The Debate: To Keep Or Replace The Original Vintage Windows (And How To Make Old Windows As Safe And Eco-Friendly As Possible Without Replacing)



A big box was checked a while ago and it’s one that all of us were pretty darn invested in. After so much back and forth – YOU HAVE NO IDEA – we came to the solid conclusion on the windows of the farmhouse. One we feel so good about, and frankly so relieved because it’s secretly what we wanted the whole time. The biggest question? Whether to keep the original diamond pattern windows on the second floor, knowing that the first floor was going to be mainly new.

As a reminder, there were only 4 original diamond patterned windows downstairs (two in the living room, one in entry, and one in stairway) and the rest were aluminum from the 60s. One of the things we knew we wanted to do from the first second of seeing this house was open the living room to the backyard with large glass doors, which would mean those two windows in the living room would likely have to move, or if not they might look weird next to brand new doors. Those two were easy as we already had a place to repurpose them, but the upstairs windows were the biggest conundrum. It wasn’t an easy decision and here’s why:

  1. The original glass in the windows is old, certainly not double-paned or tempered and a few of them at this point are broken (yay). The ones that were still intact are so BEAUTIFUL and wavy and you find yourself sighing “they just don’t make them like that anymore”. It might be a subtle difference to many people but to us that wavy glass was everything. It’s an indicator of originality and one that I was VERY sad to lose (I fell in love with them after the plastic siding and false shutters were taken off the exterior of the house). But our fear of safety and draftiness was strong.
  2. We wanted strong, super sealed up windows. We kept saying, “we are paying for and installing this hyper eco/green HVAC system to try to seal up the house as much as possible just to have drafty old windows?” Trying to be green isn’t always an easy answer. Yes, they are single-paned but making something new to replace something old is also a drain on our planetary resources. More on this conundrum later.
  3. We explored taking the original windows and making them double-paned. Fun Fact – my sister and brother-in-law have a company in Portland that does this – Viridian, and get this, my FIL ALSO does this in Sacramento – Artisan Windows). It’s a patented tool that they both rent from the inventor as part of a franchise (only 12 of them in the US). They come on-site and window by window replace the original glass with UV rated double-paned, keeping the original sash, frame, and often even weighted pulley system. Ultimately because of the complicated divided lite patterns, we were told it didn’t make sense to do this. Essentially what they would have done is dissect the window, trying to keep the muntins that hold the glass (the wood that makes the diamond pattern), then insert a sheet of double-paned glass into the sash, then reapply (glue) the original muntins on the interior side, while likely custom-making the same pattern for the exterior to match. Ours are so thin that it would be hard to preserve them. Is it doable? Maybe. But due to the complicated pattern it was costing about $2k for each window (we had 10 windows upstairs) and honestly there was no guarantee that it would A. Work well or B. Look how we wanted it to look. With a less complicated pattern of course it could – they do it all the time, but both my BIL and my FIL said the same thing – it’s doable but very, very tricky. If you have one specialty window in your home, go for it, but to do this tricky and unpredictable window surgery to 10 windows felt very risky (everyone agreed).

Meanwhile, we had to make some decisions pretty quickly to get the window order in (6 weeks ago, before we moved). In case you don’t know windows (especially custom) have an extremely long lead time in normal times (12 – 24 weeks depending on the company), let alone in this building boom/labor shortage we are experiencing. And without windows, you can’t close up the walls and get to your finishes installed (tile, drywall, etc). So your windows can hold up the whole job.

We are SO HAPPY to be working with Sierra Pacific Windows on all our new windows for this house. I sought them out because they are based in Northern CA, with a massive reforestation program where they grow their own wood there and in WA. Another reason we wanted to work with them is because not only do they make beautiful classic windows (because they do), but they can customize ANYTHING, and yes recreate vintage-inspired divided lite patterns – like our diamonds. So far we have been extremely impressed with the options in finishes (wood and aluminum clad), the customer service (I’m talking to you Chelsey & Jennifer), and quality (we tested them out in person and were super impressed). So we knew who we were going to work with on the new windows, but we still hadn’t decided on what to do with the second-floor bedroom windows.

THE BIG DEBATE – Down To 2 Options

So the question became:

  1. Do we have Sierra Pacific recreate the original windows upstairs (make new) and essentially redo all the windows in the house (remember there are only 4 original windows downstairs)?
  2. Or keep the original windows upstairs and try to design the new windows on the first floor to work with the diamond pattern.

