Mandy Braun remembers the winter months both outside and inside her apartment. “Our windows were 30 years old and we had cold drafts coming in,” says Braun, vice president of Cabrini Terrace, a 16-story post-war cooperative at 900 West 190th Street in the Hudson Heights section of Manhattan. “We were doing Local Law 11 work and could see erosion around some windows. For environmental reasons – heat and conservation – we knew it was time to replace them.”
Braun is not alone. With contractors arranging their spring jobs now, many co-ops and condos are planning the “second phase” of window replacement. Three decades ago, many newly converted buildings took the plunge and replaced their windows. Most were predicted to have a 30-year lifespan, and, in fact, many are now failing. The old windows leak air and moisture, wasting energy and allowing water to cause deterioration in the walls, so boards are once more looking for replacements.
That was never an easy job, and now it’s even tougher because of the wide range of choices. Co-op and condo boards can choose from highly insulating argon-filled windows (which weren’t even introduced commercially in the U.S. until around 1988) to low-emissivity (a.k.a. “low-e”) glass windows, which filter out the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays to prevent furniture discoloration and reduce solar heat, and are much refined from the original 1983 version. In addition, the aluminum and other materials used in frames have gotten lighter, stronger, and better at insulating.
Before you make a move, however, you need to decide whether to replace all of your windows or just make repairs to selected ones. “Repair can be a good option, depending on the age and condition of the windows, and it just becomes a cost-benefit analysis,” says Howard Ecker, CEO of the Ecker Window Corp.
But there are telltale signs that your windows have reached the end or even exceeded their functionality. One of the most common is streaks inside the glazing that washing does not remove. That’s condensation within double-pane glass, says Gwen Miller-Tapogna, a senior architect at Rand Engineering & Architecture. “Over time, the seal [between the panes] breaks, and water and condensation get in, and you can’t clean them. The insulation properties have failed and [the glazing is] at the end of its useful life. That’s a concrete way to tell.”
Another sign of trouble: if the windows aren’t locking or aren’t settling properly in the frame and fully closing, air will leak, says Peter Lehr, director of management at Kaled Management.
Once an architect or engineer confirms that your windows need replacing, you should figure out your needs. “We’re on the Hudson [River], and the west side of our building gets a lot of wind coming off the river,” says Braun, who chaired the 15-person windows committee at Cabrini Terrace. “So we asked manufacturers what windows would withstand the pressure of wind coming off the Hudson.”
Talking to the Residents
As you plan for your replacement work, keep the residents informed. You can do this through e-mails, newsletters, and informational discussion sessions.
“We had a series of community meetings,” says Braun. “The first one was about why we needed to replace windows, and we used lots of photos of the windows from inside and outside. We discussed our plans for interviewing manufacturers and installers and getting bids. There was another meeting after we chose [the firms]. I think we had three community meetings in all. We also did a lot of notices under doors, in the lobby, [and so on].”
Professionals are often brought to such gatherings to share information and answer questions. “I was at a co-op board meeting in Washington Heights [recently] in a building where we manufactured and installed windows back in 1985, and I was asked, ‘What’s different today about windows?’” says Ecker. “The tech is better than 30 years ago. We have low-e and gas-filled windows. We have [what the industry calls] ‘Class 5’ balances” – the spring mechanism in a window frame – “that make opening and closing much easier.”
Inevitably, says Braun, when her building held meetings, there was some pushback from a vocal minority. “We responded to all the questions asked in the meetings, and then we followed up with a memo slipped under doors so that we made sure every resident got it and that our responses were in writing,” she says.
After you decide what you need, explore your options:
• Single-hung or double-hung. This refers to the “sashes,” the part of the window that moves, consisting of the window glass and an interior frame. With double-hung, both the top and bottom sashes move. Single-hung means only one of the sashes, typically the bottom one, moves.
• Fixed or opening-and-closing. While fixed, non-opening windows are generally used in office buildings, they’re also common in high-rise residential skyscrapers.
• Double-pane or triple-pane glass. Window glass – a.k.a. the glazing – becomes insulated, both in terms of heat/cold and noise, when you have multiple panes separated by air or an inert gas.
• Low-e coating or lamination. Low-emissivity or low-emittance glazing reduces the amount of the sun’s UV and infrared light rays to help prevent the former from causing fabrics to fade and the latter from transmitting heat into a building.
• Tilt-and-turn, removable, or casement windows. With the popular tilt-and-turn option, apartment owners use a lever, button, or other mechanism to tilt a sash inward to clean both the inside and outside. Less popular are removable sashes, which leave a large temporary open space that creates the risk of objects, including the sash itself, falling out. Casement windows are hinged like a door and open in for cleaning.
• Frame material. Aluminum frames are the most common in the New York City area as wood is more expensive and also harder to install without damaging the wall. Some buildings, for historical or aesthetic reasons, want wood on the exterior and aluminum-clad wood on the interior. This wood can be either solid or composite, which is particle board made of sawdust and glue. Composite is often better for window purposes than solid wood, which expands, contracts, and soaks up moisture.
The aluminum frames are much improved since the 1980s, says architect Miller-Tapogna: “Metal conducts heat and cold really well, and so between the aluminum on the outside and on the inside, [window manufacturers] put in a ‘thermal break,’ which is rubber or some other material that breaks the conductivity. The outside aluminum doesn’t touch the inside aluminum,” largely negating transfer of heat and cold. Plus, says Skyline Windows CEO Steve Kraus, “There are families of paint today that are almost indefinitely colorfast on aluminum,” keeping windows looking newer longer.
There is also better soundproofing because of better glazing, which is the formal name for the double- or triple-paned glass unit within the frame. “The standard glazing of the ’80s was single-pane or double-pane units that either have failed or weren’t very good to begin with,” says Miller-Tapogna. “No one puts in a single pane of glass anymore.”
It’s Not Cheap
None of this is cheap; window replacement is an expensive capital improvement. Earlier this year, Cabrini Terrace replaced some 2,000 windows in its 217 apartments at a cost of $2 million. This may, however, be a slightly misleading figure, Braun notes, because as part of the $2 million figure, her co-op included, among other things, the costs of extra staff to handle the logistics of moving furniture and otherwise preparing the units for the work. “The $2 million wasn’t just for the windows,” she notes. Because of that, and because of the enormously wide variety of window types as well as the size, shape, and thickness of the glass and the frame, there is not a credible average price for what window replacements can cost. (In addition, replacement windows, unlike windows in a newly constructed building, have to be custom-made.) Bottom line, however, is it will probably be pricey.
Still, none of this means there aren’t ways that boards can get attractive, efficient windows at reasonable prices. It comes down to knowing what you need and having an architect or engineer advise you and prepare specifications.
“That’s really critical,” says Braun, the board member. “We have an architect on retainer whom we worked with. That person needs to be working with you from the first time you say the word ‘windows.’ There are so many [state and city] rules and regulations that you can’t just say, ‘I’d like a window like this.’”
With your plan in hand, you’re now ready to put in your new windows. And, weather willing, they may last for another 30 years.