Making Changes Judiciously

Owners of older homes can take advantage of the Home Renovation Tax Credit to improve their homes, but they should be careful about initiating upgrades that might destroy the visual appeal of their property.

Lowering energy consumption by improving a home’s thermal efficiency is a priority high on every homeowner’s to-do list these days. But not all typical renovation upgrades are sympathetic to the style of older homes. In the rush toward optimum energy efficiency, many owners of older homes are replacing their wood windows with inexpensive thermal vinyl windows. While there is no doubt double-pane thermal units perform better than single-pane windows, heritage buffs are sounding the alarm, stressing that the change can alter or destroy the character of the home.

Energy upgrades such as added insulation and the purchase of Energy Star furnaces and appliances do no harm to the character of older buildings.  But heritage experts say there is no need to replace period wood windows with modern vinyl windows to achieve thermal efficiency.  They point out wood is a natural insulator and is made from a renewable source.
“It’s more than just esthetics to having wood windows,” says Pam Madoff, a Victoria city councillor and a member of the board for Heritage B.C.  “Wood windows can be repaired and have a long life. In my mind, the long-term benefits of using wood certainly outweigh using a product that has built-in obsolesence.”

While some critics might argue older wood-frame windows lack the high-tech sophistication of modern windows, Madoff points out her 116-year-old heritage house is warm and cozy nevertheless.  “You can’t beat it for safety and simplicity.”

The visual differences between wood and vinyl are usually apparent, even to a casual observer. Vintage windows have a distinct depth and thickness of the frames and sills. There is also the visual weight of the sash that is absent in a modern vinyl window. While some vinyl windows can be coloured by the manufacturer to soften the stark whiteness of the material, they cannot be painted to co-ordinate with a house’s colour scheme.

Wood window proponents say the old standby – the storm window – is all a homeowner really needs, and at a fraction of the cost of new window replacement. “With a wood storm window on a single-pane window, homeowners can get the same thermal efficiency as a double-paned vinyl window,” says Keri Briggs, general manager of  Vintage Woodworks.  “Storm windows are non-invasive and do not detract from the character of the house.  Wood windows have a longer life, with some examples over 100 years old.  A vinyl window usually needs to be replaced every 25 years or so.” Outside storm windows usually cost between $200 and $300 per window and, with regular maintenance, can last the life of the home.

Another reason to retain wood windows has to do with the quality of air in a home. Older houses have a natural passive fresh-air exchange that allows the building to “breathe.”  In contrast, newer homes are designed to be tightly sealed, with fresh air drawn in and exhausted mechanically.  Homeowners who install new windows in older homes sometimes report condensation problems because moisture cannot escape as easily. “The original windows and doors are what give an older house its charm and appeal,” says Rick Goodacre, executive director of Heritage BC. “Tearing out a house’s original wood windows is like throwing away the house’s curb appeal”.

Reprinted with permission





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