Thursday, April 14, 2011

About Windows

One thing that may or may not have influenced the Historic Preservation Commission when they made their decision about the Galloway project proposed for Union and First streets was information solicited from Julian Adams, Community Liaison Coordinator for the Certified Local Goverment Program at the State Historic Preservation Office. When asked if SHPO had taken a position on the use of Hardiplank for new construction in historic districts, Adams replied: "We are fine with Hardiplank in new construction, as it is a new material that is visually compatible with wood, and compatibility in material is what we look for in new construction, not necessarily an actual historic material."

Hearing that SHPO considered Hardiplank "visually compatible," Mayor Scalera, who was at the HPC meeting, wanted the Historic Preservation Commission ask Adams about vinyl replacement windows, because he felt that vinyl windows were also "visually compatible." The mayor's comment seemed to imply that the HPC was alone in its opposition to vinyl replacement windows, and only they wanted to deprive Hudsonians of the right to replace historic windows with vinyl replacements and enjoy significant energy savings. 

Many people would not agree with Mayor Scalera that vinyl replacement windows are "visually compatible." Most vinyl windows are white and cannot be painted. They also have faux mullions which bear little resemblance to actual mullions of any architectural period. This picture of the building on Warren Street that was once Proprietor Thomas Jenkins' house puts the lie to the notion that vinyl replacement windows are "visually compatible." 

All of the windows in this building are replacement windows, but the windows at the left are vinyl, while the windows on the right are wood and achieve a remarkable degree of authenticity even though they have simulated divided lights.

Hudson's Historic Preservation Commission is not alone in discouraging the use of vinyl replacement windows in historic buildings. In fact, current best practices in historic preservation discourage not only vinyl replacement windows but all kinds of replacement windows in favor of restoring, repairing, and retaining the original and historic wood windows. The Gossips post "Window Wars" listed some of the advocates for preserving old wood windows: the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation League of New York State, SHPO's Certified Local Government Program, the Northeast Chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology.

In their seminal article about preserving historic wood windows, "What Replacement Windows Can't Replace: The Real Cost of Removing Historic Windows," Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf say: "Once authentic material is lost, it is lost forever. It does not matter how accurate the replacement window, it never reflects the nuances of the original."

The usual reason why people want to replace historic windows with vinyl replacement windows--and the reason Mayor Scalera wants them to be able to--is to save money on heating costs, but it is not clear that this really happens. Sedovic and Gotthelf argue that U-values touted by manufacturers are often misleading, and the payback period--the time it takes to save enough money in energy costs to equal the investment in the windows--is nowhere near what manufacturers' claim. The payback for a typical unit could take as long as a hundred years. On the other hand, Sedovic and Gotthelf state, "the energy efficiency of restored windows incorporating retrofit components (weatherstripping and weatherseals . . .) can meet and even exceed the efficiency of replacement units." 

Longevity is another issue with replacement windows. Manufacturers' warranties on replacement windows are generally no more than ten years. The average wood window in Hudson has survived for more than a hundred years, with, at best, minimum maintenance. Jill Gotthelf once, in a presentation, made the joke that replacement windows were called replacement windows because they had to be replaced every thirty years. (Aside: I once shared that comment with the Historic Preservation Commission and was told by one of its members, in a very professorial voice, as if he were speaking to someone of limited experience and intelligence, that I was wrong. Replacement windows were called that because they replaced the original windows in a building. Who says the HPC doesn't have a sense of humor?)

My favorite Hudson historic preservation story is this one, told by Daniel Hickey almost a decade ago when he accepted a preservation award from Historic Hudson. Hickey explained that when he and his wife bought their house on Union Street they wanted to "fix it up"--replace the windows and put on vinyl siding--but they couldn't afford it. So he decided instead to work with what they had. Over time, as he refined his maintenance skills, he developed a deep respect for the quality of the materials and the construction of the house. As the “newcomers” bought up the houses around it, the Hickeys' house set the standard for the care and keeping of old houses on the block. 


  1. Carole,

    There is a new product on the market that may help to solve the Hardiplank controversey. Its called Marvin Apex Fiberglass Siding. Its supposed to look more natural than hardiplank, be more durable, and be more eco-friendly. The Historic Society may want to look into it.

  2. FYI That product was discontinued due to material failures.