Why restoring is better than replacing

Why restore instead of replace? It makes sense. An older house has character-defining architectural elements like your doors and windows that are not the same as what is typically offered by the replacement window/door industry. While reproductions will look the same, their cost is much higher than restoration and why would you reproduce if you can restore? Typical replacements are typically character-destroying in this regard.

It’s cost-effective to restore. Full restoration typically costs slightly less than best high-end two-pane replacements and that’s true even if you don’t consider which one is more lasting. But that assessment is important particularly in our disposable-prone society. The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that the time period to recover the cost of replacement windows with installation through energy savings may take 40 years. That’s too long if you consider the fact that even the best replacements may last 20-25 years.

But, it’s also informative to assess what does it cost us in general if we don’t restore. What does it cost us as a community or a neighborhood to lose the architecture of a home or not to hire a local skilled tradesperson to restore, or to dispose of your restorable old-growth wooden windows in a landfill or the true cost of the embodied energy that it takes to manufacture, transport and install a new replacement?

Overlooked inherent and better value of historic windows and doors is a common denominator when one chooses replacements. We should be judicious about disposing of a resource that is made from old-growth wood that is highly durable and proven to outlast generations, especially when the replacement is less than enduring. What does it cost us to relegate to the landfills the value of century-old windows and doors with periodic wavy glass and other heritage resources?

Return on investment is useful term to answer this question. A new replacement window might last 20 years while a restored window can serve for another 50-100 years, or more. In a disposable society, there is little attention paid to the fact that your return on investment is much greater if you restore. The true cost of restoration is significantly less especially when measured over the long-term.

One might be quick to criticize and ask what’s the energy-efficiency of a restored window. Many studies have shown that an old window can equal the performance of the high-end replacements given certain conditions. What’s critical is at the heart of good, modern restoration: good glazing, sound craftsmanship, high quality weatherstripping, a well sealed building envelope and a good quality storm window. In fact, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study found that the rehabilitated window/storm combination performed within 6% of the efficiency of the average replacement. Despite the massive marketing for replacements, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective: as the U.S. Dept of Energy reminds us, a typical home’s heat loss via its windows represents about 5-10% of the total.

While it’s difficult to personally shoulder the burden of environmental costs and the local economy, it’s a useful question to pose why we’re choosing often to replace rather than restore. When possibly 40-60% of America’s window stock has already been replaced why do we keep loading the landfills with old-growth wooden windows when there is a less costly alternative across the board?

The short-sightedness of this type of replacement investment is often overlooked. Think twice before getting your “money’s worth.” Consider first one estimate by Donovan Rypkema, historic preservation specialist, that 30% of the time a replacement window will be replaced within 10 years. This is damning testimony that suggests we should put the brakes on the disposability trend. That includes the question of our socio-economic role for growth or community when we don’t hire skilled, local tradespeople to restore.

One final incentive: historic tax credits. Historic-rehabilitation tax credits are widely available to many homeowners throughout the U.S. More than 30 states have programs that allow a portion of rehabilitation expenses to be reimbursed via state income tax. Some counties offer additional tax credits.