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The Value of Original Window Repair and Retrofit: Studies and Research

The issue of the retention of original windows in preservation, and lately, in sustainability, is of such importance that it merits its own web page. It is commonly asked where the arguments are to defend original windows, and how to respond to calls for window replacement. The perception of preservationists is that there is a large replacement window industry advertising the attractiveness, the “no maintenance”, and the energy efficiency of a new window, but no one to promote the attractiveness and energy efficiency of a properly maintained original window. Occasional maintenance is required of a historic window; they were built to be reasonably maintained by the owner of the building. New windows are “no maintenance” because when they break, they have to be replaced. Maintenance is not possible for a modern window.

Lately, new pressure to replace windows is felt from the “green products” and third party energy certification industries, which emphasize the energy efficiency of new windows and encourage their installation. To their credit, third party certifiers are beginning to acknowledge that repaired windows have equal value to replacement windows in their point rating systems, or are measuring the efficiency of the building envelope as a whole.

Many studies demonstrate the viability of repairing original windows. Some of them are collected here. All of the studies conclude that original window repair and other conservation strategies provide similar energy benefits of a replacement window, with less impact to the environment as an existing resource.

Window Preservation Standards Now Available

The national Window Preservation Standards book catalogs specific methods for the assessment, maintenance, repair, preservation and weatherization of older and historic wooden windows. Many detailed methods, procedures and materials are included, as well as basic strategies for saving older and historic windows.

Window Preservation Standards
The Standards were developed and written by more than 100 window specialists who collaborated from all across the United States and Canada.

Topics include the Window Preservation Standards Collaborative, guiding principles for window preservation work, window part names and definitions, organizing and planning window preservation projects, and how to use the Standards.

Methods include surveying and assessing conditions, glazing, painting, wood repairs, weatherization updates, storm windows and maintenance with many more. Each treatment standard has a brief description of a specific method with appropriate use, a step-by-step procedure that shows what is done and materials are listed. A special section describes how to judge the character of the completed work with easy observations and simple tests to assure the best quality work.

The results of energy performance testing done at the 2011 National Window Preservation Summit are included. It confirms what is already known:  Save the primary sash and frame, add weatherstripping and a storm to make the window meet or exceed current performance standards for air infiltration. All the details are in the book, including which energy upgrade methods worked best.

The Window Preservation Standards book is a non-profit project done in partnership with the Preservation Trades Network, Kentucky Heritage Council and Kentucky Preservation. Ordering information can be found here.


A report just produced by the National Trust for Historic Preservation Green Lab provides cost guidance for homeowners weighing the financial and energy tradeoffs between replacing or repairing older, less efficient windows. This report, "Saving Windows, Saving Money: Evaluating the Energy Performance of Window Retrofit and Replacement", builds on previous research by examining multiple window improvement options, comparing them to replacement windows across multiple climate regions.

PDF of Report: National Trust

Saving Windows, Saving Money’s key findings offer homeowners, contractors, architects and others with compelling evidence of the merits of retrofitting windows as opposed to outright replacement.

Key findings include:

► Retrofit measures can achieve performance results comparable to new replacement windows. This study shows that there are readily available retrofit measures that can achieve energy savings close to new, high performance replacement windows when the performance for each upgrade option is taken into account.

► Almost every retrofit option Offers a better Return on Investment (ROI) than replacement windows. Findings from the cost analysis showed that new, high performance windows are by far the most expensive measure, costing at least double that of common retrofit options when considering materials, installation and general construction commonly required for an existing home. In all climate zones analyzed, cellular shades, interior storm panels and various exterior storm window configurations offer a higher average return on investment compared to new, efficient replacement windows.

►The Bottom Line. Retrofitting windows with high performance enhancements can result in substantial energy savings across a variety of climate zones. Selecting options that retain and retrofit existing windows are the most cost effective way to achieve these energy savings and to lower a home’s carbon footprint. Retrofits extend the life of existing windows, avoid production of new materials, reduce waste and preserve a home’s character.



