How to Handle Windows in Historic Housing

By: Nicholas Haywood

There’s no denying the charm of historic housing, but it does come with some heavy problems. Residents who choose historic homes must strictly adhere to contemporary living standards and historical authenticity, which are often at odds. In addition, individuals in these homes are often faced with weathered, warped elements that result in terrible insulation. But in the art of remodeling historic homes, few processes represent a sacrilege like replacing something entirely. This goes doubly true for a component that often contributes a great deal of character to the overall look of the home, both inside and out: windows.

Windows of historic homes often become drafty and even inoperable if left to years of neglect. This seems to present a dilemma for historic home owners between settling for poor energy efficiency in indoor climate control or sacrificing authenticity with modern windows – and neither is a feasible trade.

So, what steps should a historic homeowner take in deciding how to appropriately handle damaged windows in their property?

Consider contemporary elements and retrofitting

For ideal energy efficiency, you might consider deviating from original window designs in subtle ways. Older homes are sometimes poorly designed for insulation and sunlight mitigation, and if improvements do not drastically alter a window’s appearance while saving you energy costs, it’s definitely a route to consider.

One of the most efficient retrofits is storm windows, which often perform better on existing windows than brand new windows, which usually take a long length of time before they become cost beneficial. Interior window panels can seal the interior side without compromising the authenticity of the windows outside, making them a wise investment. For preventing sunlight from causing increased temperatures, home window tinting can work wonders − which may lower indoor temperatures by several degrees alone.

Evaluate the cost efficiency of acquiring new windows

The first question you may ask is whether or not replacing windows is cost efficient. Depending on the state of a window, a simple application of caulk and a fresh coat of paint might be adequate. If an older window is still in working condition, there is absolutely no reason to seek new models. Preserving older windows is also a greener decision than replacing them wholesale.

But windows with more severe damage can be a sink on your energy bill and put a heavier load on your air conditioner. If caulk, weather-stripping, or other repairs are insufficient in sealing a window, replacement might be the best solution.

Determine how important windows are to your home’s design

Another question to ask about the windows on your home is how important they are in contributing to the overall feel and authenticity of your home. If your window has previously been replaced within the last few decades (and therefore of less historic value), or are not as defining in your home’s design, it might be easy enough to install common window designs and modify them to accommodate your interior design, with details such as embellishments or a different coat of paint.

If your windows are a significant focus of your home’s design though, and common window designs detract from your authenticity (which they often do), your solution might require a little more research – and there’s more to come on that task.

Determine how to acquire an authentic window for your home

This might be significantly easier if you’re aware of the age and design of your home, since there are design specialists around the world who specialize in different aesthetics. These suppliers often have historically accurate replications readily available that meet the strict historical standards of their respective niches. Old House Web provides a handy starting point with their window supplier directory.

If you’re unable to determine the historical significance of your residence or are unable to locate such a provider on your style of home nearby, determine if it can be replicated by modifying a more contemporary window model. While undoubtedly a less preferable approach, a resourceful DIY mentality is always useful in the world of remodeling.

If neither is conceivable, you may be able to locate a carpenter willing to replicate the window by manually measuring and styling one from scratch. This approach carries high expense and some risk, but it’s an option to fall back on in lieu of better available alternatives.

What are your experiences on dealing with windows in historic homes?

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