Windows, Government Programs, and Why They Shouldn’t Mix

Here I was enjoying my dinner and catching up on my Wall Street Journal reading–it’s a terrible feeling to not only be behind in my books and magazines but also in my newspapers–and I had to gulp and take a quick drink to avoid choking when I came across an ad similar to this one for Pella windows. In it, a happy man and his pleased wife sit next to a window; the man says, “I tackled getting rid of our leaky old windows. And scored some major points!” Below, in large font, is this little nugget, “Pella can help you qualify for up to a $1500 tax credit!”

Notice the inevitable fusing of the word “leaky” with the word “old” and the implication that the only thing to do about the “leaky” is to “get rid of.” Can I raise my hand and offer another solution, one that window glaziers and painters have been using for hundreds of years, namely doing regular maintenance and replacing the dried glazing putty every few decades?

Unfortunately, this stupid full-page ad is what the program Cash for Caulkers has come to since it was greeted by the National Trust last Feburary with glowing hopes of diligent craftsmen busily caulking and re-glazing original wood windows in historic districts. No, instead, we’ll just use our tax dollars to help destroy one of the primary architectural features of most historic buildings, the windows. And not only that, we’ll send those fine wood windows to the landfill and put in their place plastic windows with a lifespan of approximately 15-20 years, that can’t be repaired when they break but will have to be completely replaced again. Ugh!

I think it would be helpful here to recount my own personal experience with a window salesman a few years ago. I had a paired aluminum window in a rear addition of my house, which otherwise has real double-hung wood windows. The springs in one of the aluminum windows had broken and it wouldn’t open, and along with cracks in the glass, it was time for them to just be replaced (because they couldn’t be repaired). I called a window company at random out of the phone book just to see what they had to offer and was surprised to hear the man say he would come right out to my house. Within an hour, he appeared at my door, and I took him outside to show him the window and talk about possible replacements. But he didn’t want to talk about that window, he wanted to talk about ALL my windows, and this is what he said: “It would be best for you to just replace all your windows at once, not only because they would all match, but also because these old wood windows are just like having a one-foot-square hole in your walls.” “Really?” I replied, completely aware at this point that I would just need to keep my fingers walking through the phone book. “Oh yeah, each one is like a one-foot-square hole just open and letting air in and out. You might as well not even have them, they’re so drafty.”

Little did he know that I had just spent the last year working my way around the house and putting in new glazing putty, and that once I did that and caulked the seams around the trim, I could once again sit comfortably in my reading chair next to the window during even the coldest nights. He didn’t want to know that, he wanted to sell a bunch of windows. That man is out every day, along with his cohorts–many of whom are fine people and probably believe the myths they are spouting–selling windows to owners of historic buildings everywhere. And now, he can also add the extra incentive of a $1500 federal tax credit. That makes our work a lot harder, destroys literally tons of good quality building material, and fails to provide as much employment as a good caulking and re-glazing job would.

I believe strongly that historic preservation is not only compatible but works hand-in-hand with the conservationist philosophy; as I’ve said before, however, preservationists need to think long and hard about getting so caught up in the “Green Movement” that we end up advocating programs that are so easily turned against us.

If you’d like to read more about the growing concern among preservationists about the Cash for Caulkers program and see actual facts besides my personal rant:

Categories: Demolition/Abandonment, Environment/Green, National Trust, Preservation Law/Local Commissions

5 replies

  1. Ew! I know what you’re talking about. I live in a wonderful apartment building built in the 1940s in which nearly everything is original and charming except the windows. I’m guessing that something like that happened with the landlord a few years ago as all the windows are horribly cheap new metal things with fake, easily messed-up “mullions.” Half of them won’t close properly and there is always a draft. I think in this case, he’d do better to take the offer since they’re already screwed up.


  2. I could not agree more!
    As with most Federal Energy programs, consumers can either be led or they can lead. But with Commerce there is the inevitable greed which does not equate to lead but to how much can we prophet from a program.


  3. Yes, whenever there’s a big pot of money available, you can guarantee a big chunk of it will be diverted for nefarious purposes.



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