Window Restoration

If you spend a few minutes observing the advertisements in any of today’s media forums, you’ll surely witness the touting of a product being new and better. But is new always better? When it comes to aging windows, new replacements don’t always equal a better option. Decision makers must realize that oftentimes, repairing or restoring existing windows, rather than replacing with new models, offers the best alternative.

Benefits of Restoration
A decision to restore windows brings many benefits to the owner as well as to the community. But many times, decision makers assume replacing the existing windows is the most economic route without considering the benefits of restoring the structure’s windows. Considering the following factors can help decision makers determine if restoration is the best alternative.

  1. Historic Value — If the building holds historic significance in the community, then restoring windows and other components may be the best way to proceed. Owners seek to preserve historic properties for numerous reasons. First, restoring buildings in historic districts has a unifying effect on the community. It shows a committed interest in preserving aspects of a community so that elements remain the same to older generations as to the younger ones. In the end, the property becomes a physical record of its time, place, and use in the community’s history. What’s more, restoring windows to preserve the historic elements of the community may bring considerable tax benefits to the owner. To determine if a property is eligible for such tax credits, decision makers should consult the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation or their state or local department of historic resources.
  2. Sustainability — A heightened focus on sustainability in recent years has raised awareness of the importance of minimizing the environmental impact of manufacturing processes. Restoring windows rather than replacing them is an environmentally conscious decision. Restoration requires the use of local labor, and general waste is eliminated. On the other hand, manufacturing new windows involves energy and pollution impacts that aren’t realized when restoring.
  3. Cost — The direct dollar-for-dollar cost of replacing versus repairing is often equal, if not more expensive. However, adding the cost another way shows a different figure. When you add the costs of removing the existing windows and taking them to a landfill, as well as the costs to society in terms of waste disposal and carbon dioxide emissions as the old windows deteriorate, it becomes significantly more attractive to restore the existing windows.

Dispelling the Myths
Many times, the decision to replace existing windows with new windows is made because decision makers hold misconceptions regarding window restoration. One of the foremost myths is the cost measurement issue mentioned above. Typically, decisions are made to replace windows based on an immediate net-dollar basis and not either the life-cycle cost or the total cost to society.

Next, people often make decisions to replace windows because they don’t realize that improved products for restoration benefit the process and its costs. For example, Sherwin Williams recently has introduced a lifetime self-priming coating that eliminates one application of paint. This product affects the overall cost of restoration in terms of reduced immediate cost, as well as reduced life-cycle cost. Other new products include updated weather stripping components that significantly improve the overall performance of existing windows. Recent improvements in storm windows, window treatments, and energy analysis calculation programs provide support for doors and windows that dramatically improve historic windows’ energy efficiencies. As a whole, these improvements offer significantly enhanced performance options for existing windows.

What’s more, many decision makers fail to match the true quality of windows when making replacements. There’s a big difference between the life of an expensive window and the life of less expensive model. To match the quality of the existing windows in today’s market environment is dramatically more costly than many people would imagine. In many cases where windows are replaced, the owners throw away an existing, expensive window for a much cheaper replacement in terms of today’s market value. In addition, they might throw away a piece of wood that has significant architectural detailing and replace it with a cheaper, synthetic version that doesn’t offer the same visual appeal or durability. Decision makers often don’t take into account the quality of the existing materials because there’s so much pressure on immediate price.

Finally, a misconception exists that new windows don’t require maintenance. However, everything — whether new or historic — requires maintenance. Many of the new plastics, vinyls, and composites used in new windows do not stand up to the environment as well or as long as the wood and metal of old. Many new windows begin to deteriorate as quickly as a few years after they are installed. Parts can be unavailable or costly to replace. Appearance, operation, and efficiency of the new windows can suffer dramatically as a result. Additionally, repairs that could be normal for an historic window (new glass, fresh paint, and new weather stripping) simply cannot be performed for a new window. Thus a window replacement begins a life cycle of window replacement over and over, which, over the years, makes a dramatic difference in the life-cycle cost of the building.

