(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.


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  1. I have LONG had this very same outlook.

    It’s also one of the reasons I think that the forces driving the whole ‘green’ movement (not necessarily the people at the bottom taking action in their own lives) are an enormous, corporate sham.

    “Yes my little eco-conscious consumer! Get rid of that late 90s compact car you’re driving that is paid off, gets 30mpg and is simple enough that you can do at least SOME of the maintenance work yourself! Sink yourself in $35,000+ debt to get a hybrid that gets slightly better mileage, requires maintenance to be done by qualified technicians and GO GREEN!”

  2. I very much appreciate your article.

    But I suspect you’re making an error by trying to pass off the old victorians, bungalows and similar as incorporating passive heating and cooling techniques, or built with sustainable materials, because of desire to sell them to modern and young sensibilities, it’s best to not do so because they simply will not stand up to that type of scrutiny which will do nothing more than diminish what you do have to say. Heating them, is likewise heating the outdoors, and to their advantage they were built with decay resistant old growth lumber and similar.

    What I most appreciate about your article is the simplicity, such as repairing the old double hung wood windows. And the movement away from consumerism where being green means $5,000 built green mountain bikes and slick LEED products.

    But I wouldn’t disparage the “new multi-million dollar structures with tons of glass and steel and concrete” townhouses down the street if for no other reason than their presence increases the desirableness of the local neighborhoods where those old residences exist, in turn bringing in buyers for them.

  3. “But I wouldn’t disparage the “new multi-million dollar structures with tons of glass and steel and concrete””
    – I certainly will.

    I’m not sure where your market is, so it may be totally different. In my local area, however, there is ZERO DEMAND FOR ANY OF THESE STRUCTURES. However, they are getting built all over the place, and having older, nicer structures either torn down to make room for them, or these older buildings are being transformed out of existence.

    So why being built if zero demand? Government. Our local government has given builders guaranteed return on investment and tax breaks to build them. So they are built. I pass three on my walk into work. They are all three empty.

    No one wants to live down town, for many reasons. But these things keep getting built, and standing empty.

    I can understand why the builders do it. THE MONEY IS GUARANTEED and they get tax breaks. You’d be a fool NOT to build them.

    What a waste. But at least the building contractors are happy.

  4. meunke writes : “I’m not sure where your market is, so it may be totally different. . . . No one wants to live down town, for many reasons. ”

    LoDo Denver. Where lots of people want to live downtown. And where the old neighborhoods are doing well because of the inflow. And where I’m currently happen to be at the moment finishing up the construction docs. on a remodel of one of those old brick victorians in the area which is now desirable to fix up and renovate because of LoDo glass, conc. and steel.

    Not that I’m against scraping, having gladly done plenty of it to put in those multi-mil. units revitalizing the the city.

  5. All of the above posts are correct, in certain aspects – many new LEED townhouses, etc., are built entirely by leveraging tax credits, affordable housing grants, and other incentives. And very often, they do spur some revitalization of surrounding areas. Revitalization in any downtown, historic, built-up area is a good thing.

    The problem with this view the “at what cost?” question. Revitalization seems to work best – and to last far longer – when there’s a concerted, bottom-up effort. To be loveable, a building must be loved, or something like that. The schemes constructed around many development projects, on the other hand, can turn out to be giveaways to development corporations, who couldn’t care less what happens to the area in 10 or 20 years. Is that 10 or 20 million in tax breaks, incentives, and grants for a new development, or the greening of a block, the best way to spend that money? Will it spur 40 million in investment? And is that the only principle on which we ought to be acting?

    I think it was Galbraith who said that preservationists are the only people who are invariably confirmed as correct in retrospect. For those who labor to save old buildings, I think this is probably right. For expensive investment projects and condominiums, I’m not so sure.

    As you said, ‘love the girls’, I’m hitting at the green-consumerist partnership. And nothing screams newer and greener is better than an eco-townhouse in an historic neighborhood. It’s a bit like setting up your RV in the wilderness, I think – you sacrifice none of the modern conveniences, while enjoying effort not your own. In the wilderness, you’re taking advantage of nature’s bounty from air-conditioned comfort. In an old neighborhood, you’re enjoying the aesthetics produced by someone else’s sweat. . . on those old windows.

  6. Avoided the “cash for clunkers” myself, because a new car would cost me (and probably the planet, or some planet somewhere) more than keeping the old girl going until she ends up over the side of PCH on a poorly caffeinated summer’s morn. No CFCs destroying the ozone, because there’s no AC. I’m even not adding extra heat to the planet, because the heater is broken. I’m not sure, but I think my radio does absorb some harmful radiation out of the air, but I can’t prove that.

  7. I can’t speak to government incentives since every project I’ve ever done has been privately financed.

    As for revitalization from the bottom up, I’ve never been part of a project hoping to revitalize a neighborhood, but where those who have hired me, along with others willing to speculate on the market, have by their efforts revitalized neighborhoods.

    Perhaps I’ve been fortunate because most of my clients over the years, like myself, were born and raised here, and perhaps there are developers who could not care less what happens to the neighborhoods they build in and are just in it to make a government dollar or two, but I’ve certainly never seen it.

    In two different posts greed and inconsideration have been mentioned, and both posts referenced developers. Why not the land owners who invariably jack up their land prices to the limit? If you’re looking for greed, go there.

  8. Mr Elder
    Traditional Building Magazine has had some great stuff on this over the years, including this piece: http://www.traditional-building.com/Previous-Issues-08/AugustFeature08Green.html
    “Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with lovability. If a building cannot be loved, then it is likely to be demolished and carted off to the landfill in only a generation or two.”
    Good to remember Ruskin’s famous plea: “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.”
    Which raises the matter of our building sustaining not only the earth, but our craft traditions. Both are commodified and so threatened with extinction.

  9. Excellent article, especially good comments about lovability.

    The way I think of it is less romantic: A house is a social animal. It needs to be used and enjoyed, wants to be part of the action. Leaving it alone to “preserve” it is an excellent way to kill it.

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