February 25th, 2020
Are We There Yet? Why Yes, We Are.
I remember when I bought my first house. It was a two-bedroom bungalow in one of Richmond’s early suburbs, overlooking a small meadow and one of Bryan Park’s two-acre ponds. This is a rare setting to find in the middle of the city. And to go with that pond view (a feature we came to name it by: Pondview) it had a giant, 5-foot by 16-foot picture window. For a country boy who couldn’t afford country acreage, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. I probably should have named it Sanity in the City.
I remember pulling into the driveway for the first time. It was one of those moments when you wish you knew less about glass and windows (for fear that they would kill the deal). Let’s be honest—in a home that was built in 1950, that giant window with a view could have been a deal killer. If it was single pane, I’d basically end up heating the outdoors, while facing a major renovation. Fortunately, it turned out to be made of ¾-inch, double-pane insulating glass. And when I discovered this, not only was I relieved, but also amazed.
“You see that?” I asked my dad, who was the agent showing me the property. “That was space-age in 1950.”
As someone who owned two energy retrofit companies in his prior career, I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know.
But then there were the rest of the windows: metal framed, single-pane, 3-foot by 5-foot casements. That is—if not the worst—short of leaving actual openings, about as bad as it gets.
“Boy that’s a shame,” I said, knowing that while they were beautiful, I’d no doubt be replacing them.
“I don’t know,” my dad said. “I wouldn’t be so fast to say that. You might be surprised at how well these storms work.”
Somewhere along the way, a previous owner added polycarbonate storm windows. Thanks to the solid block-and-brick construction, there was about a 4-inch gap between the casements and the storm windows, and the installers had gone so far as sealing the aluminum frames of the storm windows to the surrounding brick with a thick, elastomeric putty. This wasn’t a simple caulk job—I’m talking a thick, impenetrable seal. After our first winter, I realized that the 4-inch airspace and tight seal did an impressive job of cushioning us from the cold (probably by at least preventing air leakage). It goes without saying that they weren’t as good as today’s double-pane windows, but I’m willing to bet that they weren’t a far cry from the clear, double-pane windows sold in the 1970s and 1980s. I ended up living in that house for eight years and I never did replace the windows. I even renovated the second-floor attic into living space and opted to leave those in.
Of course, it was 17 years ago when I bought that 50-plus-year-old home. And now, today’s double-pane glazing is space age by comparison.
I was reviewing the Window and Door Manufacturers Association’s (WDMA) 2020 National Policy Agenda recently, when I came across the section on energy conservation. It wasn’t surprising to find the association pointing to nearly one billion inefficient windows, suggesting that incentives for their replacement should be a primary objective among policies and programs. What was surprising to me, at first at least, was that among its targets were more than just single-pane, but also clear double-pane windows. Maybe I missed the transition, but I’ll admit—this gave me pause. “Really?” I thought. Yes, really. Just knowing that you have double-pane windows is no longer good enough to get you off the naughty list. That’s how far we’ve come. By that token, even if someone had replaced the original single-pane casements in my first home with double-pane windows sometime amid the 1980s or even the 1990s, by now they’d still need replacing. Now I live in a home that was built in 2007, and already I find myself wondering when I might need to replace its windows. They’re gas filled, but at a glance I can tell that they’ve lost a bit. And the truth is, I haven’t even checked them for low-E. I hope it’s there, because with so many other things on my list, I think I’d prefer not to know until I have my kids through college.
Meanwhile, that giant double-pane picture window at Pondview? Something tells me that it’s still there, with the same 1950s, space-age glazing. And just now I’m realizing what that term really means—a period that’s considered to have started in 1957. It seems there’s more outdated about me than just windows.