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Alison Hardy from Window Woman of New England joins me to discuss the state of window restoration. If you’d ever wondered what preservationist discuss this episode is for you. We discuss:
- Can your windows be saved or are they really beyond repair?
- Repair vs. Replacement mindset
- The education process to combat the replacement window marketing machine
Contact information for Alison plus additional resources:
Alison Hardy – Window Woman of New England
Alison Hardy is owner of Window Woman of New England, Inc. Her company restores windows in the North of Boston/Merrimac Valley region. Alison has a BA from Denison University and an MBA from Boston University, only some of which is useful when scraping paint. When not restoring windows for other people she works on restoring her 1850’s farmhouse in Topsfield, MA.
Speaker 1: Thank you for tuning in to the Practical Preservation podcast. Please take a moment to visit our website practicalpreservationservices.com for additional information and tips to help you restore your historical home. If you’ve not yet done so, please subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher, and Sound Cloud. Also like us on Facebook.
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Practical Preservation podcast hosted by Danielle Keperling. Keperling Preservation Services is a family owned business based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania dedicated to the preservation of our built architectural history for today’s use, as well as future generations. Our weekly podcast provides you with expert advice specific to the unique needs of renovating a historic home. Educating by sharing our from the trenches preservation knowledge, and our guest’s expertise balancing modern needs while maintaining the historical significance, character, and beauty of your period home.
Danielle: Thank you for joining us for the Practical Preservation podcast. Today, we have Alison Hardy. She is the owner of Window Woman of New England, Incorporated. Her company restores windows in the north of Boston Merrimack Valley region. Alison has a BA from Denison University and an MBA from Boston University, only some of which is useful when scraping paint. When not restoring windows for other people, she works on restoring her 1850s farmhouse house in Topsfield, Massachusetts. Alison, thank you for joining us.
Alison: Thank you for inviting me, Danielle.
Danielle: Thank you. I know that we have met in person a couple of times, so I’m excited to have you here to share your knowledge and expertise. How did you get started in preservation? It kind of sounds like it was a meandering road, similar to mine.
Alison: Indeed, this is about my third career. I actually trained to do textile design and costume design and did that for many years, and sold large format printers for printing textiles. Then when my husband and I bought an old house, suddenly like most people in preservation, you start looking at your old house and appreciating your old house and getting interested in old houses. It really came about from owning a wreck of a house with windows in terrible condition. I said, “This is crazy. I must be able to fix these somehow.”
Danielle: Very good. Did you start at restoring your windows yourself? Did you learn yourself or did you take some classes? How did you figure out what you needed to do?
Alison: I am self-taught. Luckily, my husband builds furniture as a hobby, so he had a wood shop which was very handy. Then I am one of those people who will just go out and research a project to death, so I read as much as I could, went to some events on preservation and talked to as many people as I could, and just started chipping away at paint and figuring out how to re-putty a window, which is daunting at first, but after you do a couple hundred you get really good at it.
Danielle: Right, we joked that people, if they’re going to try to do it their selves should start in the back of the house.
Alison: Definitely, definitely somewhere you don’t want to see. In fact, the house that we’re in now, the first windows that I did are embarrassing.
Danielle: Oh no.
Alison: They’re my walk of shame every day. I’m like, “Oh, I really should redo those,” because I just didn’t have the patience for getting all of the paint off and doing all of the repair techniques that now we do.
Danielle: Right, and the little details do matter. We try to impart that, too, to our employees. That, just because you’re scraping paint doesn’t mean that that’s not one of the most important things that you’re doing on this window.
Alison: True, and it’s funny, we just had a batch of windows come in that had been scraped by an abatement company, and my crew was horrified at how badly they were done. I’m like, “Well, that’s why we insist on being neat and tidy and doing things so that you don’t harm the window, you actually make it better.”
Danielle: Yes, yes. Important lessons. How did you get started then selling your services to the public?
Alison: Well, funny enough, a friend of ours bought an apartment building in a town not far from us and said, “It’s got a bunch of windows in horrible shape. Do you want to tackle those?” I thought, “Sure, why not? I’ll give you a hand.” Which, turned out to be a huge project. I’ve never seen so much nicotine on a window in my life. That was sort of the cutting teeth to, yes I think I can do this for other people.
Alison: Then, you know, God bless America, you can hang out a shingle and start a business. That’s pretty much what I did and started off with some projects for friends, and then those friends knew other people. The good thing about the old house world is that they all talk to each other about products and services and suppliers. Luckily the word got out quickly.
Danielle: Right, that’s one thing I’ve noticed too is that, people are very willing to share their knowledge and information, which is very helpful. You know, even contractors and crafts people, they will share the information because it’s not, even though you might be a competitor, everybody is working towards the same goal.
Alison: It seems like once you find people who cherish older houses and older buildings, we want to support those businesses and we want to let other people know that this is a contractor or somebody who gets old houses just like we do, instead of the “rip them apart and make them into planned cottages.”
Danielle: Yeah, that kind of takes us into my next question. Why do you preserve windows? What makes you passionate about this?
