Windows, part 4

One of the items that is pottentially included in the soon-to-be-renewed Conservative budget was an extension of the energy efficiency retro-fit program for residential homes. This is, IMHO, a pretty good program, in that it is not a direct subsidy, but is a tax benefit to those fortunate enough to have extra income and willing to spend some of it on reducing their energy use, as opposed to making “home improvements” that do not result in efficiency gains or pissing it away on more plastic toys. In that sense, it is both a tax break for the rich (So Steve is happy), and it helps the less than rich save a little money in home heating. It is about the only nod to the environment in the entire Tory platform.
Regular readers of this blog (Hi Mom!) would know that I took advantage of the combined federal-provincial efficiency program to have an energy audit done on our 1940 house, and came up with a priority list for efficiency improvements. We decided to look at replacement windows, and a few small other improvements mostly around improving sealing at a few key spots. I talked earlier about our decision to get new windows, about our options, and about our foray into the consumer replacement window market. Now I get to talk about the windows we bought.
As I discussed earlier, the shopping for windows was complicated by my interest in high energy efficiency, and The iCandy’s interest in protecting (or even improving) the look of the house with the windows. In the end, the only way we were going to solve this was by getting wood windows. That was when we met Jordan, the owner of Sashmasters.

Again, as I blogged a few months ago, Jordan was anything but high-pressure sales. He took the time to look at our windows and honestly assess our options. He was straight-forward about what would and wouldn’t work in our house, and even had some useful advice about how to approach some of the windows we didn’t really know how to deal with (such as the ugly 80’s re-fits in our basement suite). Then he gave us a quote.

To be honest, it was a little more than our budget, and The iCandy chewed him down a little (she is a tough negotiator), but it was an honest price. After the fact, I can attest that there were a few minor issues that cropped up during install, and he never took those as an opportunity to play the “out of scope” card for our budget: he got the job done on budget. He also committed to making me happy within the budget, and set a price that would allow me to pick the glazing options I wanted (double-pane, argon filled, low-e glass), even including laminated security glass in one of our more accessible windows. So we dipped deeper into our line of credit, and pulled the trigger.


(you can click and zoom into any picture)


There were a lot of positives going in. They were a local company, based in Burnaby. They used Canadian Douglas Fir from BC mills, and a glass supplier from Coquitlam. Prior to purchase, we did a quick tour of his manufacturing facility in Burnaby, and he walked us through the window-making process. We got to meet some of the guys who would be making our windows, and the shop dog. Somehow, it always feels better writing a cheque in a local manufacturing plant than it does dropping plastic on the counter at Home Despot. And it is cool to see a raw window frame with your name on it (see left).

Also, since every window in Jordan’s shop is custom, he was able to find solutions for many of our windows that none of the other Sales folks could. There is a big manufacturer of wood windows (rhymes with Fella) whose kludged approach to two small windows in our living room would have reduced the glass to about the size of a CD case. Jordan was able to make a unit that fit great, preserving the original look of the windows. He also allowed us to do some creative leading of our main picture window and a few of the other windows, to maintain the original look of the house.

Once the deal was done and the designs were set up, Jordan started making windows. We were again lucky to be able to go to the shop and see our windows being made:

Jordan even walked us through the process, from 16-foot planks of Fir he buys from the sawmill to the planer, the cutting of the complex joints, the gluing of joints with hydraulic clamps, the sanding, staining, painting, the complex process to put leading in double-pane windows. It was fun to see. You can get a sense by going to his website and following the “shop photos” slide show.

Here is the sequence for our kitchen windows (that had been previously replaced with rather drafty plastic units):


Before, drafty 80’s era replacement windows



Here is The iCandy with the new frames at the shop:


Here they are part way through installation. This was a slightly complicated install, as the previous replacement wasn’t exactly optimum, so they had to re-manufacture some of the wall.


…and as the kitchen looks tonight.


Note this is one of the only locations where we lost a bit of window space, in the need to re-construct the framing
around the windows. In other locations, we increased glass space, like in this very badly installed off-the-shelf plastic window in our basement suite:

We also changed the bedroom windows slightly, to make the 1940’s style window slightly more compliant with 2000’s building codes (allowing large enough openings for emergency egress). In this photo you can see the old window next to the new during install. The change in the leading pattern made these windows match the leading in the living room window that is next to it on the façade of the house. They had been mis-matched, probably since the house was built in 1940.

We elected to go with stained wood on the inside. Painted on the outside, with a colour that will hopefully be amenable with our inevitable re-painting of the house in a few years. First, we will probably be doing some work on the painted framing around the windows on the inside, to restore or replace the original wood and complete the look.

