Opinion: Village Matters

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The Eyes are the Windows of the Soul

ann christoph

Windows reveal the soul of the house.

Original windows of older Laguna Beach homes not only confirm the age of the dwelling but the craftsmanship and care that went into its construction. They say, “I have integrity. I have protected and sheltered generations. I am respected. My people love me.”   

But there are those tv ads trying to convince us that replacing windows is the right and conscientious thing to do. Why do they pound on this? Because providing discrete portions of the construction process is a money-maker.  Constructing and remodeling is a hard slog, as most of us who have been through house-building and fixing know.  Builders must understand a myriad of tasks that are needed to put a house together.  They are constantly solving complex problems—from those posed by discoveries in the structure to new ideas proposed by the homeowner. That is a process that requires the personal attention of experienced, skilled people—a process that is hard to duplicate on a large scale. But if there’s some modular part of home repair and construction—one that can be repeated in house after house; something that a company can train installers to do reliably time after time, now there’s something that is lucrative and that can be pushed on a grand scale. That’s garage doors, and that’s windows. Whether you need them or not.

Let’s look at their messages—energy saving? First of all, in Laguna’s climate windows can be open most of the time, most of the year. Too much heat coming in? That can be controlled by blinds and shades. More heat loss in winter can be reduced by attic insulation than by window change-out. Architect and engineer Keith Haberern has written extensively on this subject and cites studies that conclude paying “for your replacement windows out of your energy cost savings would take a whopping 68 years.” He adds that old windows are made of long-lasting old growth wood, and designed to be repaired. They last 100 years, while typical replacement windows last 15 to 40 years and most cannot be repaired.

A discussion last week at the administrative design review hearing bears this out. Replacing windows for a cottage in South Laguna came up.  When the present owner purchased the house 20 years ago it already had replacement vinyl windows. He wanted to replace them with another set of vinyl ones. Why? They were leaking. Yet other houses with original wood windows from the 1930s continue to serve if kept in good repair.

Then there is the waste of “embodied energy.” This is the amount of energy that went into producing a house—the mining, lumbering, manufacturing, as well as the carpentry, plumbing, electrical work. This all goes to waste with demolition and discarding components of a house. Even more energy is needed to manufacture new components and install them. 

The details of most old windows are unmistakably beautiful and practical. They are inset from the walls with a real window sill, and framed in with trim.  Many new ones look like plastic picture frames applied to the outside of the walls. (No wonder they leak!)  Many old windows feature narrow delicate muntins between the window panes, not the imitation divided lights made with metal strips on the inside of double panes that some new windows feature. 

Often when the original windows are beyond repair they can be replaced in kind, and if the replacements duplicate the originals that is the best solution. However, I have made replacement mistakes with the best of intentions. I didn’t know about the narrow muntins or what happens to the design of the windows when double panes are added. I replaced the wood windows at my historic office building, thinking it was the “right thing to do” to cut down on noise. When they came with muntins over an inch wide, instead of the original 3/8” I was told “that’s the way we do it now.” When the double panes leaked and filled with fog and even an inch or two of water, the supplier said it was the painter’s fault. Finally I had to replace the double panes with laminated glass which is just as good at reducing noise. Lots of learning and the new windows still don’t look as good as the original ones. Some of our local clever craftsmen will know better.

Want to “improve the look and feel of your home”? Beware the advice of the home improvement industry. If you have original windows on your classic Laguna home, they may only need repair, or can be replaced in kind. Let its soul keep shining through. 

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hey Ann, one big thing you neglect to mention: “fixing up” those old windows costs a fortune. But hey, cost ain’t no problem, is it? Expect if you happen not to be rich. Then it is a real drag.

    And replacing them, exactly, as you and Village Laguna wish, costs even more, because they don’t make them anymore. So you must have them individually made, which may and does cost thousands.

    So have some mercy as those not rich. Either have the City subsidize those residents if it is a City priority, or have Village Laguna subsidize them. Come on, it’s only a matter of money.

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