“How much do you think it will cost to replace these windows?” As a Realtor, this is a question I hear most frequently, after “why is this so expensive?” My response virtually never varies because I do not recommend replacing windows. This action would be tantamount to taking out a paintbrush and painting over the earring in Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” If we recoil at the thought of altering an artist’s work, why should we suborn changing the architect’s original vision? In addition, this misdirected remedy almost never makes sense from a practical, esthetic, or cost-savings point of view.
It would be very tempting to think of the fenestrations as just another decorative detail—something that should suit our tastes rather than the architect’s or builder’s who designed it. Why shouldn’t we have large, single-panes of glass in our Georgian or Federal house . . . especially facing the street? Wouldn’t it look so much nicer to have big, shiny panes of glass instead of six-over-six? We would enjoy the view so much more! Also, wouldn’t it be nice to have an easy-to-clean window, rather than a sagging old sash with 12 panes of glass that’s constantly wheezing and rattling its counter-weights on sash cords that are doomed to fail one day?
This unfortunate point of view has become prevalent nowadays in the zeitgeist of renovating. Since we’ve been home so much more these days, hoping to make it a place that suits all of its new purposes, most homeowners embarked upon their own “improvements” without consulting an architect. They have opened the DIY Pandora’s box and let out a host of ideas that are not only inimical to the preservation of American homes (from any era, not just “historic” ones) but also harmful to their own well-being. Are ill-fitting, cheaply made windows ever as handsome as the originals, even if they are the same format, albeit with “snap-on” muntins?
Replacement windows are the most “replaced” of all windows, and this fact contributes to a never-ending cycle of adding waste to our landfills while emptying the purses of homeowners. This action takes a toll on all of us who share the same planet. One rarely, if ever, gets the same energy efficiency from new windows, and new windows will fail far sooner than older ones will.
This is not to say that quality replacement windows do not exist; they do. Further, many reputable window companies that manufacture quality products also have ateliers that will restore old windows instead of advocating for their replacement when appropriate. The real problem is that we rely too readily and handily on what we see in the media as to what’s right for us, rather than evaluating our own situations critically. I understand this on a personal level. When we bought our c. 1947 Spanish Colonial in Miami Beach, our painter took one look at our old casement windows and told us that we should replace them. This was something I was not going to do. Why should we when our old casement windows in our house in c. 1927 Washington, DC, were just perfect (although restored at some cost).
It took some research until we found a vendor who offered us a better alternative to our old windows. Because we needed protection from hurricanes, we went with “impact” windows. As the name implies, these are windows designed to withstand strong winds and also alleviated the need for ugly metal storm shutters. The overall result gave us what we needed in the way of protection from the elements, improved light, and less maintenance. This was the best decision but was one that was arrived at after some deliberation. We didn’t feel like we were altering the design and vision of the architect’s work, and we ended up with a solution that is sympathetic and compatible with the house’s original design.
The great Renaissance architect Leon Alberti considered architecture an art. Adopting this concept today would allow us to treat our houses with more care and respect. A house does not need to have great provenance or be faithful to a particular historical style for it to be treated as a work of art. Everything, however modest, has a narrative. Every house occupies a rightful place in the continuum of American architecture and, as such, deserves more than just a passing thought before it is permanently and irretrievably altered. Maybe you don’t need different windows—just a different house.