Through a Glass Smartly
Windows aren’t cheap to replace, but spending the money to do it right can save you heartache — and more money — down the line.
On the face of a house, the roofline is the head; the front steps and door are the chin and mouth. For it to be a lovely face, each feature should be well-placed, well-proportioned, appropriate to the whole. And the eyes, more than any other feature, can draw you in –– or repel you. Windows are the eyes.
That’s why my heart sank as I drove by my old house recently. The current owners had replaced the unique 1920s-era Prairie Foursquare-style windows with nondescript 2000s-era windows. From my perspective, they had gouged the eyes out, replacing them with something artificial and soulless –– though probably more energy-efficient.
The modern 1940s-era windows are biggest aesthetic drawback on the front of my present 1930s-era craftsman house. They’re the wrong eyes for the face. And they’re not even energy-efficient. Unfortunately, a good pair of eyes will cost serious money.
But windows are not the place to skimp, says architect Doug Mayo. He recalls coming across a new house in posh English Turn in which all of the windows had rotted out within a few years. “The wood was just so crappy,” he says.
I first met Mayo in the late 1990s, when he used to supplement his architecture practice by doing home inspections. Here’s a guy who not only knows how to build a house right but also has seen enough to know what can go wrong. And windows certainly rank up there among the things that can go wrong.
Poor installation or rot can lead to leaking. Poor-quality windows can let in the heat and cold. And poor design choices can screw up a pretty face.
As a practical matter, Mayo recommends that renovators read the installation instructions that come with their new windows, even if they’re outsourcing the installation. Ensuring that there’s a good seal that will prevent air and water infiltration can be particularly difficult with a retrofit.
When locating windows on a new construction job, the points of the compass suddenly become important. The best orientation for windows is south, Mayo says, because it’s fairly easy to control the amount of light you get by using shades. The northern exposure is the preference for artists’ studios because it gives a constant, gentle light without shadows. The eastern exposure makes for blindingly bright mornings. The western exposure is the worst, as it gives a harsh, hot horizontal light at sunset.
In New Orleans’ climate, that’s where thermal windows are most important. With a single-pane window, the heat cuts straight through the glass. To make matters worse, older or cheaper windows allow hot air to infiltrate.
Many modern windows create tight seals and are double-paned, with clear gas injected between the panes to diminish the heat. As long as the windows are well-sealed when installed, they can make “a tremendous amount of difference,” Mayo says.
If you own a historic home, the next consideration is finding efficient windows that match the style of your house. Companies such as Andersen, Marvin and Pella make them, Mayo says, “but you’re gonna really pay.”
If you must replace all of your windows and you can’t pay for quality wood replicas, Mayo suggests getting a one-over-one-light vinyl window with no grid pattern. If you’re looking to match your old windows, you can get vinyl windows with the grid pattern glued on. He recommends against windows with the grid pattern between the panes. “You can tell,” he says. “It just looks phony.”
No matter what your choice, if you live in a historic district, check with the Historic District Landmarks Commission first to see what they’ll accept.
When your priority is aesthetics over efficiency, salvage yards may have the replacement you’re looking for. But Mayo says to exercise caution when it comes to inexpensive new wood windows. You don’t want to end up like the homeowner in English Turn. And even high-quality wood windows require care. “If you install wood windows, plan on maintaining them,” Mayo says.
Another consideration of particular concern in these parts is hurricane resistance. Over the life of your house, on some August or September day, a hurricane very well could hurl heavy debris at your windows. Nowadays, it’s easy to tell if the windows are up to the job because manufacturers generally etch the certified wind resistance rating into the glass. As with energy efficiency, the extra you pay upfront here could save you money down the line.
A standard-size high-quality, energy-efficient, wind-resistant, historically accurate wood window can cost you roughly $1,000, Mayo says. Vinyl will cost about half that.
Even if you live in a modern house and historic concerns are –– ahem –– out the window, you may still have an expensive replacement job in front of you. Mayo urges people with 1950s ranch houses, where the windows might be too small for escape from fire, to consider replacing them with something up to new code standards for fire safety. That means spending the money to create a bigger opening.
Replacing hung windows with casement windows –– the kind that swing open like doors –– might be a cheaper alternative to widening the opening, Mayo says.
If you’re building a window into an attic, you may choose a skylight or a dormer. It it’s at the front of the house or overlooking a garden, a bay window might fit.
Just be careful to harmonize with the style of your house, Mayo says. “Drive around until you find a similar house that has the same feature, and try to copy it as closely as possible.”
And regardless of the job ahead of you, try not to settle for the most mass-produced choice. Mayo decries the result of this as the “Home Depot-ization of the world.”
“People go to Home Depot and think that what they have is the only thing available,” he says. “Everything starts looking the same.”
If you have to replace something unique, you could consider going to a woodworker to have it replicated, he says.
After all, the windows are the eyes to the soul of your house. (Or something like that.)