The Repair Process
Once a decision has been made to restore existing windows, the repair and restoration process usually begins with observing deficiencies in the window and trim area. Numerous situations might lead to the repair or restoration of historic windows and trim. For example, the original paint may have failed as a function of the structure’s age. A second reason for repairing or restoring windows is that the entire building is being restored, and the window and trim is being restored as a function of the overall building repair. Or perhaps the developer or owner intends to restore the windows and trim in order to resell the building. A third issue that might bring about window repair is a mechanical issue in that the windows are not operating as they were intended. Finally, windows and trim may be repaired in order to increase energy efficiency.

Whatever the situation that leads to a need for repair, the solutions for repairing and restoring historic trim and windows begin with the least invasive method possible. In a typical project, existing coatings and sealants are removed or prepared and new sealants are applied. Commonly, extensive repairs are performed in areas where existing components have failed, and replacements in kind are installed. Broken glass and broken components are replaced, and in many cases new weather stripping and interior or exterior storm windows are installed, so the finished product performs at least comparably to new windows and often even better than new windows.

The general process for a trim and window repair project involves several steps. First, the repair team determines if the existing window should be removed, repaired offsite, and reinstalled, or if it should be refurbished onsite. Whether the window is removed depends on three basic factors: the amount of repairs needed; the extent of those repairs; and the difficulty of removing the component. Keep in mind there is no circumstance where a repair team would destroy in order to save. Often, it is less costly to remove and restore windows offsite due to the difficulty of performing work onsite, accessing the windows, or the ability to provide adequate quality control in that location. When windows are repaired offsite, a temporary window may be installed as necessary.

Case Study: John Handley High School
Located in Winchester, VA, John Handley High School originally opened to students on Sept. 10, 1923. Today, the high school continues to serve students in an area facing substantial growth in its school-age population. To meet this growing demand, the Winchester Public School Board embarked on a mission in the fall of 2006 to expand the available space for its school-age children. As part of this plan, the county sought to double the size of the historic John Handley High school in the town’s central downtown area.

Design plans called for a new addition to the back of the school, linked by a skywalk to the original building, which would be restored. The Winchester Public School Board committed to restoration of the existing high school because of its historic significance within the community. As such, the school would retain its architectural integrity and maintain its place in the community’s history.

Because the high school was in service during the restoration construction, the owner had concerns about security and safety issues for students and faculty. Other items of concern for the owner included the budget, completion of the work on time, and the efficiency with which the work would be performed. And because of the school’s valued position within the community, the owner desired a high-quality restoration to preserve the building’s overall appearance.

With significant experience in this type of work, Baltimore-based Structural Preservation Systems (SPS) was brought onto the team to restore the windows, doors, and exterior trim of the existing building. The project’s scope of work included scraping, sanding, restoring, and repainting the existing window frames. The existing perimeter seals were removed and installed with new sealants. On the window sashes, old paint and putty was removed, the historic glass was retained, and all windows were repainted inside and outside.

On the exterior, columns were sanded, restored, prepared, and repainted. The windows contained detailed woodwork, and any failed moldings were replaced in kind. The historic balustrade, which had deteriorated and fallen, was recreated, painted, and reinstalled using wood of original species. The historic cupola was repaired, restored to original condition, cleaned, and painted.

As work progressed, the team used its expert knowledge of techniques and products to address the owner’s concerns and accomplish the restoration work. A high-volume, low-pressure paint spray system dramatically improved quality, productivity, and efficiency in the final paint application. Interior storm windows were used at all the original window locations in order to exceed the energy performance of the new windows in the building’s new addition. Finally, parts of the school’s historic woodwork had been damaged or removed over the years. Therefore, the restoration team replicated the missing parts so the building would maintain its historic appearance. The team preserved all of the building’s original woodwork. Some of the entrances and exits of the original building were altered because of updated fire codes or entrance and egress requirements. For the new addition, SPS recreated the wood elements of the various entrances and exits so the new addition would maintain the architectural integrity of the original.

The John Handley High School project, completed in November of 2007, demonstrates that historic building components can be renovated to function better and last longer than new components. From a technical standpoint, the durability and performance of the renovated school is equal to or superior to the new addition. What’s more, the renovated building has a striking appearance and serves as a major improvement and contribution to the quality of the community.

Hugh Veal works with Structural Preservation Systems, a division of Structural Group, a specialty contractor focusing on structural repair, masonry, wood and concrete restoration, strengthening, and protection services for both historic and contemporary structures.