Keeping Old Doors And Windows

Should you restore or upgrade doors and windows on culturally significant but aging campus buildings? Or should you do what you know needs to be done: Rip out those leaky, wasteful windows and install something energy efficient. Which alternative should you choose?

Opinions vary.

Wofford College, a small liberal arts school in Spartanburg, S.C., asked McMillan Smith & Partners, Architects, PLLC, also in Spartanburg, to renovate the interior and restore the exterior of Old Main, the main campus building.

Constructed in 1854 as a chapel, Old Main had grown east and west wings over the years. The chapel had morphed into an auditorium, and the three-story wings now served as classrooms and faculty offices. The building represented Wofford’s history and culture like no other building on campus. It was precious. And school officials wanted the windows, doors and everything else restored.

“We saved the original windows and doors and up-fit the rest of the building to meet modern requirements,” says Donald L. Love, Jr., AIA, a principal with McMillan Smith.

But Wofford ran out of money before the windows and doors could be finished. Will they give in and replace the original doors and windows with modern, energy-efficient doors and windows? Or will they hold out for money to restore the originals?

Love has seen this before. He believes the original architecture is safe.“Sometimes when the price comes in, a school will decide to leave its windows and doors alone and wait until it can raise more money,” Love says.“That’s what happened at Wofford.”

Restore? Or Upgrade?

Cost is the reason that most aging buildings end up being upgraded instead of restored. The arguments favoring efficient upgrades are fairly well known, ranging from energy savings to modern conveniences. Still, no one likes to tear out classically beautiful architectural features. Isn’t there a way around the cost problem?

“Depending on the historical era, existing windows are more often than not worth keeping,” says William Barry, a senior associate with Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, a Boston-based architectural firm. Barry is a proponent of an emerging preservation concept called embodied energy. Every building, he says, contains two different kinds of energy: operational energy and embodied energy.

Operational energy is the electricity and natural gas used to operate building systems. This frame of mind focuses on cutting costs through energy efficient design and construction materials.

“The operational mind-set says rip out that old single pane window and replace it with a space-aged, triple-glazed, energy-efficient window,” Barry says. “But embodied energy has value, too. Think of the human energy required to rip a building down, haul it away, dispose of it and then build new.”

Doors and windows get caught up in the process. You rip old windows out, redo the wall to install new windows, buy the windows, ship them and install them. Then again, preserving doors and windows preserves embodied energy.

"Restoring or preserving is an option being considered more and more in the sustainable design and construction worlds,” Barry says. “If you are going after a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certificate, you’ll get points for working with an existing building. By not tearing a building down, you work with the energy that is within the building.”

This thinking applies to the windows and doors as well as buildings, continues Barry. It is possible to save the energy embodied in a building’s doors and windows while still improving performance — by tightening old windows so they leak less and by introducing storm windows to an existing design.

Improving the performance of windows and doors by tightening up their connection to the rest of the structure can be done without affecting the look of the building. On the other hand, the addition of storm windows will affect the way a building looks, making it important to think about where new storm windows should go: inside our outside the existing windows.

The answer depends on the building. “If you apply storm windows outside, you alter the exterior character of the building,” Barry says. “If you put them inside, you alter the interior. One or another of these may be unimportant.

“I think that a building can be viewed and appreciated from so many directions from the outside that the texture of an original window is more important to the outside than to the inside.”

Custom Copies

Sometimes, there is simply no way to save the existing windows. An expansion, for instance, has no original materials. Or perhaps the originals have deteriorated too much to save. What then?

The new cathedral windows in the Duke Divinity School may look like originals or restored originals. In fact, they are custom copies of the original windows made by Moduline Window Systems of Wausau, Wis. Not every manufacturer will customize windows — or doors — for historic renovations. Often, architects will be forced to adapt the building to use available standard windows. “We are willing to produce custom shapes,” says Eldon Pagel, vice president of architectural sales with Moduline. “The Duke Divinity School has a lot of special custom shapes. They were very expensive to reproduce, but we will do that kind of work.”

A number of other manufacturers will also do that kind of work. So will some architects and some contractors. At the end of the day, it may not be necessary to tear out the doors and windows you want to preserve.