the homes of years gone by. So crazy in fact that I started my own company, Austin Home Restorations, to restore these old beauties to their former charm.

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