Debating the Cost-Benefits of Synthetics

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By: Brent Runyon
Published: 06/14/11

The Falmouth Historic Districts Commission took a step toward allowing materials other than wood in windows of historic buildings in the town’s seven historic districts on Tuesday, after reviewing samples of both old and new windows.

Commissioner Jeremy J. Ballard, who works in historic window preservation, brought in a wooden window from the 1920s that included the kind of historical details that the commission has tried to preserve in Davisville, Falmouth Village, North Falmouth, Quissett, Waquoit, West Falmouth and Woods Hole.

Mr. Ballard pointed out that the working parts of the window are made of wood, unlike the windows of today that include alternative materials such as vinyl. The old window raised and lowered with the aid of a counterweight attached to a length of rope inside the jamb.

The clean simple lines of the single-glazed panes and solid wood muntins separating the panes add to the appearance of the window, Mr. Ballard said. The old window can easily be distinguished from current double-glazed windows, which have a space between the two panes, he said, that can be seen from a distance as a black void.

“That’s going to last 100 years,” Mr. Ballard said pointing to the old window. New windows generally have a 10- to 15-year warranty, he said.

Devil in the details

There are some details that cannot be replicated by the windows of today, he said, such as a thin bottom rail along the lower sash. New windows have bulky thick rails along the bottom, he said, and a bump along the aluminum sill.

The old window was placed next to a demonstration product from Marvin Windows. The upper sash on the window was made of unpainted wood, while the lower sash was made of wood-clad aluminum painted gray.

Commissioner Christopher Harris brought in the Marvin window, but said there are numerous companies manufacturing windows with different details and styles. “We need to pinpoint what is important,” he said.

In the past the commission has approved historically appropriate wood windows for historic buildings, but Tuesday, the majority of commissioners said the details and dimensions are more important than the materials.

But Mr. Ballard questioned whether the commission should allow replacement windows at all. “I think the question is, ‘Do we want to accept replacement windows?’ ” he said.

Mr. Harris said there was no way not to allow at least some replacement windows.

Mr. Ballard said once replacement windows are allowed, it does not matter whether they are wood or aluminum-clad.

Commissioners said they had trouble comparing the different demonstration windows because they were not the same size, style or color, but commissioner Edward Haddad said he could not tell the difference between the clad window and the 1920s window from 20 feet away.

“From here, I don’t know that the 1920s window is not aluminum-clad,” he said.

Mr. Ross said he wanted to make sure to preserve the character of the historic district by keeping the unique characteristics of different homes.

“Every house has a different look and different windows, and I want it to stay that way,” he said.

Consultant Eric Dray said he wanted the commission to be aware that preserving the details of the windows is often negated by putting a full screen over the window.

“You put a full screen over it and it goes away,” he said. He recommended that the historic districts have half screens over the lower sash, and not over the upper sash.

Mr. Haddad said the dimensions of the window and the appearance are the important factors, not how the windows are constructed.

“Our mission is to preserve the look and appearance of the districts, not to make sure a house holds up for 200 years,” he said.

Mr. Ross said as long as the details are correct, alternative materials would be acceptable.

“I would love to go home at night and feel like we really accomplished something. If we could replicate it and make it look right, that would be a huge improvement,” he said.

A conflict of interest?

The commission said it would not take any public comment during the discussion, after holding two public hearings and accepting written comment for two weeks, but four members of the public attended the meeting, which led to a tense exchange.

Paul G. Breslin, a resident of the historic district in North Falmouth, and Beatrice A. Bunker, an architect of BSS Design, sat toward the back of the civil defense room and could be heard making critical remarks throughout the presentations by Mr. Ballard and Mr. Harris.

“You sitting there scuffing is not helping,” said Chairman Nathaniel C. Ross, addressing Mr. Breslin and Ms. Bunker directly.

“The misinformation is troubling,” Ms. Bunker said. “What is here is not the truth.”

Mr. Ross said that Ms. Bunker had given testimony at both public hearings and submitted written comment, and they were not seeking any more comments.

“I am going to ask you to leave,” Mr. Ross said. “I don’t want to ask you to leave, but I am going to ask you to leave.”

The minutes of the meeting were being taken by Maureen McIver, who is hearing-impaired and uses lip reading and hearing aids. She said that Mr. Breslin and Ms. Bunker were impeding her ability to take the minutes and asked them to stop talking.

The audience remained quiet for the rest of the meeting, but aired their grievances after the meeting in the hallway.

Mr. Breslin said that because Mr. Ballard preserves historic windows he is biased and should recuse himself from the discussion.

“We’ve got Dracula minding the blood bank,” he said.

Ms. Bunker said she was upset that the contemporary window presented was not representative of the quality choices available on the market.

Lillia D. Frantin who lives in the historic district on Old Main Road, North Falmouth, said the commission had crossed the line from advising homeowners on choices like windows, to enforcing its own subjective aesthetic choices onto homeowners.

“It’s like the art appreciation Nazis,” she said.

Rachel P. White of Old Main Road, North Falmouth, said the aesthetic decisions of the commission have a real financial impact on homeowners, which is very difficult to take when people are having real financial problems.

Falmouth Historic Districts Commission will meet again tomorrow at 5:30 PM to continue the discussion on the proposed historic guidelines.

At the end of the meeting, the commission reorganized and elected Mr. Ballard as the new chairman and Mr. Haddad as the vice chairman.

Mr. Ross said he had been chairman for too long and no longer wanted the position. “I’m done,” he said.

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