In the end, we went with a small, local manufacturer. By doing so, we did not buy “Energy Star” rated windows, and we therefore were not able to take advantage of the Federal rebate program for increasing the efficiency of our house. The process of getting their window assemblies certified as Energy Star is onerous, and would cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Easy for Fella® or Home Despot®; tough for a guy running a shop with a dozen employees in Burnaby. But we took into account the lack of rebates into our decision making on the windows. The sealed window units have CSA efficiency ratings (We know the energy gains we have received are equal to any other double-glazed low-e argon-filled units). Along with the thermal efficiency of the wood window frames, we are confident our energy rating has gone up.

And we can’t say enough about the beauty of real wood windows in a “semi-heritage” house, or the satisfaction of keeping our money local and being able to see our windows made. We know we have added to the value of our home, not just the efficiency.

So here are some before and after pics.

Windows, part three.

Our window replacement project now complete, it is all over but the Blogging

Really, our choices were vinyl or wood. Aluminum had no real advantage, fiberglass was out of our price range, as were wood-clad or other complicated hybrid window styles.

So we did what most semi-informed consumers do, we delved into the marketplace.

Full disclosure here, Tig and I are bad consumers. By that, I mean we just don’t do the shopping thing well. To say we have high sales resistance is to downplay the problem. It is more that we rarely find anything worth buying. A trip to the Mall is something we avoid at all costs, as it fills us with what Hunter called “Fear and Loathing”. I simply do not enter the retail environment in the month of December. When one of us decides we need to buy something, say, a shirt for work, we steel our resolve and enter the fray, and rarely come out satisfied with our purchases, and more often walk out having bought nothing, realizing that we are not the target market for anything. The modern consumer experience is not designed for us, and we are not designed for it. So why force the issue?

So when Sssssalesmen start coming to our house with quarter-cuts of windows as samples and lots of glossy brochures, to do a few measurements and drop us an estimate with an abstract 5 digit number on it… this is usually a bad experience for all involved. I am not going to name any of the non-successful bidders, they live in their own window-sales Hell, may the Flying Spaghetti Monster have noodly mercy on their souls. Suffice to say, we saw them all, or a wide enough sampling so as to be statistically significant.

We asked a lot of questions, and some were better at answering them than others. The higher-priced people made compelling cases for rigidity of the vinyl, for higher numbers of void spaces in the window frames, for colour options, for muntin designs to match the heritage of our house.

The problem with vinyl becomes pretty clear: if you want a strong structure with lots of void space for thermal efficiency, there needs to be a big, thick window frame. Making that big, thick window frame fit into the pre-existing hole in the house, without getting into expensive and difficult mucking about with stucco and plaster and drywall, you start to lose significant window space. In a 1940 house with relatively small window space to start with, this becomes significant.

Also, vinyl, for all it’s flexibility in design, is kind of ugly. You can have pretty much any colour you want, but white is about the only colour offered (economies of scale limit the ability of these companies to extrude numerous colours locally). The size of some of our double-hung windows limited the ability of their relatively weak frames to support the structure; so many sssssales people pushed us to alternate styles that were less appealing. The design elements (muntin grilles, opening hardware, etc.) were generally cheap-looking and added on, and took more away from the look than they added.

Then there were uncertainties about the install. We had guys promise to do the total install of 19 windows in one day, “no problems”. That is a pretty bold promise to make in a 70 year old house after 2 minutes of looking at a window. It did not instill confidence that they would be taking utmost care or managing unforeseen issues with my best interests in mind. One test of this was to show the ssssssales person that crappy downstairs install I pointed out earlier. The range of reaction we got were telling. Some were aghast that anyone would slap a window in like that, while others basically said, yeah, it doesn’t look too bad, must have been a funny sized opening… you should maybe add a little silicone… . Needless to say, that quick-filtered many proposals (and, perhaps not paradoxically, those were generally the lowest bidders).

Another irritant was never really having an impression of how the windows in their glossy brochure would look in our house. Invariably, the ssssales guy would show up with a ¼ of a window so we could see the void spaces that made them so efficient, but rarely with a complete window. Some offered local references, and this lead to us wandering the streets of Queens Park and West end looking at (not through) innocent people’s windows. We also tried to go to any showrooms or warehouses so we could put our fingers on the actual product, see what it actually looks like. This caused some of the ssssales people discomfort, and some companies really didn’t have a showroom or display product (other than the ¼-cut window with all those wonderful void spaces!) to show. Is it just me, or is asking someone to spend 5 figures on a product they really haven’t seen a normal thing in sales?

