Election Section

About the House: Those Awful Aluminum Windows By MATT CANTOR

Friday December 09, 2005

Although I have a pretty strong stomach, there is nothing that will sour it as quickly as a beautiful old home that’s had all its wooden windows replaced with those awful aluminum jobs. This is called getting ferclampeted, which, in Yiddish, means “to find oil on your land and find yourself living in upscale digs you ought never to have occupied.” 

I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. In fact, The City of Oakland produced a book in 1987 called Rehab Right: How to Realize the Full Value of Your Old House, which among many other things talks about the inappropriate use of aluminum windows in our older homes. In his book A Pattern Language, Berkeley professor Christopher Alexander (et al) talks about this sort of thing as being “bad fit,” his term for the Clampet family phenomenon. 

These old homes we live in are truly historical and artistic treasures. Many are nearing 100 years old (not particularly old by East Coast standards but old and wonderful when compared with the boxes full of ticky tacky that are rapidly encroaching from all directions). A drive through some of the poorer parts of neighboring Oakland will often find me teary-eyed, as I imagine the original state of these thousands of grand, proud manors that are rotting away for lack of paint and roofing, to say nothing of the long-overdue upgrades of power, heat and plumbing. 

But I’m not here to talk about the whole urban decay issue, just one small, simple matter that we all see every day and can do something about (if we have a reasonable sum of money and perhaps some sweat to offer). Old Craftsman homes should not look out upon their world through aluminum, steel or plastic windows. Period. No soft mitigating niceties. These houses, simple as most of them were, have a contiguous, thoughtful presentation. They deserve far better than to have such a major design element deracinated by age, salesmanship or misguided aesthetic and replaced by the cheapest choice available. Aluminum windows, for example, are not only a major misfit when placed in a Victorian, Classic or Craftsman home, they also conduct heat out of your house faster than a typical wooden window. The simple reason is that aluminum is a great conductor, even plastic is a better choice in this regard. These windows also tend to seal poorly, whether the crank casement type or the “fingernail-on-chalkboard” sliding type. Then there’s the heat sink of choice, the jalousie window. For those of not familiar with the term. these are a louvered type where many small panes of glass are fitted into a mechanism that turns them all outward at the same time. They may provide for good outflow but they also invariably leak air like mad, and also provide exceptional ease for the breaking and entering crowd. Steel casements can be fitting in the right house (generally 1940s-1960s), but almost none of these are in the classifications I want to talk about today. Like steel, I can see vinyl on some more modern houses, mostly from the ‘40s onward, but again, they can ruin the look of that 1925 Craftsman bungalow you’re living in and they may also, I suspect, hurt the cash value. 

Every once in a while I get to inspect a house that has been upgraded with real care for the appearance and feel of each changed feature (windows being one of the most visible of these). Not only is it thrilling to walk through such a home for the visual treat, but I also know for certain that these homes will demand more money when they go on the auction block. Sometimes this appreciation is far more than neighborhood or size can account for. We are all lucky to live in an area where aesthetics are not shunned nor apologized for, and the value of our homes is partly a reflection of this. So, if nothing else, I hope that a market approach will convince you that you’d be better off making an investment in a good looking, appropriate window. 

A window, including its component mullions (those dividers between the glass panes) plays a melody along with the trims, overhanging rafters and wall cladding, which all achieve appeal through a deliberate selection process. It’s the old “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” truism. Cutting out one section and substituting something with a very different look and feel is like letting a banjo loose in the string section. 

So here’s one solution and a shameless plug for a product I’m very fond of. Marvin, a mid-priced window manufacturer, makes a really nice product called a Tilt Pac. This product is available with bare wood on the inside and outside which can be painted or stained to match the frame, sill and surroundings of your old window sashes (the sashes are the parts of a double-hung window that slide up and down). They come with double glazing, which will keep your house warmer and reduce sound to an amazing degree. The Tilt-Pac sash replacement kit does not require the entire window to be replaced, and in my experience most windows that are in trouble do not require their frame or sill to be replaced. Likewise, the double glazing (insulated glass) does not require trashing all the old window components. 

The Tilt-Pac has a vinyl side panel that is not noticeable except under close inspection, and it helps greatly in decreasing the air leaks so common in old wooden windows. Lastly, these windows are relatively easy to install, and you nascent wood-butchers and wannabe contractors may find this a manageable project to take on, especially if you have a pro help with the first one.  

Remember that even the humblest of our old houses are historic treasures, and deserves your attention. So consider saying adios to your aluminum windows so your neighbors and friends won’t have to be ferclampeted either, Jed.