Window woes

August 11, 2009

So we’ve finally decided to bite the bullet and replace some windows. We’ve been holding off on this in part because we had so many other big (and expensive!) projects hanging over us and in part because the first bid we got was pretty daunting, but now that the last of the costly “necessary” projects is done, it seems like a smart time to do the windows while there’s still a 30 percent tax credit available.

We’re lucky in that our wood windows are all original, a pretty unusual feature around here, where a lot of bungalows were “updated” in the 1960s with aluminum windows or more recently with vinyl. Because of that, we’re not touching most of them—the windows that are in decent shape (which, fortunately, is the vast majority of them) are just going to get rehabbed and weatherproofed in the hopefully not-too-distant future when I actually learn how to do this. (For now, I’m cozying up with Working Windows, a really good how-to book on repairing wooden windows.)

That still leaves three problem windows, though. The double-hung windows in our bedroom and bathroom all face southeast and consequently seem to get the weather in its extremes—sun in the summer, rain in the winter. As a result, the windows and the jambs are all warped and have a great deal of dry rot, so rehabbing these windows is a gigantic project. In the meantime, they let in drafts and rain in the winter months. Add to this that the bedroom windows are the only windows in the house where we have noise problems (they’re a short distance from the building next door with only the garage in between, so there are no trees to buffer the noise) so they seem like great candidates for replacement with double-paned windows that will block the noise and fix the rot.

Getting the bid
So we started down the estimate path. I’m getting pretty good at this now that we’ve undertaken several major projects with contractors, and we’d already decided to try to stick to Oakland-based businesses if we could. Luckily, there are two very well-regarded window places just a mile from our house, so that was a good place to start.

Window Place #1 came out and gave us a very thorough estimate after requesting a series of photographs of the windows from all angles. Their plan was to completely rebuild the windows so that they would be indistinguishable from the originals, but would have the benefits of modern windows. This sounded great, but was unfortunately way beyond our budget. If I had a lot of money to spend, though, I wouldn’t hesitate to use them—they seemed very competent and very invested in the historic preservation of the house. Since these windows happen to be the only ones in the house that are visible to exactly no one but us and our next-door neighbors, though, I was comfortable with not having a 100 percent match. (Plus, I’m planning to put the old windows in the basement in case some future owner comes along and wants to rehab them for real, so I don’t feel too bad.)

Enter Window Place #2, which gave us  a much more reasonable estimate to rebuild the sashes from Doug fir so that they match the style of the original windows, although they won’t be exactly identical. They make the windows locally in their Oakland shop, so we really liked the sound of that. They would replace just the inner workings of our windows, leaving the moulding intact inside and out—another key concern. Best of all, while their windows aren’t cheap, they’re definitely in the realm of possibility budget-wise.

Too good to be true?
Sounds great, right? Except for one thing: because their windows aren’t officially rated for energy efficiency by NFRC, they don’t qualify for the tax credit, even though the glass is the same. The only windows they sell that do qualify are clad window inserts (basically, windows inside a frame, which means knocking out the frame that’s there now) from a national company, which wasn’t quite what we were going for. So we’re in the odd position of choosing between more expensive, not-locally-made windows that may end up costing less with the credit, and locally-built windows that we actually like better that aren’t mass-produced and thus don’t qualify. (Apparently there’s a somewhat intensive NFRC certification process that, I guess, isn’t worth the cost for the little guys.)

I find this whole thing puzzling, given that the whole point of the tax credit is to green the country. Seems like windows that are energy efficient and don’t need to be shipped across the country should be worth extra! Not to mention that they create local jobs, and don’t we have a whole separate stimulus package just for that?? Argh.

Borrowing more trouble….
And then there’s the other big bump we hit. Two of the windows are in our bedroom, and the existing double-hung windows don’t meet modern bedroom egress requirements (ironic given that I climb in and out of them regularly to water the plants on the garage roof!) To do the project with permits, we need to put in casement windows or a bay window, which turns the whole thing into a much more elaborate renovation than we have the desire (or money) to do—and it completely disrupts the architectural integrity of the house. (Even then, we might not meet code, because apparently it specifies that the window needs to open directly onto a street or yard, and ours open onto our garage roof—c’est la vie!) California does have an Historical Building Code which has more flexible requirements for egress (we either just make it or just miss it depending on how you measure), but to qualify we have to be designated a historic structure first. Augh.