After a couple of months, and more than a dozen sales folks, it seemed we were back to Square 1. Exploring the options for wood windows lead us to a couple of fairly large and well-regarded companies, and initial meetings looked good. We got to go to an actual showroom to look at actual windows, install options looked good. Unfortunately, being a relatively small project to some of these companies, it seemed options were limited. Not totally limited, but very cost limited. As these windows were manufactured in far-off places familiar only from Coen Brothers Movies, every little deviation from a “standard” size of install added up quickly. Wood manufacturing does not have the flexibility at the factory level that vinyl does.

Then we found a local company that seemed to get it. They made wood windows specifically for the heritage-home market, and their ssssales guy was also the owner, so he was interested in making us happy instead of his commission. He was also very straight-forward about what was and wasn’t possible in our house, he was realistic about what we could (and should) do. He was incredibly patient taking the time to answer our questions, but didn’t call us every day to try to close the sale. He was also asking a little more than we wanted to spend. But pretty soon in, Tig and I know we found our guy, we just needed to figure out how to get the windows.

Windows, part 2

Once we had settled on replacing windows, the journey really began. The house is ca.1940, and all of the main floor windows are wood frame, single-hung, single-pane. All of the counterweight strings are broken, so we had been using strategically shaped blocks of wood to prop them open. Before we arrived on the scene, renovations were done in the house in two stages, with wood-frame single-hung double pane wood windows being used in the converted attic, and double-pane sliding vinyl windows being used in the basement.

Front Picture window, with original leading.


Original single-hung single-pane wood windows.



The ones downstairs should have given us some cautionary idea of what we are getting into. At least one of them was an “off the shelf” vinyl window from a hardware store, and did not fit the hole in the side of the house ideally. It has been installed with the flashing on the outside of the house with the caulking puffing out between the flashing and the nailed-together wood spacers. It might have looked real sharp when it was done, but it looked pretty terrible a decade later. The other windows were not much better: one installed with the drain holes facing in (and blocked), none of the slid very well in their casings, or opened very wide, and the proportion of window-to sash was depressingly smaller, making basement suite darker than it needed to be.
Terrible, terrible basement vinyl window install.


The attic windows were probably OK, we might have gotten along with a bit of maintenance, but at this point we were 17 windows in, another two more wouldn’t increase the marginal cost that much, and for the sake of consistency, we decided to replace them all.?????

Double-pane wood replacements, used in 1980’s (?) attic renovation


“We decided” will be used throughout this monologue, but that really belies the amount of discussion, argument, hair-pulling, and cajoling it takes for us to make these decisions. The Better Half had her priority list, essentially around making sure that the windows added to the value of the house, by complimenting the 1940 wood flooring and the unique Amish-Bauhaus-English-antiques furnishings style she somehow pulls off quite successfully. I was mostly concerned that the windows be the most efficient we can afford. She worried about frame proportions, leading, opening styles, and colours; I worried about what Low-E glass types are most appropriate for our climate and whether Argon was really superior to regular air. We did agree that installation was as important as windows, and that we were going to buy from someone who we trusted to do the installation jog right.

The first question that needs to be answered is what type of frame material to use. The basic options are aluminum, vinyl, wood, fibreglass, or some sort of hybrid. The list of advantages and disadvantages is huge.

Aluminum was off the table pretty early. They have certain structural and maintenance advantages and provide the biggest window-to-sash ratio, which is why they are so popular with high-rises, rental and commercial properties. However, they are remarkably inefficient. Aluminum frames work like the aluminum fins on your old Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine: they are excellent heat exchangers, sucking heat out of your house and warming the air outside. They are moderate in cost (falling between the cheapest vinyl windows and the most expensive wood frames), but did not match the style of the house, and were inefficient: so the decision was easy.

Aluminum windows, lots of glass, but no efficiency.

Vinyl is probably the most popular material for replacement windows, and the Yellow Pages (remember them?) are full of companies that will plop a vinyl insert into your existing window frames, with creative names from AAA Windows to ZYZ Windows. Vinyl has several advantages: it can be made thermally quite efficient by building frames with lots of void spaces, they can be made in various colours and can be painted, and they can be very inexpensive. Some of the problems are the generally low window-to-sash ratio, which seems to get worse with increased efficiency (as those insulating void spaces have to come from somewhere), and a general “plastic” look, which only gets worse with attempts to hide it (ornate finishes, printed or wood veneers, etc.). There is also a large apparent variation in quality of construction, and the amount of concern the companies put into the install in the house.

Vinyl windows, efficiency comes at the expense of window area.

