In the depths of a New York winter, few things are as uncomfortable and uneconomical as drafty, rattling windows. Icy wind howling around your building is one thing–you can always appreciate the austere beauty of the drifting snow from a cozy perch on a window seat or armchair–but icy wind howling around inside your apartment is another matter entirely. Aside from the heartbreak of chilly feet and goosebumps, rickety windows can drive your heating costs through the roof. After all, it’s costly enough to heat the inside of the building without paying to heat the courtyard and sidewalk as well.
Heat loss through deteriorating windows is of particular concern if you are fortunate enough to live in one of New York’s stately, pre-war buildings. The charm of hardwood floors and crown moldings is sometimes offset by the maintenance problems afflicting older buildings. Old wood-and-glass casement and double-hung windows are beautiful, and can actually be more fuel-efficient than newer, metal-frame models when properly maintained, but keeping them in working order is a full-time job. Occasionally, even the best-built windows succumb to the City’s harsh environment and must be overhauled or replaced entirely.
Repair or Replace?
Drafty windows mean energy wasted and money burned–so how does a board determine whether their building’s windows need to be completely replaced, or just refurbished? Most window contractors offer consultations to determine just that. Mickey Ross, owner and president of Mount Vernon-based Ross Windows offers prospective customers an initial consultation to assess their needs and requirements. "We go in, survey the building, and size up what’s necessary. We then recommend various different products and materials that will increase both the building’s appearance and fuel efficiency."
Michael Fishman, president of Historic Window Resources in Plainview, New York recommends an initial consultation, followed by an extensive survey of the property in question. "We examine every window in the building," says Fishman. "We assess its size, its type, and what’s wrong with it. Surveying each individual window gives us the opportunity for an accurate assessment."
When a building’s window problems are limited to minor maintenance issues like moldering caulk or weather-stripping, the solution is relatively simple, though somewhat labor-intensive. In smaller buildings, it may even be possible for the building caretaker or superintendent to make minor repairs to avoid the expense of bringing in professionals. In a 1981 bulletin on historic window refurbishment, the Historical Preservation Services (HPS) division of the National Parks Service encourages cost-conscious boards to remember, "On larger projects, [professional repair] presents the opportunity for time and money (which might otherwise be spent on the removal and replacement of existing windows) to be spent on repairs, subsequently saving all or part of the material cost of new window units."
Basically, it all depends on what you’ve got and what shape it’s in. Do-it-yourself repairs might save you money on materials and labor, but done improperly, even a simple project can cost you dearly in damage control down the road. A reputable window consultant-contractor will recommend the most prudent course of action after examining your property. "Any building needs a master plan," says Fishman. "You need to determine the building’s needs, understand its history, and come up with an intelligent, economical plan. What you don’t want is a patchwork approach. "
When Repairing is Enough
If heat is running out of your building like water from a sieve, the culprit may be eroded weather stripping and seals on your windowpanes. When the window cases and frames themselves are in good condition, a contractor can take some routine measures to reseal your windows against the cold and restore their sashes, panes, and frames to "like-new" condition. Says John Colon, president and owner of Dr. Window, a window repair and replacement company in Brooklyn, "Our main thing is to repair windows to an operable manner. Sometimes that means adding on weather-stripping, sometimes it involves repairing the window frame itself."
In addition to repairing damage and deterioration, some window contractors suggest adding a protective, insulating film to your panes to mitigate UV rays and aid in climate control. Ross Windows works with special glazes and films to cut down on glare, UV exposure, and heating-and-cooling costs. According to Ross, "We can install double-glass panes with what’s called "low-E", or low-emission film. The low-emission film isn’t like what you put on car windows so you can’t see in–it’s put in the glass while it’s still wet and doesn’t affect the appearance of the glass. It increases efficiency of the unit by reflecting sunlight in the summer and absorbing it in the winter."
In some cases, windows can be made more fuel-efficient by adding exterior or interior storm windows. Usually, these can be installed without any major alteration of the window frame or sill. The HPS advocates storm windows because, "they are thermally efficient, cost-effective, reversible, and allow the retention of original windows."
