Home builders of the 19th and early 20th centuries recognized windows as critical components of environmental control that offered natural daylight and ventilation before the advent of electric lighting and mechanical air conditioning. The functional importance of windows was celebrated by making these elements a critical part of exterior design – in simple houses like Craftsman bungalows, windows might be the primary design element. Yet one of the most common mistakes made in rehabilitating historic homes (and one of the most common issues homeowners face in passing the City’s mandatory historic review) is to replace original, usually wood, windows with new “energy saving”, mass-produced products. Tempting as they are, these new products are often far less durable than the historic windows they replace, and lack the detail that contributed to the original character of the house. Worse, some homeowners are tempted to alter the size and proportions of original openings to accommodate stock sizes of contemporary windows, forever altering the original design of the house.

Fortunately, a growing number of San Antonio builders recognize that historic windows can often be repaired rather than replaced at competitive cost. Damaged wood can be reconstructed, and drafts can be stopped with sealants and storm windows that have minimal visual impact on the original design. The Architectural Advisory Committee of the King William Association has declared 2013 the “Year of the Window,” and in future issues of this newsletter we will introduce you to neighbors and local contractors who have demonstrated best practices for restoration, repair and maintenance of historic windows.

On November 8, 2012, City Council adopted new, comprehensive City of San Antonio Historic Design Guidelines to provide detailed guidance for property owners, architects, and contractors – and also to define the standards that the City Office of Historic Preservation now uses to review plans for building repair, rehabilitation, additions, and new construction in King William and other historic districts. You can access the guidelines at www.sanantonio.gov/historic/HistoricDistrictGuidelines.aspx or read them in the reference sections of the Central Library and several branch libraries. In the words of the Guidelines:

“The proportion, shape, pattern, and size of historic doors, windows, and screens help convey the style and period of a building and contribute to its overall architectural character. In addition, the quality of construction of historic windows is generally much better than that of replacement windows and can be preserved through regular maintenance. Properly maintained and sealed historic windows are efficient and sustainable.” -- CoSA Historic Design Guidelines 2: Guidelines for Exterior Maintenance and Alterations.

Part 2: Eyes Wide Open

I forget who said it: if eyes are the windows of the soul, then windows are the eyes of a house. And like our own eyes, windows reveal the character and personality of the homes they illuminate… and they need to be treated with care and respect.

The Architectural Advisory Committee of the King William Association has declared 2013 “The Year of the Window” to focus on this important component of historic design. In the March KWA newsletter I noted the temptation for an owner of an historic house to replace old windows with allegedly energy-efficient units, despite the serious threat that this poses to the historical integrity and character of the home. (And that character is why we choose to live in King William, right?) It’s worth remembering:

Replacing windows is expensive, and existing windows can often be brought back to good performance for a comparable cost.

Substantial energy savings can be achieved by addressing other components of the house – especially insulation in attics and roofs – often at a cost less than or comparable to extensive window replacement.

Infiltration (drafts), the major thermal issue for windows in our relatively temperate climate, can be controlled by repairing glazing putty, adjusting poorly-fitting sash, installing storm windows … or just closing the drapes.

Historic homes were designed to ventilate well – and that’s a good thing. Although it can be hard to remember when we’re suffering through a Texas August, about half the time a well-ventilated house in San Antonio needs no artificial climate control except for ceiling fans.

Historic windows do require maintenance and, after decades of service, may need substantial repair. A useful guide to repairing wooden windows – the most common type in King William – is available from the US Department of the Interior at www.nps.gov/history/hps/tps/briefs/brief09.htm.

- Jack Kent, Jr.