Seeing clearly: There’s more to residential windows than meets the eye

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Windows are "the only piece of your house that you can see from the inside and outside," said Gaston & Wyatt's Mark Wingerd. File photo Windows are "the only piece of your house that you can see from the inside and outside," said Gaston & Wyatt's Mark Wingerd. File photo

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Surely, this means the eyes are pretty darn crucial. But what about windows? “Why is a window important? There are lots of reasons,” said Mark Wingerd, architectural salesperson for Charlottesville-based, high-end windows purveyor Gaston & Wyatt. “For one, it’s the only piece of your house that you can see from the inside and outside.”

That’s pretty poetic in its own right.

On top of being a necessary aesthetic choice, windows are critical when it comes to UV light protection and energy efficiency. The seal around the window and the glass used in its construction both figure into its U-factor, or rate of heat transfer. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, U-factor values generally range from 0.25 to 1.25, with lower values indicating better insulating windows.

Glass grade (whether the glass is “low-E” or not, to put it simply) is only one piece of the window puzzle. Shape, double-hung vs. single-hung, color, hardware, muntin bars (the strips that separate individual panes), sills, millwork, and frame and casing material all must be considered. Wingerd suggests consulting an expert, be it an architect or a window contractor, when trying to navigate all the choices you’ll have to make.

“It’s important to know what all the pieces are called, what options are available, and what choices would make sense for your application,” he said. Initial consultations often come free of charge.

According to Wingerd, the big differentiator for window quality is construction material. Low-end windows are typically vinyl and sometimes fiberglass. These are the windows you see in tract subdivisions and spec houses. Higher-end windows are metal or wood. Hybrid types using both metal and wood, often called clad windows, are increasingly popular.

“You can get a clad window, which is a durable material on the outside, like aluminum or fiberglass, and wood on the inside,” Wingerd said. “Some aluminum casings have a wood look to them. It reduces the maintenance and increases durability but satisfies the traditionalists that want to stay with wood.”

Wingerd said people who want high-end windows should expect a product that not only looks good but also requires less maintenance and should last more than 50 years with proper care. Durable windows with a high grade of paint ususally require only occasional maintenance, like lubrication and cleaning, where vinyl windows must be painted once every three years or so.

The final consideration when installing new windows is screening. While you can purchase windows without screens, a wide range of options—retractable screens, swing screens, screens of fiberglass, aluminum, or even bronze—are available to those who’d like to let in some fresh air without letting in fresh pests.

Windows on our world

Windows are a costly consideration for anyone going through a remodel or rebuild. Depending on the number of windows in your house, they can be one of the priciest single items you’ll encounter.

“Because windows are so expensive, they should be customized to what you want,” said Gaston & Wyatt’s Mark Wingerd. “If you’re not interested in high-end windows, you can go to a mid-range window that will do a lot of what you want for the price, or a very inexpensive window, where you get what you pay for.”

Here is a quick breakdown of the categories.

Low-end windows: Prefabricated vinyl windows typically run between $50 and $200 at big box stores like Sears.

Mid-range windows: For $200-300, home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot offer ready-to-install metal and wood windows. Pella brand windows are a good bet for a product that delivers high quality for a reasonable price.

High-end windows: Custom pieces produced of metal, wood, or clad wood are the highest quality windows available, and they can cost thousands, depending on your needs. You should expect some of the investment to be offset by energy savings and lower maintenance costs.

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