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From the Ground Up: Windows and Doors

What makes a grand opening? Tom Silva explains how to choose and install windows and doors to make your home weather-tight.

Windows and doors diagram
Illustration by Ian Worpole
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We ask a lot of our windows and doors. We want glass transparent enough to let in the sunshine yet substantial enough to resist impact and block drafts, and sophisticated enough to prevent heat loss or gain. We want historically accurate styles that look and act like wood but never need painting. And we want units that seal tight when closed—until we want lots of air, and then we expect them to open with the flick of a finger.

Reconciling all those needs seemed impossible 25 years ago, when homeowners were actually walling up drafty windows to save on heating bills. But now, to an amazing degree, today's windows and doors let us have it all—style and better performance. The biggest improvement has been in energy efficiency, thanks to double-pane insulated glass and low-e coatings, which substantially reduce heat transfer. Hardware has also improved, says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva. "Balancing systems for double-hung windows just get better and better, tilt-in sash eliminate the need to wash windows from a ladder, and adjustable door hinges allow fine tuning if the house settles. All of these things are a huge benefit to the homeowner."

Of course, none of these improvements matter if a window or door lets in water. For Tom's no-leak installation technique, read on.

We ask a lot of our windows and doors. We want glass transparent enough to let in the sunshine yet substantial enough to resist impact and block drafts, and sophisticated enough to prevent heat loss or gain. We want historically accurate styles that look and act like wood but never need painting. And we want units that seal tight when closed—until we want lots of air, and then we expect them to open with the flick of a finger.

Reconciling all those needs seemed impossible 25 years ago, when homeowners were actually walling up drafty windows to save on heating bills. But now, to an amazing degree, today's windows and doors let us have it all—style and better performance. The biggest improvement has been in energy efficiency, thanks to double-pane insulated glass and low-e coatings, which substantially reduce heat transfer. Hardware has also improved, says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva. "Balancing systems for double-hung windows just get better and better, tilt-in sash eliminate the need to wash windows from a ladder, and adjustable door hinges allow fine tuning if the house settles. All of these things are a huge benefit to the homeowner."

Of course, none of these improvements matter if a window or door lets in water. For Tom's no-leak installation technique, read on.

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What to Look For

 

What to Look For

Windows and doors diagram
Illustration by Ian Worpole
What to look for in entry doors:
  • Foam weatherstripping wrapped in rubberized nylon: Doesn't lose its shape.
  • Solid-brass hinges: Won't rust.
  • Thick jambs (5/4- or 6/4-inch): "You're going to hang a heavy door on them," Tom says. "They'll be taking a lot of abuse."
  • White oak or aluminum sill: Stands up well to constant foot traffic. Mahogany and cherry are also good choices.


What to look for in windows:

  • Low-e glazing: The transparent, heat-reflective metal coating adds 10 to 15 percent to a window's cost, but reduces energy loss by 30 to 50 percent.
  • Energy Star label: Shows that a window meets threshold efficiency for a given climate zone, based on standardized tests of actual products.
  • Stainless steel spacers with a thermal break: Unlike old-style spacers between the panes of insulated glass, these prevent conductive heat loss around pane perimeter.
  • Tilt-in sash (on double-hung windows): Allows easy cleaning without climbing a ladder.
  • Sash made with solid wood or plastic composites: Stronger than all-vinyl construction.


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No-Leak Installation

 

No-Leak Installation

windows with built-in aluminum casing
Photo by Kolin Smith
Every window and door, no matter how well made, represents a potential entry point for water. So when Tom Silva installs one, he makes sure it stays weatherproof. "Spending a few extra dollars in time and materials in the beginning saves you from hundreds of dollars worth of repairs later on," he says.



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As Seen on TV

 

As Seen on TV

High-Fiber interior door
Photo by Courtesy of Trustile
Built-in Aluminum Casing
Windows with integrated exterior casings come to the job site with the exterior trim already attached, saving hours of fussy carpentry. Typically, integrated casings have been little more than pieces of pine tacked to the window frame. But the windows for the Manchester house project have integral aluminum casing, a thick metal extrusion welded to the window frame to create a seamless, factory-painted surround that's impervious to the weather.



High-fiber Doors
Unlike an entry door, where the chief concerns are security and weatherproofing, interior doors are selected mostly by aesthetics and by price. A door made of MDF (medium-density fiberboard) wins on both counts: the same crisp detail and heft as solid wood at about half the cost (for 1 3/4-inch models). MDF has to be painted, but it doesn't warp or swell, or suffer from paint cracks. No surprise that all the interior doors at the Billerica project were MDF.



Tight Interior Storms
After spending hundreds of man-hours restoring the historic windows on the front facade of the Salem project, "we thought it would b a shame to hide them behind modern storm windows," recalls TOH senior producer Bruce Irving. The solution: custom-made vinyl storm panels that snap into place against the inside casing—even if the windows are out of square—ensuring a virtually airtight fit.

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On the Horizon

 

On the Horizon

25th Windows and Doors
Photo by Courtesy Innerglass
Cutting-edge glass
The greatest advancements in windows in the coming years will be in the glazing. In the works: windows that do double duty as TV screens, touch-screen monitors, and speakers for home theaters. But here's a list of high-tech glass already on the market that does a lot more than just let light through.

  • Radiant: Heat-producing glass makes even window-filled sunrooms cozy on winter nights. Already popular in Europe and now available here.
  • Self-cleaning: Embedded titanium dioxide dissolves surface dirt when exposed to the sun's UV rays. Rain washes dirt away, reducing the need for manual cleanings by half.
  • Switchable: A layer of liquid crystals sandwiched between glass sheets switches instantly from clear to opaque when low-voltage current is applied.
  • Darkening: Electrochromic technology slowly darkens glass at the touch of a button to control glare, reduce solar heat gain, and protect interiors from UV, but not enough for complete privacy.


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Where to Find It

 

Where to Find It

High-tech glass options
Photo by Courtesy Research Frontiers, Inc.
Self-adhered window and door flashing:
Vycor Plus Grace Constructio Products
Cambridge, MA
617-498-4472
www.graceconstruction.com

Built-in aluminum casing:
Pozzi Window Company
Klamath Falls, OR
800-535-3462

High-fiber doors:
Tru-stile doors Inc.
Denver, CO
888-286-3931
www.trustile.com

Interior storms:
The Alternative Window Co.
Simsbury, CT
800-743-6207

 
 

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