(Or, Fix Your Darn Windows)
I happily patronize hip coffee shops and cafes in the Midwest, if only because the hipsters therein retain the virtue of their Midwesterness. Most every small city or urban neighborhood has something of this sort, with the requisite chalk boards, fair-trade blends, gluten-free muffins, and tattooed servers. And, near the door, there are most always neat stacks of hip, indie newsletters and magazines. If you’d like to know what constitutes hip and indie, this is the literature to pick up.
Green is hip, by the way, and so is sustainability. But even the oil companies know that by now.
One front-page article was lauding the construction of new, green, and sustainable townhouses in a nearby neighborhood. It was brilliant stuff – by utilizing high-efficiency double-pane windows, solar panels, specialty-treated this and recycled plastic that, a well-meaning non-profit had constructed extremely energy efficient dwellings for affordable housing.
Unless you count the manufacturing costs of the materials.
And the replacement costs when the specialty-treated this and recycled plastic that start warping and chipping in ten years, and the high-efficiency windows stop being so high-efficiency in fifteen.
And when those costs – in terms of money, materials, and labor – are only spread over a quarter century, I fail to see the sustainability. I do see a lot of things being bought and sold.
The great irony is that these new sustainable buildings are often constructed in areas full of empty and abandoned structures which are built with locally-sourced materials, incorporate passive heating and cooling techniques, are aesthetically pleasing, and have spread material and construction costs over the course of a century or more. Ramshackle Victorians and dilapidated bungalows may not be new or even high-efficiency, but they are still a damn sight greener than any homes being built today.
“Ah!” but people say, “ the older homes are costly. Maintenance, and all that. New homes are almost maintenance free!”
I can only reply that in college I regarded my dishes as maintenance free, until the gradual buildup of pizza and Ramen caused their replacement. Any new “maintenance-free” system or product purchased is one that cannot (or will not) be repaired as necessary, and will have to be replaced in its entirety.
I will take windows as an example, since I have been restoring the old ones this summer and cursing the new ones far longer. I should say that, in some ways and on some occasions, new windows in an old home are just fine. If you can afford the thousand-a-pop Marvin (www.marvin.com), then by all means, put them in. But for most who own an old home, the question is usually whether to install new (and ostensibly inexpensive) vinyl or aluminum windows to replace the old wooden panes. “It’s drafty,” they say. “The windows let the cold in. . .”
Well, first, insulate the attic. In winter, people put on wool hats before they patch the holes in their pants. But I digress.
New windows are one-piece installations. No one repairs them if the aluminum begins to corrode, the caulking and sealant shrinks, and the springs wear and break. Get a new window. Again. This will happen – in ten or twenty years, the new “lifetime” windows will wear out. In the meantime, the hundred-year-old wooden windows, which withstood twisters and hurricane remnants and baseballs from the time when kids played in the street, have been junked.
Those old windows can (and ought to be) repaired. They aren’t one piece. If the bottom sill is rotten, then a carpenter can make a new bottom sill. If one pane is broken, it can be replaced. The paint can be stripped, the window re-glazed, and if a storm window is added, then the insulation value is nearly that of modern windows, for a fraction of the cost. The windows are spared, a carpenter is employed, and Big Box Hardware loses a sale (though I do feel for the good people of Pella, Iowa).
It’s what we call “having good bones” in a building. What is there is tough, and if it is broken, it can probably be fixed. The difficult part is finding someone who knows what they are doing, and is willing to do the work. Elbow grease is green.
My goal here is not to disparage hip coffee shops, new houses, or window salesmen. And most things “green” or “sustainable” are inoffensive, if not downright worthwhile. But I do feel that a very important point is continually being missed. Many are eager to “progress” toward goals such as green building or sustainability – or at least to buy their way there (http://www.bsu.edu/news/article/0,1370,7273-850-65365,00.html). We built brand new multi-million dollar structures with tons of glass and steel and concrete, and assume that topping it with some grass (a green roof!) will even everything out. We will build eco-townhouses surrounded by the ignored brick and wood from the 19th century.
People were building sustainably long before sustainability was a concern, and they built well. Rather than throwing ourselves headlong into building new green structures, we should step back, take stock, and put more effort in to cultivating what already stands.
The sanding and stripping an old double-hung may not be as glamorous (or expensive) as installing solar shingles. But I know which one will still be functioning in another hundred years.
Seth Elder is a graduate student in Historic Preservation at Ball State University.