AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING: The eyes of your house

AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING • BY STEVE KNIGHT & KAREN BURDITT

The windows on your house not only bring light and air into your life; they are also the eyes for your house. And just like the eyes on your face, windows are a critical part of your house’s curb appeal.

The basics of a typical window for your home are glass panes divided by muntins, which are framed by sashes or casements. The sashes are framed by jambs and sills and casing wraps the entire window inside and out, much like a picture frame.  Historically, windows were usually of three types: Fixed or inoperable; double-hung, where the sashes slide up and down past each other; and casements, where the sash swings like a door. There are other types, but double-hungs and casements are the predominant types found on the houses in our neighborhoods.

Old house windows are made of wood, which is tough, durable, flexible, and with proper care, can last centuries. Think of old houses in England with their tiny panes of rippled glass.  In the 20th century steel windows made inroads, particularly after WWII when steel was plentiful and cheap.  Contemporary windows now boast aluminum, vinyl, and wood wrapped in vinyl.

Let’s understand something about windows from the start – they all require maintenance and repair – no matter what their age is or what the brochure said.

They all need to be cleaned, caulked, and repaired on a regular basis to stay in good working order.  There is no window that you can completely ignore.  Many newer windows, just like many appliances in our houses, will reach the end of their usable life and need to be replaced in 15 years.  Replacement windows come with 10, 15 or 20-year warranties, because in 10, 15 or 20 years you will need to replace those “new” windows.   No matter what, you will need to do as much maintenance for a new window as an old window.   Old windows, on the other hand, can easily last 100 plus years, with proper TLC.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but the older your windows are the better they are.

If your house has the original wood windows and they are 50 plus years old, you have the best windows you could have and probably the best you can afford.  Old windows were made of durable old growth lumber with tight growth rings and now the wood pith in between the rings has hardened to an even greater density.  ALL new wood windows are made with new growth lumber – with very wide growth rings and soft pith wood in between.  It is soft, weak, and very prone to warping or shrinkage.

Have you ever seen a newer house with wood windows where the double glazed windows fogged up?  This is because the new young wood warped and the seal between the glass panes was lost – creating the fog.  The only way to fix the lost seal is to replace the entire window sash. To get the kind of durability from a newer window that an older window inherently has, you have to pay top dollar to get seasoned cured wood that has been specially handled to make it stable and strong.

Old Windows are green windows.  The energy expended to create them happened in the time of our great-grandparents, when energy costs were cheaper and probably were produced locally.  Newer windows were likely made in your lifetime, in another state and shipped here by truck.  New windows will also probably wind up in the landfill in your lifetime.  New windows have a much greater carbon footprint than existing older windows.

Old windows are usually replaced because the house is cold and drafty and the energy bills are high.  All the window really needs is a little repair, caulk and a good storm window.  If the window doesn’t slide up and down easily it’s probably because the sash cord rotted out. Sash cords are easy to fix and there are a number of online resources that can provide illustrated step-by-step instructions. For limiting drafts, a good line of caulk or a rubber gasket will stop the cold from seeping in between gaps.  A good storm window will do as much as double glazing for energy conversation, without the risk of a fogged window.

Speaking of storm windows, most of us are used to the aluminum triple tracks that hold upper and lower glass storm panels plus a screen panel. Triple tracks look best when painted to match the window trim and they are convenient. If you are interested in something a little more historically appropriate to your house, there are companies that make wood storm windows and screens that look very similar but are easier to manage than the original storms that only a few of us are still lucky to have.

The last maintenance issue is painting. A good coat of paint will do the most to protect your window.  Old paint build-up is a problem, but a little sweat equity can eliminate that. In our humble opinion, it’s well worth the effort to restore and retain a house’s original windows.  Hiring a local window restorer also is good for your local economy.

The biggest reason to keep your windows is because they make your house look good.  They fit your house and make it look complete.  Most replacement windows are standardized and have little to do with the unique details of your house.  Replacements are usually smaller than the original windows to minimize damage to your wall.  You get less light and air with replacement windows.   You can buy historically accurate replacement windows, but you will pay dearly for that look.  A brochure left in your mail slot is not that quality of window.

Please understand us; we are not knocking the replacement window industry. If your windows are truly rotted to their wooden core, then you may not have a choice.  If you live in a house with replacement windows that have reached their limit, another round of replacement windows are in your future.

You can also replace your replacement windows with old wood windows from an architectural salvage warehouse.  This will require the help of a carpenter or window restorer, but with custom storms you can have 100-plus year windows for your home.

We wrote this article in an attempt to reach those folks in the area who have old windows and who are toying with the idea of replacing them. If that is you, please think again.  Your windows are not done yet, with a little TLC, caulking and good storm windows, they likely have a lot of life left in them. There are a lot of resources out there to help you make that decision and to help you fix your old windows if you choose that route.

About the Author

Steve Knight and Karen Burditt
Karen Burditt is a registered architect with 25 years experience, currently working with Esocoff & Associates Architects in Washington DC. Steve Knight is an Associate with David M. Schwarz Architects, also in Washington. Steve and Karen have lived in their bungalow in East Silver Spring for 12 years.