As our society becomes more focused on energy conservation and green building techniques, the preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings will continue to play an important role. Why? Because reusing existing buildings, materials and infrastructure is more environmentally friendly and often more economical than new construction. The practice of tearing down the old in favor of the new not only ignores the energy and labor originally expended to manufacture materials and construct buildings, it also creates an enormous amount of demolition and construction debris that ends up in our landfills. Conserving useful materials is a more positive approach that reduces the amount of new products that need to be manufactured and ultimately minimizes waste. Think of it as recycling on a very large scale.
Conservation is a fundamental tenet of historic preservation and is evident throughout all aspects of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home rehabilitation project. During the initial planning sessions for the project, the staff here at Historic Columbia Foundation made a conscious decision to place a high priority on the conservation of historic materials. We wanted the building to be a physical record of the time period in which it was built and reflect the details and craftsmanship of a bygone era.
One of the easiest ways to implement this philosophy was to retain and repair the building’s historic wood windows. Many rehabilitation projects across the country have unfortunately traded their historic wood windows for vinyl replacement units for the sake of energy conservation; however, we were confident that restoring our windows would help preserve the architectural integrity of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home while also being a more sustainable and energy efficient solution.
Architecturally speaking, buildings reach their full potential through the sum of their individual components. While each component is important, windows are often one of the most significant architectural elements used in building design. They can be used to define styles, time periods, and even techniques used during a building’s construction. Retaining historic wood windows allows a building to be presented as the architect originally intended. Replacing them with generically styled vinyl units undermines the building’s heritage and forever diminishes its architectural integrity.
Before their restoration, the nearly 140-year-old windows in the Woodrow Wilson Family Home were in various states of disrepair. Over the years they had suffered from moisture damage, paint and glazing failure, and had been painted and screwed shut. Even though their aesthetic qualities had been compromised, their vital components were still structurally sound. Too often a neglected window’s unsightly appearance leads the untrained eye to assume that replacement is the only option.
Unlike vinyl replacement windows, historic wood windows can be disassembled to facilitate the repair or replacement of deteriorated components. In addition, broken glass panes can be individually replaced without having to dispose of the entire sash. Although repairing historic wood windows may not always be the quickest and easiest solution, the end result always promotes authenticity and helps preserve a building’s architectural integrity.
Can a historic wood window be as energy efficient as a new vinyl unit? Actually, when combined with an energy efficient storm window, a properly rebuilt and weatherized historic window may even exceed the thermal efficiency of a vinyl replacement unit. Comparing a new vinyl window with a tired, drafty wood window in need of repair is like comparing apples and oranges. Preventing the infiltration of outside air should be the main objective when trying to reduce energy costs. A small amount of money spent on caulk, weather stripping, and extra attic insulation can potentially save more energy than new replacement windows.
In order to maximize the Woodrow Wilson Family Home’s energy efficiency, the newly rebuilt historic wood windows will be enhanced with custom-made interior storm windows. Today’s high quality storm windows not only serve the purpose of preventing unwanted air infiltration, they also feature special coatings that prevent heat loss in cold weather and heat gain in warm weather. Modern interior storm windows are also properly vented, which prevents trapped moisture from damaging historic wood sashes and sills.
Throughout this project we have made every attempt to conserve historic materials, preserve architectural integrity, and improve energy efficiency. Every aspect has been approached with quality and longevity in mind. The windows in the Woodrow Wilson Family Home have survived for almost 140 years largely because of the old growth wood and superior craftsmanship initially used in their construction. Now that they have been visually and functionally restored to their original condition, they are ready to perform flawlessly for another 140 years.