Producers Focus on Details in Re-Making History

Manufacturers find success in strict, custom niche
By Christina Lewellen
November 15, 2007
FEATURE ARTICLE | Aesthetics & Style, Segments

There’s a spectrum of what constitutes a “historic” window. Depending on guidelines outlined by historical trusts and preservation societies and decision makers involved with the project, historic renovation solutions can range from refinishing and reglazing the original sash and frames to recreating a specific look with a brand new window made to incorporate historic features. As one of the few building products that serve as both an interior and exterior feature, windows and doors are nearly always an important part of a historic building, according to the National Park Service, a government agency that oversees historic properties with guidelines and information about how buildings should be restored and maintained.

“There is an affluent audience out there that’s willing to pay for a handmade look and feel,” says Jeff Williams, brand manager for Weather Shield Windows & Doors. “They don’t want a plastic grandfather clock—they want the real McCoy. The same goes for millwork. They want products that truly match the character of their homes.”

The work, in some cases, is quite specific, detail-driven and time consuming. For all the focus on lean manufacturing and optimizing throughput, there are still segments of the window and door industry that are best left to the bench-built approach. Even some of the largest manufacturers in the country have specialty shops tucked inside their production facilities to handle the types of orders that aren’t suited for the regular production line. This type of offline capability is particularly ideal for serving the historic replication market, manufacturers say.

As producers of all sizes have carved out their spot in the historic renovation spectrum to serve the small but reportedly growing niche, some focus on replicating windows for replacement applications while others hone in on new construction products meant to look 100 years old. But in almost all cases, windows for the historic market are characterized by the throwback to slower production methods focused on quality rather than quantity. “The modern manufacturing philosophy is system based,” explains Williams. “We want to produce something as quickly as possible but keep in mind what that does. Modern mouldings, for example, are much less detailed. It’s a reflection of the time. But in this case [for historic products], we’re going back to the hand-build, bench-built model because it gives a much more aesthetically pleasing result.”

The key to the historic market is to make products visually accurate while masking the modern performance features, says Kevin Zeluck, co-president of third-generation window manufacturer Zeluck Inc., based in Brooklyn, N.Y. “For the most part, we’re reproducing the existing historical windows and doors with one twist,” he says. “We’re making the new product an energy-efficient product with state-of-the-art glass and technology. We’re recreating, copying the old, visually. But we’re putting in the IG so it not only has the visual but also the necessary energy savings of today.”

NEW BUT LOOKS OLD
Industry representatives contend there will always be a market of upper-end buyers who want technologically advanced products that look as if they were built years ago. These types of windows and doors are an interesting hybrid of features like IG units and weatherstripping and physical characteristics such as divided lites and thicker sash components. At this end of the historic spectrum, windows are designed to match a certain era but are not replicas of existing windows. In fact, many of these products are going into brand new buildings, meeting the needs of architects and homeowners who are aiming for a period-inspired design. “We tend to see folks who want to recreate the look of a traditional, single-glazed, multipane window—a very traditional look,” says Chris Pickering, business manager for MW Windows & Doors’ wood clad and composite products. “These folks also tend to want a variety of exterior casing options. Some want the traditional brickmold look, but others want a wider, flat casing, what we call the Williamsburg casing. It has a very traditional look and feel.”

MW offers its Jefferson Series window line with many historical features to its geographic distribution, which covers about 30 states, mostly east of the Mississippi river. While traditional looks are particularly popular in the Northeast, Pickering reports a strong resurgence in historic designs in the south Atlantic states. “The segment of the market that’s holding up really well are the custom home builders who are building three-quarters-of-a-million to $2.5 million homes,” he says. “They’re historically accurate in some areas.”

Weather Shield Window & Doors’ HR 175 window, a more Colonial product for renovation on the East Coast, and more recently its Collections line, with a Spanish, Southwest flair for new construction, have thicker sash components and are generally wood windows inside and out. The manufacturer’s engineers looked at historic products to draw inspiration for the detailed lines, Williams says. “There’s authentic attention to detail where the joints meet,” he explains. “For years, windows were built with stiles running through the rails. Somewhere over time, modern manufacturing got away from that. A lot of manufacturers miter joints rather than using butt joints. You can do that more efficiently by changing that arrangement around, but it’s not authentic.”

This attention to detail helps designers achieve the specific look for which they’re aiming. “What we’ve been able to do is go back and develop a window line that really pays respects to the past,” he continues, “and we’ve created some versatility for architects in really authentic lines.”

