Seeing the Light

The days of windows being a luxury are gone. Basically, holes in otherwise solid buildings, energy-saving, insulation technology has advanced so far that contemporary architects now experiment with extravagant walls of glass. But tighter seals and efficient glazing haven’t solved every problem. If long life and easy maintenance are high on your priority list, then aluminum-clad wood windows may be your school’s answer.

Wood, once the only option available, makes for a strong window that can be painted or stained any color. However, as the wood must be scraped and refinished every couple of years, maintenance costs are high. The maintenance itself might be risky too. “Scraping glass with a razor blade to remove paint can score and weaken it,” reports Dave Maloney, director of marketing for Eagle Windows & Doors, Inc., in Dubuque, Iowa. “Scraping may also remove the coating that makes the glass energy efficient, while a solvent could undermine the seal.”

Vinyl windows, which are impervious to water, don’t suffer the maintenance problems of wood. However, they are not as strong. Vinyl-clad wood windows, where vinyl is wrapped around a wood frame, solve the maintenance and strength issues, yet vinyl poses challenges of its own. “Vinyl is limited to about three factory colors, and you can’t paint it on your own,” says Maloney. “The weather will also cause the material to discolor and warp through time.”

Aluminum-clad wood windows hold an advantage over the other options. Strong and energy efficient, they have the highest structural and performance ratings. With cladding, an aluminum structure is slid over a wooden frame and sash. As the aluminum is not screwed into the wood, both materials can expand and contract at their own rate.

Warm wood, which can be stained at the factory in a variety of species, faces the interior. The aluminum, which stands up to all kinds of extreme weather, faces out. It can be configured into a variety of details from historic to contemporary. And, unlike vinyl, the aluminum comes in a wide variety of colors to match any design scheme or surrounding neighborhood. “Victorian buildings are often painted in a combination of seven or eight colors,” says Maloney. “With aluminum, you can order the frame in one color and a sash in another so your new windows are consistent with the surroundings.”

Aluminum-clad wood windows are also easy to reglaze. After removing the glazing stops, new glass is dropped into the aluminum frame. This is good news for the facility department at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass. They estimate that one piece of glass is broken every day on their large campus. So when they renovated their buildings, aluminum-clad windows provided a perfect match.

Smith College also shows aluminum cladding’s ability to mimic history. Established in 1875, the prestigious, private woman’s college is filled with buildings of historic significance. But all that history doesn’t help when the heating bills come due. “Older schools in the East have to replace their windows,” says Maloney. “The energy loss is too great.” But, from Smith College’s brick exterior to the neoclassic fa├žade of The National Advocacy Center in Columbia, S.C., aluminum-clad windows got the job done without sacrificing style.

Aluminum-clad wood windows come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Divided lights and circle tops help complete historical and traditional looks. But contemporary structures may want the sharp geometric forms and clean lines like those found in The Steinberg Pavilion in the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Steamboat Springs, Colo., which serves students through college age.

A building that takes advantage of its breathtaking surroundings, the walls are composed almost entirely of glass. With a dark green aluminum exterior and a warm wood finish inside, the structure lets the outside in. Yet energy bills remain manageable. Of course, not all contemporary structures feature entire walls of glass. But even more modest window statements benefit from aluminum cladding’s flexibility and low maintenance.

So the next time that your school is thinking of new windows, think aluminum-clad wood. It could be just the breath of fresh air you are looking for.