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Vintage windows: repair or replace?

Old home enthusiasts rejoice!

Growing evidence supports the idea that those beautiful, vintage windows can prove to be a better value than the latest models of energy efficiency.

If properly maintained, original wood windows can last hundreds of years or longer — and can be as energy efficient as today’s new windows, according to David Wadsworth, a general contractor and president/owner of the Waukon, Iowa-based Wadsworth Construction.

A window preservation advocate, Wadsworth and his crew have restored windows on more than 30 buildings. Now he is sharing that passion with others through workshops that teach participants how to restore vintage windows themselves and why the endeavor goes beyond aesthetic and historical reasons.

“In general I’m preaching to the choir. They knew there was value in what they had, but they didn’t have the numbers to back that up,” Wadsworth says of his workshop attendees. “People are always pleasantly surprised once I start laying out the numbers. Now they have a reason to feel good about the decision they made to keep their windows.”

True, new energy-efficient windows can shave dollars off those energy bills. But not as much as one might think.

“In fact, your new replacement windows will save you so little money on your energy bills that the payback period for this investment may be more than 100 years — far longer than the new windows are likely to last,” according to the trade journal Green Building Advisor.

Maintenance 101

Vintage wood windows, on the other hand, were designed and crafted to be permanent, restorative fixtures in homes.

“The more I get involved with it, the more I have come to appreciate the quality and craftsmanship that went into these old windows,” says Wadsworth, who attended a window restoration class at The Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies in 2010.

“Their simplicity makes them easy to maintain so that anybody willing to invest a little bit of time can basically take their windows apart, repair any part of them, put them back together and be ready to go for another 20 to 30 years.”

Routine maintenance requires only some time, occasional labor and nominal material costs.

Keeping paint on the wood at all times is key. As soon as the paint starts to peel, it’s time to apply a fresh coat to prevent water from seeping into the wood.

“If you ignore them long enough and the paint has been gone long enough, the wood gets weathered and gaps start opening up,” Wadsworth says. “If you can keep paint on everything, it will save you a lot of trouble down the road.”

This job should be done every decade or so, when the window’s ropes also should be replaced. Then, every 20 years, it’s time to re-glaze the windows.

“With most of the window projects we’re working on, nobody has done anything to them for 40 or 50 years,” Wadsworth says. “If they’re regularly maintained, these windows should never have to get the type of work done that we’re doing on them.”

When it comes to these bigger window restoration projects, Wadsworth says the repairs will cost less than an expensive replacement window, but more than a cheap replacement.

But for Wadsworth, his motivation to preserve these windows goes beyond economic reasons. The windows are part of a bigger story, representing the character of buildings from another time.

“My ultimate goal is instilling in people the value of older homes and buildings, and it starts with the windows,” he says. “They’re such a good character-defining feature of the facade. Even on the inside, windows play a big role in how we experience the space.”

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