I was looking at the construction documents for a county courthouse restoration project last week and was absolutely appalled at what the construction team was intending to do to this landmark property. Here is a building that was originally constructed in 1876 and is one of the most significant functioning courthouses in the State of Missouri. One would think that the restoration of such a building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places would respect the integrity of the design and the existing materials. Instead, the request for proposals was asking for the original wood double hung windows that span 14 feet tall to be replaced.

These monumental windows are the signature of the building. They are without a doubt a defining characteristic of the architecture. The architect for this project specified a complete replacement with a fixed aluminum system with small operable awnings. The replacement will look like a flat storefront system instead of a double hung window. How does this happen? How does a significant piece of architecture that is listed on the Register get butchered like this?

Architectural FeloniesI am not a bleeding heart, tree hugging, fanatic who feels that every building must be saved and that nobody should make design changes to current architecture. I like to think of myself as a pragmatist who is capable of rationally evaluating the social and economic impacts of various preservation strategies. I am also sensitive to changes in design that might be required for repurposing a building. But there is a problem when compromises are made to significant architecture that defines a community. Although we are supposed to have checks and balances to prevent this from happening such as the National Park Service and the State Historic Preservation Officers, projects still fall between the cracks. So how does this happen? I think the following factors can contribute to what I would call an architectural felony.

1. Underfunded Budget
An underfunded budget is often responsible for compromises in the architectural details of a preservation project. It can initially be much less expensive to replace a historic wood window with a cheap vinyl unit than to restore the original. The low budget helps people ignore the fact that they are replacing a 100-year-old window with a window that has a life expectancy of 20 years. I am constantly amazed at how lack of funds can inspire irrational behavior.

2. LEED Programs
Programs such as LEED promote a window replacement mentality for preservation projects. Since the U.S. Green Building Council (USSGBC) is partially financed by building product manufactures, it encourages replacement with new materials rather than restoration. You can get points by replacing the windows with windows that have Energy Star Ratings, have a published U-Value under a certain amount, or utilize FSC lumber. Little consideration is given to options that enhance the energy performance of the existing windows. Also, this program ignores the costs of disposing of 100 year old windows with replacements that will last for only 20 years.

3. Anti-Terrorism Design
In the wake of the 1995 terrorist bombing of the AP Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the GSA adopted blast-resistant standards for federal facilities. Since the window openings are vulnerable to blast exposure, the goal to upgrade the blast integrity of the fenestration often conflicts with the historic character of the windows. The design of blast-resistant windows has no historic relevance and fails to match the existing systems. It is possible, however, to make compromises where both agendas can be satisfied. Re-View has restored historic wood and steel windows and then installed a blast resistant storm window into the opening. We have also adapted existing windows with laminated glass.

4. Owner-Driven Preferences
Often the owners of the buildings and their maintenance departments get involved in the design phase of a preservation project and insert their agenda on the scope of work. This contingent usually is very focused on reducing maintenance costs and improving energy efficiency. There is a misperception that if one can replace the historic wood windows with aluminum or vinyl, you will never have to worry about painting again. Since this group has no formal preservation training, they tend to gravitate towards short-term solutions that have lower costs. These decision makers only hope that they will retire before the replacement windows have to be replaced.

5. Inexperienced Architects
There are a lot of very talented restoration architects in the United States. They achieved success by becoming students of the trade and learning on the job through the school of hard knocks. In these tough economic times, it is not uncommon to see architectural firms stretch beyond their competencies in the pursuit of other business opportunities. We often run into architects who have little to no experience on preservation projects. These newbies are inclined to utilize means and methods of new construction because that is their frame of reference. Inexpensive window replacements are a common specification item for inexperienced architects.

I guess I shouldn’t get upset about the windows on a single courthouse. Last year a tragedy occurred in Toledo, OH. The commissioners of the Seneca County Courthouse voted to demolish an architectural gem because it was less expensive to build a new courthouse. This signature building constructed in 1884 succumbed to the wrecking ball while protesters cried on the sidelines. One thing we could all learn from our friends in Europe is to show more respect for historic architecture. As preservationist we need to view ourselves as the stewards of the historic environment.

Brooks Gentleman has been in the wood window and architectural millwork business for the past 25 years and is currently the owner of Re-View, a manufacturer of custom wood window replicas for historic landmarks across the country based in Kansas City, MO.

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