Nation’s Historic Windows in Urgent Need of Care & Repair

old stone historic building with sash windows and chimneys

The charity English Heritage has launched an urgent appeal to raise funds to fix deteriorating historic windows across the country. Assault from the elements, lashing British rain and (occasional) scorching sun are damaging their historic window frames. What’s more, few tradespeople have the expertise or knowledge of traditional building practices needed to fix them anymore. This combination of weather-wear and a skills shortage means that the regular, routine maintenance of these windows isn’t getting done.

Most of English Heritage’s properties and their windows are hundreds of years old. The importance of maintaining and caring for such historic windows can’t be overstated when it comes to keeping them in tip-top condition. In this article, we thought we’d shed a little light on historic windows and the pressing problems English Heritage are facing.

The importance of historic windows

English Heritage works to conserve historic buildings across the UK. They also try to engage people with history, bringing it to life through activities and events to help visitors understand what it was like living in these buildings in the past.

These are both important aims, and they are closely intertwined. The buildings protected by English Heritage have a lot to share about the past that we can learn from. It is also important to honour the work that went into building them and the knowledge that was used to construct them. This, of course, includes the windows which are an integral part of any building. In fact, as English Heritage’s Senior Estate Manager, Nicola Duncan-Finn has said:

“Windows are the eyes of a building and can tell you a huge amount, not only about the status of its owners, trends of the time and the materials available, but uniquely they also bear the hand of their original carpenter and so are irreplaceable.”

English Heritage doesn’t just preserve these windows either. By seeking out craftspeople with heritage skills, they help to preserve the skills too. They are supporting joiners who are able to repair a 17th century pegged joint and glaziers with the ability to carefully, deftly, remove aged putty and handle fragile historic glass. This means they aren’t just keeping their windows historically accurate, they are ensuring these important traditional trades are preserved too.

English Heritage & historic windows: facts & stats

  • English Heritage maintains over 13,000 windows across the country
  • The charity needs to spend more than £1 million to care for these windows, across the next 5 years alone
  • This problem doesn’t only affect English Heritage owned properties – more than 52% of homes built before 1919 have had their historic windows replaced with modern uPVC ones
  • This means over 83% of conservation areas in the country are affected
  • Estate agents believe these inaccurate windows are the biggest threat to property prices in conservation areas. 78% of estate agents thought it would also take longer to sell homes with these windows installed


Common problems with historic windows

The problems that plague the historic windows in English Heritage’s buildings take special skills and specific materials to fix them. However, many of these problems can affect windows of any age, particularly timber ones.

Here are some issues that English Heritage has to tackle, which you might want to look out for with your own timber windows:

1) Problems in the brickwork outside the frame

Technically not a problem with the window itself, but if the aged pointing around the frame starts to fail, this can leave the whole window vulnerable. If the pointing is cracked, loose or starts to fall out, moisture can start to get into the frame and wet rot can form in the wood.

2) Evidence that water is being absorbed into the frame

If moisture gets into a wooden frame, it can cause the wood to rot and decay. Keep an eye out for these signs that suggest water is seeping into your frames:

  • Paint starting to crack and flake away either inside or outside of your window
  • The joins around the frames starting to open up due to swelling or wood flaking away
  • Wood softening, darkening and starting to split

3) Sash windows that stick and catch

Older sash windows can stop moving smoothly. This can be irritating for a user but it can also have more serious ramifications. Using too much force to open or shut a sash window can lead to the mechanism, frame or even the window panes getting damaged.

If a sash window refuses to move properly, you should check whether:

  • the paint on the frame or mechanism is too thick
  • the sash cord has snapped
  • the pulley wheels have seized or stopped working. If they have, check whether this is because they’ve been overpainted, they need cleaning or need lubrication

These are some of the most common issues to affect older timber windows. If your conservation area windows seem to be failing, checking for these problems is a good place to start. Some of them are easy to address, but if you live in a historic building with original windows then you should seek a professional opinion for persistent issues.

As English Heritage has highlighted, the windows in historic buildings need specialist care. Maintenance methods and materials should stay true to the window’s provenance to preserve the historical integrity of a building. What’s more, if a repair is possible, that should always be the answer with historic windows – it’s much better to try and preserve them in their original glory rather than replace them. Window replacements are used only as a last resort and a joiner or historic glazing expert will be able to tell whether that is appropriate.

We see the work English Heritage is doing, and we support it. We’ve got our fingers crossed they get the money they need so that future generations can enjoy the craftsmanship of these ancient windows.

Whilst we would never mess with windows that are centuries old, we do offer window replacements suited to traditional properties and older properties in conservation areas. We can offer classic timber cords and weights sash windows and wooden conservation casement windowsget in touch to find out more.