Although the Collections line is a new construction offering, it does not roll off the company’s automated production line, Williams explains. The frame pieces are run on a modern moulder but once they are cut, they’re hand-fitted together by a team of craftsmen dedicated to the line. “When you walk in the shop, they’ve got old leather aprons on and wooden rulers in their pockets,” he says. “They’re true craftsmen. It’s just like walking into a woodworking shop 150 years ago.”

Suppliers, too, say the “new” market is marked with demand for products that look old. Hickory Hardware—an umbrella company that includes several hardware suppliers—offers aftermarket products through national retail chains. Its Designer Collection, which is more detailed and comes in limited, accurate finish options, is popular among homeowners who want their door handles to look aged, says Kevin Dewald, product manager. “It looks handmade. It looks rustic,” he notes. “We try to follow traditional finishing looks that the hardware would have originally been finished in.”

What helps designers at Hickory Hardware is the fact that its legacy companies stretch back about 100 years—making for a library ripe with historically accurate drawings. “We actually draw back on our archives and reintroduce styling that works for today’s market,” Dewald says. “That’s a big plus for us and our design staff to have those resources at our fingertips.”

Like the window fabricators, hardware suppliers match older looks with new mechanics so the products marry technological advances with the correct aesthetics. “Our coatings are a lot different than they were years ago,” Dewald says. “They’re much more durable. A lot of people talk about ‘living finishes’ [that age naturally with time and exposure to the environment] and things like that. It’s a lot of fun to talk about, but in reality, it doesn’t work well. We give our hardware an antique look and lock it in there. You don’t have to worry about one handle being bright and shiny and another one looking more antiqued.”

Even suppliers that are traditionally rooted in the new construction market, such as ODL with its doorlites, are being pulled into the historic market to help create an accurate look. “In today’s market, we are seeing more requests to customize doorglass, transoms and fixed windows—unique sizes, preferred caming finish, increased opacity,” says Kelly Bourque, product manager for ODL’s doorglass division.

The company has stayed flexible to offer throwback looks and finishes to demanding customers in the historically-inspired new construction realm. “We certainly do see this design trend and our challenge is to anticipate it and respond as quickly and accurately as sophisticated customers demand,” Bourque says. “As we watch our wrought iron designs gain popularity and the demand for brass fade, we know it’s only a matter of time before brass, or something updated yet similar, comes back into the picture. We’ll be ready for it.”

RE-MAKING HISTORY
An arguably greater labor of love lies on the other end of the historic renovation spectrum, which involves replication of existing windows for replacement applications. Producers involved in the replication niche say there isn’t always a ton of volume in the historic renovation market, but projects such as these certainly keep a company on its toes. Customers want original hardware, meticulously detailed designs and even old growth timber for the most authentic looking frames.

This end of the spectrum is where the stories get particularly interesting. “We’ve had jobs where people actually request a certain lite size,” recalls Dale Maerz, director of customer relations for Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. “They’ll take it throughout the whole house. That’s the size they want. So, we’ll make windows to whatever size that works out to be. That’s the look they want and that’s what they have to have.”

“We just did a job, a historic building, where they tore out a window from the building and sent it to us and said, ‘Make 75 that look just like this,’” says Darrin Peterson, Marvin Windows & Doors’ Signature products and services manager.

“Residential customers are buying those houses because of the history and they want to preserve that history to the point where you have to buy old growth pine,” says James Eaton, president of Little Harbor Window Co., a Berwick, Maine-based window maker that does a significant portion of its business in the historic market. “Most of our windows we make from mahogany, but they’ll insist that you buy the specific species the rest of the house is made from.”

How exact the replication must be depends on the owner, architect and whether there are historical guidelines in place on the property. As long as physical attributes are met and maintained, manufacturers are able to weave in performance features. “We have the old weight and chain windows that give an old, authentic look,” says Kolbe’s Maerz. “But it will have insulated glass and weatherstripping, unlike the products from back then, and give them energy efficiency at the same time.”

The key in replica designs is to disguise modern elements, producers say. The inclusion of an IG unit in a replica often calls for the use of simulated divided lites, utilizing muntins and spacer bars to create the look of true divided lites in a dual-paned unit. Manufacturers also take steps to hide vinyl jambliners if they are part of the window design, make the exterior lites appear putty glazed with a bevel, and even use an aluminum clad profile so the window appears to be made of wood but comes with lighter maintenance requirements. Peterson, an industry veteran of 20 years who has been involved with Marvin’s primarily historic renovation division for 10 years, says many historic districts have become more accepting recently of how modern options such as aluminum cladding can have significant impacts on performance, but not aesthetics. “When I first started, there were very stringent historic districts,” he says. “You went in and replaced a wood window with wood windows. But now they’re more interested in what we can do with aluminum clad. That’s how the business has changed in the last five years—these historic districts have been able to see what we’re able to do with an aluminum profile.”

