It’s been a busy week – four days in Boston for the APA Conference, then home just in time for a short bout with stomach flu and off again for HPP (Historic Preservation and Planning program) Work Weekend!  Two out of the three of those were a great time.

South Boston

South Boston

For Work Weekend, our caravan of cars headed up to Medina Stone Farm, a 19th-century farmhouse and barn property now managed as a B&B and performance venue.  While we only had limited time and a semi-skilled crew, we were tasked with 1) stripping, re-glazing, and painting several historic windows purchased in Ithaca and brought up to be installed in the small barn; 2) preparing to repair an old stone-and-mortar fence by putting rocks into piles by size; 3) painting the exterior of the small barn; and 4) documenting the site through drawings, description, and photos.

Medina Stone Farm

Medina Stone Farm

We weren’t able to do the exterior painting because it rained all day on Saturday, but we did good work with the other three jobs, and met some interesting animals along the way (an orange cat, some horses, a couple mules, a couple goats, some sheep, several chickens, and two dogs).

My favorite job, and the one that really made me think, was the several-step process of restoring the old windows.  They came in various conditions, from ready to repaint and install, to missing panes and with significant wood damage.  Most had original glass, but needed to be re-glazed and repainted – meaning the lines of putty which hold each pane in the wooden frame needed to be scraped out, the frame re-sanded, and the glazing putty re-applied.  There wasn’t time to complete all the windows and install them in the barn, but we at least put new glazing in (I think I’m using the correct terms) and primed them for painting.

In addition to feeling great for doing some actual tangible work – in contrast to the mile-high stack of words I’ve been reading for the last two years – I really enjoyed learning more about how old windows work, and why taking the time and care to repair the elements of an old building is a good thing.

Windows are a critical part of any building:  they provide natural light and interesting views for the interior, if they open they help cool and circulate air in the rooms, and can be a major site of decorative detail.  While contemporary windows (not counting large glass-wall style windows like those in office buildings) are generally designed as one big energy-saving unit, but old windows are complex, multi-part technological systems in themselves.  Windows are often one of the big projects of building preservation because, unlike modern windows, they are a versatile and fully-repairable piece of building technology, whether damaged during bad weather or simply aging over prolonged exposure.

A modern, manufactured window must be replaced wholesale if any part of it is broken, its insulating vacuum seal infiltrated, or if it  or the frame eventually warps.  An historic wood window, however, can be taken apart and reconstructed by hand.  The wooden frame can be rebuilt, including the small dividers between window panes; the glass panes can be removed, cleaned, or replaced if broken; and the glazing can be pried out, sanded down, and reapplied.  This makes the window more versatile, generally longer-lasting, and over the span of several decades less costly than replacing it with a new one.  Because the windows in a wood-frame structure were also designed specifically for that building, historic preservationists also argue that it is better to keep original windows because they will fit better, shifting with the rest of the structure and providing a better seal against the elements than a retrofitted contemporary window of different materials.  Well-maintained older buildings tend to be energy efficient and structurally sound if their constituent elements are preserved, as they collectively represent a technological system which is meant to function in a certain way.

Working on Windows

Working on Windows

Working with these windows, some of which had their original panes and glazing from probably before 1900, made me really appreciate preservation as a means of saving technologies and putting it back to work.  When the average person thinks of preservation, the reason for saving something tends to be along the lines of historic sites like battlefields, or for aesthetic and architectural purposes, the classic phrase “an excellent example of early/mid/late ___ style.”  Where preservation is meant to keep a building functioning, however, the technological aspects of preservation come into play as well.  This view of preservation doesn’t seem to have much recognition outside the field, but as interest in sustainability and energy efficiency grows in the public discourse (including a session on the value of historic buildings at the APA conference), it seems important to highlight this aspect of preservation as part of why historic buildings (and other structures) should be kept.  Not only are they valuable from a real estate and economic development standpoint (in terms of maintaining land values and sense of place), they are also valuable technological systems which were designed by people wise enough to know about energy efficiency and recycling long before the “sustainability” buzzword came along.

Windows are a good thing!

Windows are a good thing!

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