The windows on Dean Arkema’s 100-year-old house in North Arlington were nearly as bad as they get.
They were “all beaten up,” he said, rendered nearly useless by missing panes, broken counterweight cords and about six coats of hardened paint. Conventional wisdom dictated that they should be replaced, most likely with new energy-efficient vinyl windows.
Instead, Mr. Arkema went to the hardware store, stocked up on supplies and began to repair the windows, one sash and pane at a time. It was hard work, he said, but the results are attractive, historically accurate and highly functional.
“Replacing windows is just never going to look as good,” he said. “There’s something about the essence of the original materials that just works.”
Windows are a perennial problem in the many older, established neighborhoods and historic districts in the D.C. area. An old house might have charm and character to spare, but its aging wooden windows are likely to be drafty, rotted or painted shut. Vinyl replacement windows, by contrast, are marketed as highly energy-efficient and easy to use and maintain. Homeowners may feel as if they have no choice but to go for replacement.
Several window experts and preservationists beg to differ. They say old windows can and should be repaired, which they assert is more environmentally sustainable, historically accurate and cost-effective. Old windows have a much longer shelf life than new steel or vinyl windows, which some say have a built-in obsolescence much like computers or other modern devices.
“There’s a joke that replacement windows are called that because you have to keep replacing them,” said Barbara Campagna, a preservation architect and principal of Barbara A. Campagna/ Architecture + Planning, with offices in Washington, Winston-Salem, N.C., and Buffalo, N.Y.
“Traditional windows, typically found on buildings built before the world wars, are generally much better made than more recent windows, whether they are wood or steel,” Ms. Campagna said. “The material is typically more durable and long-lasting. If one piece is damaged or deteriorated, it can be repaired or replaced without replacing the entire window.”
More recent windows, by contrast, do not have demountable components, she said.
In addition to preserving historic character, preservationists say repairing old windows can make them just as energy-efficient as vinyl ones.
“The first question to ask, if I’m looking to make my house more energy-efficient, is, ‘Where is the energy loss in my house?’ It’s often not from the windows,” Ms. Campagna said.
“There is often more energy loss from uninsulated attics, basements, old refrigerators, exposed uninsulated basement ductwork, chimneys and fireplaces, and old inefficient lighting than there is from windows and doors,” she said. “And often when there is leaking at windows or doors, it’s at the perimeter of the unit, the cracks between the wall and the window. It’s usually not the window itself.”
Ms. Campagna recommended that homeowners get an energy audit of their house - often available for free through local utilities or state or municipal energy programs - to identify where leaks are occurring.
A forthcoming report by the Window Preservation Standards Collaborative, a consortium of window restorers and preservationists, will discuss research that proves that properly functioning old windows can equal the insulation rating, or R value, of a new replacement window, according to David Gibney, a member of the collaborative who runs his own firm, Historic Restoration Specialists Inc., in Smithsburg, Md.