August 2011 » Forum

Saving Windows

By John Leeke

In my experience over the past half-century it appears the building construction industry has done well by making more and more windows at ever increasing profit margins. When working as a kid in my father's shop during the 1950s and early '60s it seemed like the inevitable march of modern progress. But then in the mid '60s we began to focus on caring for our customers' older and historic homes. It was clear that the greater industry was leaving behind a crying need for taking care of all the existing windows, so our customers were happy to find that our shop had the traditional knowledge and skills to do it.

There have always been a few individual tradespeople and smaller contractors who were willing to do this window maintenance and repair work. Some of us even found good work in a nitch of the market called historic preservation, but during the '70s and '80s we were a rarity. Consumer marketing had bamboozled most of the American people into believing that they could live like the rich and famous by buying disposable products and that their houses were maintenance-free and needed air conditioning. So, little maintenance was done, many windows were painted shut, sealed up and forgotten, to slowly rot and crumble away.

In the early 1980s the big window manufacturers realized the market for dealing with all these deteriorating windows had grown enough that they could cash in with consumer marketing by making disposable windows. It was fabulous for them. Their factories could crank out low-cost packaged units that looked enough like real windows that they would sell at a nice profit margin. Even better, after 10 or 20 years, their products would need replacing; stimulating an accelerating market and the replacement window market was born. Over the past three decades it has grown into the replacement industry. It has not been so fabulous for older and historic buildings and the people who own them.

In the meantime a few of us just kept plugging away, doing that upside-down crazy thing called house restoration. Sure, a part of it was working on the old windows, but we also had to take care of the rest of the building to get big enough projects to support a business and crew.

Then something unexpected happened in the early 1990s. Restoring and saving old buildings slipped into the mainstream. There was a lot more work, and for every old building project there were dozens or hundreds of windows that needed work. We found our market for window restoration was accelerating too and didn't have the labor to satisfy it. The building construction industry was no help. None of their workers knew the first thing about maintaining and repairing windows; all they could do is rip out old windows, throw them in the dumpster and replace them with disposable windows. What could we do?

All of a sudden a new trade began to crop up: the Historic Window Specialist – a person, or a whole crew that did nothing but window work. That was great. They were finding enough work to focus only on windows, developing and refining the special knowledge and skills needed to produce good window work effectively. By the end of the 1990s there were many of them. How many?

In 1997 I started keeping a list of window specialists, so I could recommend them to my fellow contractors, customers and clients. Whenever I heard of one I'd call them to see what their work was like, and if they were saving windows I'd put them on my list. I have now talked with more than 250 window specialist all around the country. This is just a back-burner research project so I estimate that there are actually at least 10 times that many, counting everyone from the handyman in your own neighborhood, to the independent window specialist, to the "small shops" with a handful of workers, to the big window "re-manufacturers" with dozens of workers.

What's more their numbers are accelerating. I'm learning about as many new ones every week as I was learning about each month last year. Out-of-work carpenters are getting training in historic window preservation and finding work with existing specialists or starting their own companies. Ordinary remodeling companies are starting up window restoration divisions. It's amazing. More and more frequently historic window specialists are now bidding against each other to get lucrative contracts. Sometimes smaller shops are banding together to bid on larger window projects.

While many specialists are enjoying the expanding market, I'm now hearing from some that there is a certain amount of window work being done that's not up to snuff. They are redoing work that was done just a few years ago. And I see it too. I'm often called in to projects to solve window problems and train workers to bring up their skill levels. The past few years more and more specialists have been grumbling that something ought to done about it: the public needs to be made aware, the architects need to be told, the preservation trades schools need to pump out more trained workers. But what is actually happening?

Two years ago there was an active discussion at my website about setting standards for this window work. That seed is growing. Late last year a handful of us got together and formed the Window Preservation Standards Collaborative (WPSC).

The WPSC now includes dozens of other window specialists from across the country. By the time you read this we will have just gotten back from our National Window Preservation Summit, where more than 40 advisers and observers have been hammering on a draft of the Standards. Why didn't we let you know about it?

It's the middle of the season and we've been busy working on windows all day, then staying up past midnight getting the WPSC organized and off the ground. But don't worry, there's a place for you. At the WSPC website you can join a cadre of 30 advisers and 100 to 200 stakeholders to help us develop the draft of the standards and even propose standards yourself.

The Preservation Trades Network and the Kentucky Heritage Council are partners in the WPSC project.

Learn more at the WPSC website and join us: http://ptnresource.org/WPSC/

Why Now?
There is an immediate need for standards that include well researched energy data as well as a catalog of proven methods used to repair and restore historic windows. We cannot wait for years or decades for a standard to "evolve" since the replacement window industry is now actively destroying millions of historic and perfectly functional old windows every month. Obviously there is nothing green or environmentally sound about this tragedy.

Urgent Action:
The quicker we put this effort into play, the less time the replacement window industry has to spend their tens of millions in marketing money to discredit this critical and objective effort. The window replacement industry's aggressive marketing has bamboozled homeowners, contractors and property developers into believing window replacement is the only option. Just because they claim their products are superior does not make it true. Act now or lose your historic windows forever.

New Hope:
Over the last 30 years there has been a few window restoration experts, teaching, repairing, restoring and weatherizing historic windows. For years we all struggled to save windows. The scene has changed. From the National Trust for Historic Preservation to statewide preservation groups to State Offices of Historic Preservation to local preservation groups and Historic Preservation Commissions, saving historic windows has risen to the top of the agenda. Help us get the word out.

More and more architects and property developers are interested in specifying the weatherization and repair of historic windows with little information on standards they can use to do so. Many tradespeople and contractors are starting to do this work, but don't always know the best methods and materials. It is our purpose to change this by providing standards for sustainable window restoration and definitive energy testing data for effective weatherization.

The Book:
Later this year the National Window Preservation Standards book will be published and available for purchase. It will catalog specific methods for the assessment, maintenance, repair, preservation and weatherization of older and historic windows. Many detailed methods, procedures and materials will be included, as well as basic strategies for saving older and historic windows.

More Collaboration Underway:
The WPSC Founders are now writing the first draft of the Standards with help from their Advisers. Work on the draft is available for your review at the WPSC website. Advisers and stakeholders can comment on the Standards and contribute to them. The website expedites the participation of a group of 25 to 30 Advisers and 100 to 200 stakeholders. We need help from:

  • Independent trades people who know window work
  • Specifiers
  • Architects
  • Facilities managers
  • Educators and trainers
  • Contractors who will be working to meet these standards
  • Homeowners and building owners
  • Government agencies & other non-profit stakeholders

Please visit the WPSC website and join us. http://ptnresource.org/WPSC/ TB


John Leeke is an historic building specialist from Portland, ME. He works there and around the country helping people care for and maintain their older and historic buildings.

 

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