Now what we didn’t want was for it to look jarring – for the old to look too old and the new to look too new right next to each other as if was an accident – or like we couldn’t afford to redo all of them (even if that is 1/2 the truth). It needs to look intentional, cohesive with some quirk, sure.

We chose #2 – To repair and keep the original windows upstairs, and design and install new windows on the first floor while repurposing the original windows in the living room (I can’t wait to show you what we have planned for them).

How Will We Make These Old Windows Safe And More Insulated?

  1. We have chosen to NOT try to make them double-paned and instead to preserve and repair the original glass (see #1 above). We know that this will compromise our intent to seal up the house, but after seriously weighing all options we feel that this not only makes the most sense, but preserves more of the originality of the home that we love. And again, it’s all how you look at it when it comes to being green. Replacing something that works (albeit maybe it doesn’t work that well) isn’t better for the environment than working with what you have. Should you put in double or triple-paned glass windows now if you are replacing all of them or building them? Absolutely. But it’s my feelings (and the experts agreed with me) that throwing away to replace is not better for our planet.
  2. Regarding safety. We are going to rig them temporarily to be single-hung instead of double-hung while the kids are little so they come down from the top instead of up from the bottom (with a little peg stopper). Since the windows are low I just worried about them opening and well, falling out the second floor (this obviously wouldn’t be to code now).
  3. We’ll retrofit them to be operable without the weights so that we can insulate the weight chambers which is where the bulk of the draft comes through. We have quite the insulation plan proposed by our insulation sub that has more passion about insulation than I ever thought possible. I can’t imagine you are interested in a blog post about how we are insulated our house to be the most sealed up as possible (while sourcing as green material), but if you are let me know… I’m also happy to share our sub after our work is done (scheduling is a bit tricky these days).
  4. Maybe storm windows? We’ll assess the situation after our first winter and decide if we want interior or exterior storm windows (if it gets drafty or chilly enough). Knowing that that is always an option makes us feel even better about our decision.
  5. We’ll put a film on the original beautiful shaky but thin glass that insulates a tiny bit but more importantly for me, makes it not shatter or shard if it gets broken. If it gets bumped into its acts as a huge sticker that keeps all the broken glass in place, avoiding something terrifying or deadly (seriously if you have untempered glass as a sliding door consider getting it replaced – I have a horrifying story about a friends kid running into their single-paned glass sliding door from the 60s and it almost doing the worst you can imagine – barely avoided).
  6. Versatile (ARCIFORM‘s husband company) will source vintage glass to replace any that was broken. So we’ll have the waviness and vintage vibe (with the film on top). It’s hard to find large sheets of this obviously, but the upstairs windows aren’t huge (and the divided lites are small) so they don’t think it will be a problem. In fact, we are adding a new “vintage” window to one of the bedrooms to add balance to the exterior view and Versatile will be basically recreating the exact window with vintage glass. This is because I feel it would look weird to have a window with vintage glass and one with new glass in the same room.

So the big question becomes how to design the first floor new windows to work with the original diamond windows upstairs. And while you won’t see this from inside the house you sure will when outside looking back at it. And if you are thinking that we’d just do the diamond pattern downstairs, the answer is we’ve thought about it, but:

A. We like the idea of a simpler divided lite pattern and…

B. The custom diagonal pattern was $90 each divided lite – with each window having around 12. So that’s in addition to the normal cost of a high-quality window. This threw our budget totally off making most windows $5k or more.

And C. There is something less charming about all the diamond patterns in the new windows downstairs, almost competing too much with the second-floor original diamond pattern. We decided to let the original be the stars of the upper floor and simplify the first floor to be supporting characters.

We are however doing custom specialty divided lite patterns in a few places on the first floor that I can’t WAIT to show you. I of course want to bring you into that process, show you how we came up with the pattern to bridge the old with the new, but it’s another long post in and of itself. But for now…here’s a sneak peek at some of the “diamond motif” windows we’ve been considering:

Now I know that the windows have been a bit of a debate and while we have a lot of experts on this decision, but that doesn’t mean that we have all the solutions to insulating vintage windows without replacing them (which is the origin of the debate). I know in the past a few of you had some really unique new ideas that I’d love to hear as we still have time to make some adjustments (not to order new, but just to retroactively do anything to the old windows). xx

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