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Modern Windows Without a Modern Look

Scott Gibson

Like a lot of old houses, ours has single-pane windows that have great proportions but leak heat like sieve. I'd love to upgrade to new windows, but I'm not in love with what new windows would do to the look of our old place. What are the options here?

Restoring your old sashes and adding new storm windows would have many of the energy benefits of installing new windows. That's one option. But in reality, who needs the hassle of putting on the storm windows in fall and removing them in the spring? It wouldn't take too many trips up and down a ladder to turn this into a seriously bad idea. That's why so many people end up with new windows. They're marvels of energy efficiency but they can be an architectural mismatch with an old house.

If you have a little money to spend, consider hiring a local mill shop to make new wood sashes that are correct for the house, and then have the shop install insulated glass instead of single panes. You save energy, and no one will point to your house and say, "Gee, nice house but look at those awful windows."

I called a glass shop in Portland, Maine, near where I live, and asked about the availability of custom insulated glass. I could order basically anything I wanted, including argon-filled, double-pane units with low-e coatings, which is now the industry standard for new windows in cold climates.

Most custom glass is between 3/8 in. and 1/2 inch thick, which a standard window muntin can handle. You can order thicker (and better insulated) glass assemblies as long as the person making the sashes can squeeze them in. Size is another consideration: the smallest available glass panel here is 10 in. square.

The shop typically turns an order around in four days, and the glass is fabricated right in town. Portland is not a very big place, so I'd guess this kind of service is available just about anywhere.

If you're a stickler for detail, you can ask the fabricator to use old, wavy glass (which you would have to supply) instead of standard float glass, which is dead flat. The subtly distorted reflections in old glass would be a perfect match on a very old home.

There is a catch, of course, and that's cost. In my area, a 10-in. by 12-in. insulated glass panel would range in cost from about $25 to $48, depending on how many I purchased. That's on top of the bill you get from the mill shop for making the new sashes, and the one from the carpenter who installs them. Prices would be higher if you wanted non-standard glass, and window frames that need repair would be an added expense.

This is probably why new windows look like such a good idea. Still, good quality new windows are far from cheap, and it's great to know that more customized options are available. You could always consider shop-built insulated windows for the front of the house and less expensive units on the back where they aren't as obvious. Who would know?

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