Friday, February 13, 2009


You know when people talk about all those problems coming from "inside the beltway"?

They are talking about us. We live in an inner suburb of DC in a little house built in 1935. Our home has plaster walls, hardwood floors, beautiful radiators, and a lot of authentic charm. Things feel real here, and lasting.


maybe not lasting.

We're trying to learn how to live in a house with plumbing that resists running the dishwasher on the same day that one runs the washing machine. Unless we are prepared to mop the basement, we are limited to one cycle a day.

We've also spent the last decade listening to wind whistle through the crack in the front door and enjoying the slit of sunlight shine through that crack and reflect on the gleaming pine floor.

Our house was built before air conditioning and we have chosen to keep it that way. To keep cool, we run fans and keep the air moving through our house by opening our windows. These ancient windows were constructed with lead weights counterbalancing the weight of the sash. By pulling a cord over a pulley at the top of the casement, windows such as these could be raised and lowered.

However, as is very common in old houses, our sash cords wore out and the weights dropped to the bottom of their wells. At that point, the windows stopped working properly and could no longer be held open normally. Each summer for years, we risked amputating our fingers by unlatching our window hardware and trying to get out of the way as both the original window frames and the storms guillotined downward. We then propped them up with sticks, toys, or shoe boxes to let the air come in.

Then, it would begin to rain. We'd frantically try to close the windows (which required re-latching the windows in order to prevent the top frames from falling) without more than a few bloody fingertips.

This process was not safe. But these old and inefficient windows had another problem: when we turned on our heat, we were heating up not just our home but the entire neighborhood. In fact, I sometimes wondered if my family and our inefficient house might have been the real cause of global warming...

Although I am usually a firm believer in repairing rather than replacing the material things in our life, we eventually decided to replace our windows with highly efficient windows rather than repairing the weighted sashes and then replacing the storm windows.

After looking into various possibilities, my family chose wood composite windows rather than vinyl or aluminum. We sought out windows supported by both Energy Star and the Forest Stewardship Council.

On the day of installation, my son and I enjoyed watching the young workers knock out all our windows and open the whole house up to the sunny day. Within just a few hours, everything was back together. They then replaced the door—with one far less charming than the original door but much less, um, breezy.

Our house is now quieter, warmer, and full of light. (And our pocketbook is quite a bit lighter as well…)


JessTrev said...

From one inside-of-the-beltway chick to another: great investment! I love that you found wood composite windows, too. Didn't know those existed. We have insulated windows in our rowhouse that the prior owner put in (lucky us) but I know what you mean about this:

"In fact, I sometimes wondered if my family and our inefficient house might have been the real cause of global warming..." !!

Every house has its weak spots! Excellent use of your hard-earned, frugally-saved pennies. Thanks for sharing the tale.

sassypackrat said...

Our house was built in the 1960's but is so energy inefficient! We have been slowing replacing all the windows, outside doors and this year had the house wrapped, insulated and re-sided in an effort to keep energy costs down and us warm.
We also thought we were heating and cooling the entire neighborhood based on our gas and electric bills!
Sometime you have to sacrifice charm for savings!

Rosa said...

I've been told that the most energy savings from getting new windows will be that they will insulate the spaces where the sash weights are.

You can definitely feel the wind whistle in around our windows. I'm jealous of your new ones! Maybe this is the year we'll do ours...

Green Bean said...

Good investment! You guys remind me of ourselves and some of the decisions we've made, or put off making. Sometimes, we gotta step it up and sometimes spending more saves more in the long haul. Enjoy your newly efficient but less charming home. :)

fullfreezer said...

We live in an old house built in the early 1920s. We have considered replacing the windows but haven't because we don't want to ruin the charm of the house. But it is possible to replace the broken sash cords. Most old windows have a secret panel at the bottom where you can access the weights and attach new cords. Now our windows work well and we have insulated storms on the outside. Still a bit drafty but with all the woodwork refinished it is beautiful!

EcoLabel Fundraising said...

I remember all my apartments in those beautiful old buildings of Chicago being quite breezy also. Great to hear that alternatives are being put in quick and easily.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I'm interesting in hearing more about why you decided to go with the wood composite windows instead of aluminum or vinyl and where you got them. In the last newsletter of Green America (formerly Co-op America), they had an article about repairing and weatherizing woodframe windows. They said that a good repaired wood window can last another hundred years, compared to the short lifespan of aluminum or vinyl windows. It made me wonder why we've stopped building homes with woodframe windows. I didn't know you could still buy them, so I'd be interested to hear where you found them.

kale for sale said...

We're in a drafty condo with little of the charm you describe. We finally added weather stripping around the front door though and while I miss the year round breeze from the garage we no longer pay for heating the buildings common area.

Jennifer said...

Just a word of warning to all those considering doing similar... simply reglazing the old windows and putting up STORM windows will be MUCH cheaper and jsut as energy efficient. Plus it doesn't send old windows to the landfill AND it helps preserve the architectural integrity of the house.

My old windows on my 1911 cottage are due for reglazing this summer. It'll be work, but I can't wait to restore them!

Lynn from said...

I thought you were describing my house at first...inside the beltway, 1930s, wood sash windows that nearly amputate fingers when you forget and try to raise the broken ones! You didn't mention the ubiquitous ice on the windows each morning...tu I'm sure we share that too.

Interesting ideas, and comments too, from your readers. I hadn't consdidered reglazing but may look into that....

We need to do's embarassing to be green and yet to live with such inefficient windows!


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