Ask Katie: Thoughts on window replacements

Q: Can you weigh in on the much-debated replacement window question in old houses? I need to buy replacement double-hung windows and, although vinyl is seductively cheaper, I am a diehard all-wood fan. Recently I have heard that vinyl-clad windows can be more energy efficient. We are trying to make green choices in our home to reduce our energy consumption. What to do?

Jane from Concord, MA

A: To my mind a great, old house shouldn’t have to bear the indignity of vinyl replacement windows. There are many attractive alternatives that can improve upon existing performance, some of which may cost more in the short term but are well worth it.

The first option to consider is to repair existing sashes and weather stripping, as well as sash cords and metal weights (if any), so that obvious air leaks and functionality are addressed. Alison Hardy owner of The Window Woman of New England may be able to help. Then outfit repaired windows with new storm windows like those from Allied Window, Inc. whose storm units incorporate “narrow sight lines” that only minimally distract from the original windows. These discreet storm units are often preferred by historical commissions over window replacements. This is a somewhat “green” approach since it involves reusing existing material. There are, however, other solutions that may provide better thermal and sound insulation.

Replacement units require existing window frames that are in good condition. The new windows are meant to fit into existing openings so as not to disturb interior or exterior trim. This means that the operable sashes of replacement windows are smaller than the sashes they replace. Check with window company representatives to see how existing pockets for sash cords and weights (if you have them) might effect the installation of replacements. If such pockets are abandoned, you’ll probably want to insulate them.

Pella, Marvin, and Kolbe windows, among others, manufacture wood replacement windows that have aluminum-clad exteriors and Low-E insulating glass. These companies generally offer the exterior cladding in a wide range of colors that couple with a variety of interior wood finishes as well. The aluminum exteriors don’t require the kind of on-going maintenance that wood exteriors do and are generally more attractive than vinyl. I’d recommend visiting window show rooms to see the various options up close and to learn which are Energy Star Certified. Look carefully, from both the exterior and interior, at the sash profile, jamb liners, available muntin configurations, color samples, hardware, and screen options. Open and close them to get a sense of how easily they operate.

For folks in Massachusetts, such as yourself, the new Seventh Edition of the Massachusetts State Building Code (One and Two Family Dwelling Code) may affect your options. It requires that windows in new construction be designed to resist specific wind loads and events. Check with your local building official to see how he or she interprets the new Code relative to replacement windows when renovating. Also inquire about replacement egress window requirements for sleeping areas. (You may need to substitute a casement window for a double–hung window in order to provide adequate egress access.) Then, if necessary, check with the various manufacturers to see what they offer that will conform to the new Code that goes into exclusive effect on January 1, 2008.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

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