Front door

Front door

The first floor has what look like original windows. They’re single pane, wood framed, and while they were probably nice when they were new they leak heat like a sieve and they’re falling apart. The front door is a newer steel door, but it’s cheap, scratched and dented, it’s been kicked in at least once from the looks of it, and in typical fashion it was installed wrong. Plus it’s an 80″ door that was retrofitted into an 84″ opening. The original transom over it is visible from the inside but sided over on the outside. It’s all in need of an upgrade.

The process of shopping for new windows and doors started, as usual, with Google. I educated myself on panes, glazing, U-factors, R-values, SHGC, visual transmittance, aluminum, vinyl, fiberglass, wood cladding, air leakage, and more. I did research on companies, materials, methods, and pricing. We’re trying to make our house energy efficient, not just to save money but to conserve resources. That said, money inevitably comes into play with a lot of these calculations.

After learning about different window types, styles, and their respective properties, we started considering what we wanted. When it comes to resale, “new windows” is about as far as most prospective buyers go, so the prevailing wisdom is not to spend a ton on them. Resale isn’t our top priority, though. We want to build a house that will last, which means using quality materials. The second floor already has “new” windows, and they’re about as cheap as it gets. Most are single-hung vinyl from three different brands. They leak air and in some cases water, they were installed wrong, and they conduct heat badly. As a result we’re planning on replacing all of them when we redo the second floor, which seems like a waste, but even if they weren’t crappy windows most of them are damaged or the wrong size.

I settled on fiberglass frames because they’re stronger than vinyl and will hold up better. I didn’t want wood cladding because even good windows can condense if the indoor humidity gets too high, and when that happens wood-clad windows don’t hold up well. I also didn’t want aluminum frames because even with thermal breaks they generally don’t insulate as well. I discovered, not surprisingly, that high-end fiberglass windows with great efficiency are very expensive, to the point that they don’t make a lot of sense when you consider the money you save on energy versus what you spend on the windows.

If our house had a big window curtain wall, the window efficiency would make a lot more difference. As it is, we don’t have a ton of square footage of windows. We closed up the windows on the North wall, leaving about 185 square feet of window and doors on the first floor, or about 14% of the wall area. I narrowed my search to three reasonably priced fiberglass window manufacturers and started getting quotes. To minimize air loss I stuck with casements and awning-over-picture windows, though in the back we have a sliding glass door with transom and one double-hung because an open casement would block the stairs off the porch.

I initially focused on triple-pane windows. The third pane increases the glazing and reduces air convection within the window. They are notably more efficient than double pane windows and the first company I talked to said they only add about 10% to the cost. However, after I got a quote back from one of the other companies, the salesperson noted it would be considerably cheaper with double pane. I asked for a double pane quote and, at least from them, the price came down by 25%. That was enough to give me pause, so I went back and re-did my heat loss calculations. When I factored in the cost of energy (albeit at today’s prices), it would take over 50 years to recoup the price difference. While I expect energy prices to go up and the windows to last that long, it was still a tough sell.

The deciding factor was the front door. No one seemed to make an entry door that I liked, mostly since I’m really picky. Last year Sarah and I decided to add a consistent style to certain elements of the house, a theme if you will, of curved wrought iron, to the railings on the stairs and the front porch and to the glass on the front door, as well as other accents throughout the house. Not all of the door manufacturers had wrought iron styles that we liked. I’d also seen operable sidelites, where the windows adjacent to the door are screened and open to let in air, so you don’t have to have a screen door. I don’t like screen doors because they make it difficult to go through the door if you’re carrying things and they ruin the look of a front door, so I was immediately sold. Unfortunately only a few manufacturers sell them. Finally, most of the steel and fiberglass doors have a wood frame and the door itself is built with wood. It’s exposed to the elements and often looks bad inside of five years without regular repainting. Only a few had composite frames and steel door construction.

Iron Door

Iron Door

Then I stumbled across iron doors. Iron doors are relatively new on the consumer market. They combine a heavy gauge steel door and frame with wrought iron scrollwork. Best of all they have operable sidelites, they’re filled with polyurethane insulation and you can get Low-E glass so they’re fairly energy efficient, plus they look gorgeous. On top of that they’re extremely secure. The drawbacks were two-fold: very few have a thermal break and all of them are expensive.

The thermal break issue is that the door and frame are made with solid steel tubing, so heat is conducted through the metal despite the insulation inside. This can lead to condensation if there’s enough humidity and temperature difference, not to mention heat loss. I found a couple of companies offering thermal breaks in their iron doors, but they were prohibitively expensive (think new sub-compact car), which only exasperated the second problem. After scouring the Internet for a reasonably priced solution, I finally gave up on the thermal break.

The price difference for the iron door over a regular fiberglass or steel door was about the same as the price difference between the double and triple pane windows. A door we really love, that makes a strong first impression to visitors, plus adds resale value to the house versus an up to fifty-year payback in energy efficiency from triple pane windows was a fairly easy choice. We decided on double pane fiberglass windows from Inline Fiberglass and an iron door from Donatello Doors. It will take six to twelve weeks to get them made and delivered and then we’ll still need time to install them, so we’re ordering now.

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