One Home Renovation Project You Should Skip

Give new life to old windows by adding triple-track storm windows.

The one thing that annoys me most about green going mainstream is people’s mistaken belief that being eco-friendly means buying stuff — that somehow a magical hemp-filled, organic, free-range whatnot will transform you into a tree-hugging crunch-bunny. Here’s what I do when I get pitches like these from publicists: delete, delete, delete (or, since I’m saddled at work with a PC, throw it in the recycling bin). Really, if you’re buying things, you’re not using what you’ve got — goods already manufactured, shipped to a store, transported to your home, and heated or cooled by your central air system (depending on the season) until you throw them away or find a use for them.

In home design, one of the most egregiously wasteful moves in the name of sustainability is replacing windows. Think about it: How could it be good (on an eco-level) for anyone to rip apart half their house and throw it in the garbage?

I’ve had a hunch about this for years. And finally, there’s a serious study that proves, without a doubt, that keeping those fine older windows and adding storms — good, triple-track storms — is just as good as replacing them.

Architect Frank Shirley got a grant from the Boston Society of Architects to study the problem in Cambridge, a relatively harsh climate and a town rife with older housing stock (in other words, the perfect laboratory). As a former resident of the city, I can attest to the huge number of fine wood windows I’ve seen curbside, destined for a landfill. Shirley spent almost a year studying the thermal function of an original double-hung equipped with a storm versus a new vinyl double-hung. He then analyzed life-cycle costs over the entire life of the two setups.

After crunching numbers (the full study is available here: Grant Final Report 12-3-2010), he found that both window systems performed similarly — they kept the interior warm in winter and cool in summer — which, of course, begs the question: why dump something that works? The answer, my friends, depends on whom you query. A window company will certainly tell you about the merits of their shiny new product. A contractor would also be happy to do a little switcheroo.

But a truly sustainability minded designer will steer you in a different direction. And now, he or she has the data to prove why.

Marquee photograph by Terry Wilcox