Even if your building’s windows are badly damaged or severely decayed, it may not be necessary to replace them all. A skilled contractor may be able to fill in cracked or water-damaged wood with an epoxy compound and then build up the surface for repainting and resealing. Fishman puts it plainly; "If these landmarked buildings had been maintained from the start, they wouldn’t need replacement, but that’s not often the case. We can replace expendable parts with historic reproductions of the originals to give the building a point from which to go forward while maintaining its value. This isn’t a Band-Aid approach–we work as architectural historians to bring the building back to its original appearance."
Such painstaking repairs take time, however, and sometimes even the most resourceful repair company may have no choice but to recommend complete window replacement.
When the Situation is Critical
In historic buildings, the main concern when considering a major window project is, of course, maintaining the architectural and historic integrity of the structure without compromising on energy conservation or heating costs. When your building’s windows are so far gone that they can’t be stabilized or refurbished, little remains but to begin the long (and expensive) task of obtaining the proper authorization to replace them and making sure your contractor of choice is up to the task. Says Ross, "More and more, historic or landmarked buildings are requiring the use of wood-frame windows versus aluminum. We can use an aluminum frame that matches the configuration of the old framing, or reproduce the original framing in new wood, which is expensive, in comparison to the aluminum. Unless you physically touch an aluminum window component, you won’t know the difference."
Though many contractors advocate replacing entire widows–sash, frame, pane, and all–others prefer to salvage as many of the original components as possible, using replicas or close matches only when absolutely necessary. The level of skill and the amount of time involved in restoring/replacing entire windows makes this a costly proposition, but the up-side of committing your building’s funds to this type of project is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you’re saving thousands of dollars in heating costs in the long run while preserving the architectural traits that make the building special to begin with.
Most contractors agree that the decision to replace your building’s windows should begin with a careful examination of the windows you already have. There are several important factors to take into consideration before you even begin to shop around for replacements, including the pattern, size, and proportions of the windows relative to the entire building façade. Even if the main objective is to cut heating or cooling costs, your building is still your home, and it’s important to take aesthetics into account along with practicality and financial limitations. The HPS is crystal-clear on this point: "Energy conservation is no excuse for the wholesale destruction of historic windows which can be made thermally efficient by historically and aesthetically acceptable means. In fact, an historic wooden window with a high-quality storm window added should thermally outperform a new double-glazed metal window."
What is "historically and aesthetically acceptable" is all well and good, of course, and your board of directors may be very sensitive to the visual impact a major window replacement project will have on your building, but the issues of cost and completion time can often take precedence over all others. Window replacement is no small undertaking; you can expect to dig deep into your building’s coffers to fund the project and to have your chosen contractor’s work crews entering the building for several weeks before all is said and done. According to Colon, a 120-unit building with four or five windows per unit to replace will take about six weeks to complete at a cost of around $1,400 to $1,500 per unit. "That’s for a standard wood rip-out and replacement," he says. "Aluminum is a little cheaper, but with landmarked buildings, material can be a concern."
Time and cost increase geometrically in larger buildings. Says Fishman, "On a big building, the initial consultation takes about a week. The survey takes several weeks, you’ve got a week for shop drawings, then eight to ten for fabrication. Once the installation gets underway, we can do about 50 windows a week." Cost is nothing to be taken lightly, according to Fishman. "If a building spends $500,000 on their windows when they should have spent a million, they’ve wasted their money."
The Long-Term Benefits
Whether your board opts to refurbish your building’s windows or replace them outright, you can expect to pay a lot less in heating costs and spend a lot less time cursing your cold feet and drafty living spaces once the project is finished. Though the initial cash outlay for window work can seem daunting at first, it’s important to remember what your windows do for your building. More than just plates of glass and pieces of wood, they let in all-important light and air and serve as vantage points on the outside world. With the proper care and maintenance, they can also save your building money and keep the winter cold at a comfortable distance.
Leave a Comment