In the Fall of 2010, the top preservation trades people in North America and Europe met for the International Preservation Trades Workshop in Frankfort, Kentucky. Among the gathered were some of the top window restoration experts in the country. Five of these window experts, Duffy Hoffman, John Leeke, Jim Turner, David Gibney and Bob Yapp met and decided it was time to create national standards for the repair and weatherization of old and historic windows.

Using cutting-edge window testing technology, the Collaborative's tests are verifying "what most people in historic preservation have known for years, old and historic windows can cost effectively be made as or more energy efficient than new, disposable replacement windows." "The Effects of Energy Efficiency Treatments on Historic Windows" is an empirical study recently completed by the Center for Resource Conservation in Boulder Colorado. The study involved retrofitting windows in a test home in a historic district and investigated and then compared the energy efficiency and economy of eleven different preservation treatment options with that of new vinyl windows. Most of the proposed treatments were able to outperform a new vinyl window.

Energy conservation studies conducted for Indiana's Energy Conservation Financial Assistance Program by Dr. William Hill, professor of Urban Planning at Ball State University, found that it would take 400 years to recover the initial cost of replacement windows in fuel savings.
Reducing Your Heating Bills Workshop Slides


"Old Windows Find a Following" by Katie Zezima. New York Times 7/27/2011.

“Windows Aren't Always A Clear Path for Savings: In Quest to Boost Energy-Efficiency, Small Changes Might Have Bigger Payoff” by Terri Rupar. Washington Post 5/16/2009.

Thinking Of New Windows? Save Your Energy” National Public Radio (NPR) 10/11/2009. 

Improving the thermal performance of traditional windows” by Paul Baker for Historic Scotland.

“Replacement Windows and Furnaces in the Heartland: Indiana’s Energy Conservation Financial Assistance Program” by William H. Hill. This is the 1990 study that demonstrates a four hundred year payback using replacement windows.

“Measured Winter Performance of Storm Windows” by J. H. Klems. This Berkeley storm window research focuses on north-facing storm windows using low e glazing. It uses rigorous scientific analysis to conclude that no difference is found in performance between the low-e storm with an original window and a low-e replacement window.

“Building Regulations and Historic Buildings: balancing the needs for energy conservation with those of building conservation” The English Heritage Interim Guidance article touches on all parts of preservation and conservation of power and fuel, and the chapter on windows is very relevant.

“Repair or Replace Windows in Historic Buildings: Arriving at a Sustainable Solution” The Heritage Canada file contains two articles, one from Andrew Powter and Craig Sims discussing how to arrive at a decision to replace or repair original windows, and Susan Turner explains the sustainable nature of window repair rather than replacement.

“Life Cycle Of Window Materials - A Comparative Assessment” by Asif, Davidson and Muneer. A comparative life cycle assessment of the environmental impact of different window materials is included for its interesting materials energy cost analysis.

“Domestic Retrofitting Strategies in the UK: Effectiveness vs. Affordability” is an interesting presentation of the effectiveness of different energy retrofitting strategies, including shutters.

“What Replacement Windows Can’t Replace: The Real Cost of Replacing Historic Windows” Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf provide an excellent discussion of the comparative value of window replacement versus repair. Many aspects of sustainability are considered.

“Testing the energy performance of wood windows in Cold Climates” by Brad James, Andrew Shapiro, Steve Flanders and Dr. David Hemenway is a thoroughly researched paper that concludes that historic windows should not be replaced for energy considerations alone, as retrofitted and replacement windows perform similarly.

Lincoln Hall Windows Research Report: A Case Study of Options for Treatment for Windows at Lincoln Hall, University Of Illinois, Urbana Champaign This report provides empirical data to assess window repair or replacement options for a proposed LEED Gold project, addressing the existing windows in terms of energy consumption.