The rules around replacing just the window sashes are very vague—basically, the chances that the inspector will allow us to replace the windows as-is are about equal with the chances that they’ll shoot down our project and require us to put in casement windows, and it just depends on which inspector shows up. We don’t really object to casement windows on principle, but it just seems wrong, somehow, to completely ignore the history of the house. (D. is a lot less picky about this than I am, and just doesn’t want the cost of the window project to spiral out of control.) Not to mention that there are two exits from our bedroom, one of which leads into the sleeping porch where there are not one, not two, but THREE huge casement windows that are easily climb-out-able if there ever were an emergency.

Again, this whole thing is just puzzling, given that ostensibly everyone involved (the City, the state, the feds) wants us to be making our house more energy efficient. And theoretically the City even wants us to be preserving the historic features of our house, according to the General Plan. *sigh* Gotta love bureaucracy.

What would you do?
So I’m a little torn on all of this. We can pick the local window guys and just pass up the tax credit. (This might be okay if we end up taking on another project that would qualify, which is a possibility—but by the end of 2010? Hard to say.) Or we can get the windows we don’t especially want because they’ll be cheaper at the end of the day.

Or we can decide not to bother with this project at all and just add the money to the kitchen fund instead, which I have to admit is looking more and more tempting….



  1. When I replaced the double hungs in our bedrooms a number of years back, I went with the Marvin Tilt Pack inserts. That’s because the windows were in terrible shape, but the sills, etc. were still in good shape. They’re single light top and bottom, so they’re as close as can be to matching the originals. If you have to match something with a number of divides, it gets harder to match exactly. In any event, the job was easy enough that I could do it myself in a day. No permits were needed.

    Having proper-fitting and dual-pane windows made a big difference in the comfort level of the rooms, as well as the noise level from outside stuff (not that our neighborhood is particularly noisy; when I first moved here from Berkeley I had a hard time sleeping because it was so much quieter.) I recommend doing one of the replacement options. As for which, I’d say whatever is most energy efficient balanced with cost.

  2. I strongly suggest (if you haven’t already done this) calling Betty Marvin in the Cultural Heritage Survey of the Oakland planning department and asking her advice. I’d also suggest planner JoAnn Pavlinec, but she may be away from the office at present. These two people have loads of background in historic rehab and might have some suggestions on how to work with the city’s rules. They know this stuff really well. Good luck! If you hit a snag, let me know as I might have a couple more names for you if needed.

  3. Working Windows is a great book for anyone planning on rehabbing their old windows. Which is pretty much where I went with mine, except for the LR window which had dry rot in the sash and I ended up replacing the sash through Window Place #2. Not a perfect contour match but I don’t think that anybody except a building historian will notice.

    On the other hand, we still have noise and air infiltration through the gaps in the double hungs, and noise and heat through the single pane windows. You can get expensive multi-light double pane windows, but they still don’t really look like the original – I did this when we remodeled the kitchen.

    And permits for a window replacement?

    Me, I like the historical accuracy, but it really comes down to what is important to you, appearance of function. A good job of weatherstripping goes a long way for improving energy efficiency. And you have to understand that while the windows are the biggest heat sink, an old house has a lot of other places air is lost.

  4. Thanks all. Gene, it’s funny because I actually went to check out the Marvin windows at lunch today. (I work down the street from a showroom.) Sadly the Tilt Pac inserts don’t qualify for the rebate either, and aren’t too much cheaper than the custom-built ones once you factor in removing all the dry rot in the sill, so I’m still leaning that direction since we only have a few windows to do. But it was good to get a sense of what else is out there!

    Naomi, thanks for the contacts—I actually had been meaning to give Betty Marvin a call to see if she could clarify whether our house is grandfathered in at all if we don’t touch the moulding itself. (Apparently some cities allow this—e.g., Livermore, where the official rule is “get as close as you can” if the house is old.)

    I also discovered a major issue with the casements that hadn’t even occurred to me after I visited the showroom—there’s direct access to our bedroom windows from our garage roof, which is accessible from sheds in several adjacent yards, so we keep those windows pretty secure. The casements can’t be left open at all without being vulnerable to being pried open, whereas there are a number of locks and such (including ye old nail!) that allow the top sash of double-hung windows to remain open without being especially risky. That’s a pretty big concern.

    (Oh, and Robert, Working Windows has been my bible thus far—it’s actually the book that’s linked early in the post. I’ll add the name in the text, though, since it really is a great little book!)

  5. don’t know what you decided on, but if you rebuild your existing windows and are more interested in sound control than energy savings, replacing the single pane regular glass with single pane laminated glass plus weatherproofing can give a big improvement. has the additional advantage of greatly increasing your security. will greatly increase the window weight, so you’ll have to switch to heavier sash weights.

    -len raphael

  6. for not so minor dry rot, Smiths Expoxy sealer and their filler works really well. don’t ask about the voc’s. avail in gallon sizes at Ace Ellis on MLK.

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