Wood windows have significant advantages. They generally look good, and since that is what the house already has, they are the quickest match to the style of the house. They are also the most thermally-efficient frame material. They fit somewhere between Aluminum and Vinyl in the window-to-sash ratio. The disadvantages are cost (more than Aluminum or the most expensive Vinyl), and maintenance issues. Wood is wood, and needs to be protected from the elements, and that means some level of ongoing maintenance would be required. Some of this can be offset but using a clad-wood window, where the wood frame has a thin aluminum cladding on the outside. This is by far the most expensive option.

Aluminum-clad wood windows, the best of
both worlds, the highest of all costs.

Fiberglass windows can be made almost as thermally efficient as wood, and very strong in a structural sense. They can be powder-coated which makes them durable and low maintenance. Unfortunately, fibreglass options are limited (they seem to be more popular in places with continental climates the suffer temperature extremes), and are expensive. They also come in limited styles and sizes, as the manufacturing process is not as flexible as vinyl or wood. Aesthetically, they resemble Vinyl more than they probably should.

The efficiency issues were a little easier. The advantages of triple glazing (increased thermal efficiency and noise abatement) did not make sense in our coastal climate, or in our relatively quiet Brow-of-the-Hill neighbourhood. Low-E glass (where a coating is applied to one of the frames which limits the transmission of infrared (keeping heat in during the winter and out during the summer) is great, but needs to be balanced around reflectivity and brightness issues. Everything I read says Argon helps, even if I remain somewhat sceptical about the science of those claims (with my basic chemistry-physics education, which is usually deeply flawed) .

Then there is Energy-Star rating. Energy-Star windows are certified to meet some level of efficiency. Since we had an “energy audit” in the dying days of the LiveSmart BC program, we would receive $70 per window if we bought Energy Star rated windows, a not-unsubstantial $1,300 total for our house.

Replacement window insert, in this case
Vinyl going into an existing wood frame.

The decisions were difficult. No matter which way we go, this was going to be the most expensive purchase we have made in our lives (outside of the mortgage!), easily as much as a new car (it is worth noting we drive a Honda Civic we bought used for less than I paid for my last bicycle.) And the “getting informed” part of the process exposed us to too much contradictory data, too many contradictory claims, too much advice from people who would have us spend a fortune for each incremental increase in efficiency, and from people who advise us to buy the cheapest we can because “they are all the same…how long are you going to own that house anyway?” (we can debate at length the sustainability ideas of that train of thought). And we experienced lots of sssssales men (and women), with different styles, different approaches, although the results always seemed the same, that was to make us less certain of the purchase, not more certain.

For people like us who find no joy in shopping at the best of times, it was not fun.

Windows, Part 1

Like a shrinking proportion of New Westminsterites, I live in a single-family detached home. A two-professional-income family and a history of fiscal prudence meant that a couple of years ago we were able to sell our “hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops” condo on Royal Ave and buy a house. There were several motivations for the purchase: the Condo didn’t really compliment my obsessive cycling habit; I really wanted a garden and the Community Gardens Project in New Westminster was still only a glimmer in David Maidman’s eye; the condo market in New West looked pretty saturated to me, and more “peaky” than the housing market; and we had committed to New Westminster as the best place in Metro Vancouver to live.

At the time, I described the purchase as “kind of small, kind of old, in a slightly sketchy area, but we can almost afford it”. In the end, it is more size than we need (the guest suite renos are ongoing), we lucked into the house being really solid for it’s age, the brow-of-the-hill neighbourhood turned out to be anything but sketchy and my neighbours are great, and we can still almost afford it. A few minor renos have really made it “our home”.

The house was built in 1940, and although solidly built and well cared for, it is still a 70 year old house. We had an energy audit performed, and they confirmed many things we already knew. The physical plant was in good shape, the furnace and water heater were relatively new, but could be replaced with more efficient ones. There are a few insulation and draft-sealing things we can do. But mostly: the 70-year-old single pane windows are sucking us dry. We decided efficient windows were the first priority, when we had the money and time to do real improvements.

Thus began a long, dark journey into the aftermarket window market. We had a dozen window sales people come through the house. We visited showrooms and workshops, spent our evenings walking the streets of Queens Park staring at (not into) strangers’ windows. The longer this process went on, the more frustrating it got, as we discovered some depressing realities: any windows we could reasonably afford were ugly, and most after-market windows are cheaply built.

I am currently sitting in my dining room, a year or so after we started this course, looking at the new windows we are in the process of having installed: double-pane, Low-E, Argon-filled, wood framed. Significantly not CSA-approved.

More about the journey from energy audit to new windows will be included will be coming as part of an ongoing series here