For those customers who do want wood products, Marvin and other manufacturers set about matching the design, even cutting the knives that carve the profiles so they match the original silhouette. “We are coming up with window solutions to fit those openings,” Peterson explains. “In some cases we design a brand new product. It might be the same style with unique hardware and operational features. But where we’re probably doing the majority of our work is matching profiles—exactly replicating those old wood windows. In some cases, we’re putting in replacement wood products where the profiling and detailing match the original wood product.”

Marvin does most of its historic renovation work in the commercial realm, providing replacement products for notable buildings on university campuses and in historically protected zones. Many residential needs can be met with Marvin’s standard portfolio, Peterson explains, but his custom division will fill out an order by completing a few unique components. “Maybe we’ll have a window that’s very important to the integrity of a Victorian home—that’s where we fit in to the rest of the base product line,” he says.

For properties where exact matching isn’t necessary, manufacturers will help buyers create close-but-not-exact solutions to keep the project reasonable. “We try to focus on sensible alternatives while still trying to maintain the original look of the windows and doors,” says Little Harbor’s Eaton. “We try to match the stiles and rails, but as far as muntin profiles and things, we try to steer them into things that make a little more sense and keep costs in line.”

THE FUTURE OF HISTORY
Just like the window industry of past eras, where smaller regional companies handled fenestration work and put their own design twist into products, Eaton contends that there’s room in today’s historic market for smaller manufacturers who want to specialize in a certain region’s needs. “It is a very small market, but I would encourage smaller companies that are interested in it to follow through,” he says. “It’s not unlike the market that was around when these buildings were built originally. There should be little shops everywhere handling however many historic jobs per year.”

For historic societies that are fussy about the details, suppliers must have a good working knowledge of the attributes of windows in the region, Eaton says. “You have to be willing to do the research on each geographical area,” he explains. “Each had their own window builders, their own windowsmiths. You need to go out and research homes to see what the construction methods were, what profiles they had, and you have to grind the knives to match those windows.”

Zeluck agrees there’s a certain level of dedication that comes with doing this type of work. “You can’t just jump into this,” he says. “You can get into the window business and make windows, but to be great at [historic work], there’s a craftsmanship and level of experience that’s necessary to do it the right way.
“The tooling that you have is very important,” he continues. “We have libraries of tooling for different profiles. We do a lot of buildings on Fifth Avenue in New York City and those buildings have a certain repetition to them. We have those in stock, but we will also recreate a new one. We know how to sit down and produce it from the drawing.”

When Eaton started Little Harbor Window, he did a lot of work on churches and residential buildings in strict New England historic districts. Now that the company has grown, the paperwork and approval process has nudged it somewhat out of the historic realm, which is why he sees an opportunity for smaller companies that have the time to do historic work right. “That type of work is very fussy,” he says. “It’s not so much the actual woodworking but the rigmarole with the approvals. As we got bigger, we had to draw the line at what we could do. The construction of the windows isn’t the problem, it’s the drawing and approvals.”

Despite the strict processes and requirements, Eaton says starting out in the historic market can provide valuable lessons for companies such as his with eyes on the high-end luxury market. “We never went and looked at brand windows to see how to build windows,” he says. “We looked at historic stuff. It’s a good place to start because the way they used to build is the correct way to do it. If those windows are still around, obviously it was done right.”

  • A Window into History

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    Most windows in the United States in the 17th century were wooden casement windows with tiny glass panes nestled between lead cames. The early part of the 1700s was characterized by single-hung sash, but we transitioned to double hung later in the century. Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, these small, wood windows featured small panes of glass, wide muntins and decorative trim. As time progressed, sash thickness increased and muntins thinned in appearance as they narrowed in width but increased in thickness. Very much a regional industry, windows in certain parts of the country kept a geographic flavor throughout this period, such as “French windows” in some areas of the Deep South.

    Technological advances throughout the 19th century, particularly the advent of plate glass in the U.S., meant bigger panes of glass were available for residential and commercial buildings. Two-over-two lites came into style and, moving into the 20th century, a much wider variety of lite patterns and window designs populated homes, particularly in the colonial-style homes of the Northeast U.S.

    The information in this history lesson comes from the National Park Service and can be viewed on the Web at www.nps.gov.