Alison: I do so many estimates now, and it’s always amazing to me the condition of older original windows. You know, to somebody who’s not as observant as I am about windows, they may look terrible. The paint’s peeling, the glazing’s falling off, but to me, I’m like, “But look at the corners and the joints. They’re still in really good shape. They’re still beautifully built. They’re still serving their function. They fit the building. If we just do a little bit of repairs to them, they’ll be beautiful again.” It’s exciting, because most people who call me in kind of know that in the back of their mind, so it’s a validation of saying, “I thought they looked pretty good.” I’m like, “Yes, they are really good. Let’s save them.”
Danielle: Yes, you don’t have to listen to the person that told you, you just need to get new windows.
Alison: Right, I always use the analogy, if you got a flat tire, would somebody say you had to throw out the car and get a new one? It’s the same thing. You have a broken sash, it’s not the end of the world. It can be fixed.
Danielle: Right, right, very, very true. Since you kind of have been learning as you go, what do you wish that you knew when you started that you know now?
Alison: I think if I had any idea how much time was required for doing windows, I probably would have been terrified. You have to acknowledge that it’s a very labor intensive process and there’s not many shortcuts. If you do take shortcuts, it usually ends up costing you in the long run. I think if I really had thought about how much time was involved, I probably would have had a different idea.
Danielle: Yes. That’s true, and that’s one thing that I’ve been trying to explain to people. The majority of our cost is labor. We’re paying people to do this work.
Alison: Yes, glass isn’t a big of expense, wood isn’t a big expense, it’s just the people.
Danielle: Right, right. Have you made any major mistakes that you’re willing to make a public confession about?
Alison: I think undercharging in the beginning made my life a lot more difficult. Once you start charging fairly, your life gets a little bit better.
Danielle: That is really true, and from a business standpoint, that’s I think pretty typical for people who, especially are doing the hands on work, they do undervalue the contributions that they’re making.
Alison: It’s true. It’s hard to believe that people don’t really know what kind of value and cost to assign to window repairs. They know what replacement windows cost if they’ve been shopping around, but they really don’t know, and so it’s up to us to give a fair price. That we know how much time it’s going to take and we know what we need to do to get it done right, and it’s going to cost. It’s not a cheap process. We try to be as efficient as we can, but at the end of the day it’s still labor hours.
Danielle: Right, yeah.
Alison: I have to say, yeah, the other big mistake that I am always teetering on the edge of is I got asked to look at a project and the client said, “Well, you know, I had your competitor work on my last house and I don’t want to have them back.” I get all puffed up and go, “Yes, because we’re better.” It turns out that that’s a very bad mistake, because they’re usually very bad clients. I’ve learned to not get my ego all puffed up and think that we’re better than the other guy. No, sometimes they’re just bad clients.
Danielle: Yeah, and that’s true. Sometimes you do have to kind of see those warning signs and see how the development process goes before you make a commitment to them.
Danielle: What is the biggest challenge that you see in preservation, or even just in your corner of preservation?
Alison: I know, my very tiny corner of windows. Really, the hard thing is awareness. I can’t tell you how many times people say, “I had no idea anybody did this type of work. I had no idea anybody did this type of work.” It’s frustrating because we don’t have the big advertising budgets of the large replacement companies. We’re very small voices out in the world and it’s hard to get the message out there. I think that’s why we’re so grateful to word of mouth, is that that’s the most efficient way we can to spread the message, but it’s slow and painful and there’s nothing worse than finding out that somebody replaced their windows unnecessarily because they just had no idea that they had an option.
Danielle: That’s very true. We’re fighting the mentality of the past 50 or 60 years of being product installers rather than crafts people too, and looking at it as something that’s repairable rather than just having to replace it. All of that has been pushed by advertising. That is a very big challenge within preservation.
Alison: I think we all sort of cringe at the TV shows that people just take sledgehammers to buildings without even stopping to think about it, or at least not on camera they stop to think about it. It’s so maddening as a preservationist. You know, “Why are they just taking it down in the most destructive way possible? You can take a cabinet off a wall without having to take a sledgehammer to it.” It just drives me crazy.
Danielle: Right, it wouldn’t be as good TV.
Alison: Yeah, right?
Danielle: Do you see any trends in preservation? Any maybe glimmers of hope?
Alison: You know, I have been doing some estimates recently for young couples who are buying their first house and I keep hearing this, “I want to do it right. I want to be real. I grew up in a house with vinyl windows, I grew up in a house with vinyl siding and I don’t want my children to grow up in that kind of house.” I think this whole makers movement, you know, people wanting to get their hands dirty and to do projects and to build things is very encouraging, because once you do get your hands on something, then you start to appreciate it more. That, to me, has been exciting to hear people talk about they want to save things instead of throwing them away. I’m like, “Thank you, finally we’re getting to that point where we understand how bad all of the debris we create is.”
Danielle: Yes, yes, and I think it is values and it’s a mentality because I’ll even take shoes to get fixed and clothes to the tailor. It is, it’s a different mentality of you don’t have to just go out and get new, you can fix what you have, especially if you have a good quality. Then it’s really not more expensive, because you’re not paying it over and over again.
Alison: Right. We’ve had great success of going to some of the green fairs, even a lot of events that focus on local and sustainable foods, because that same mentality carries forward into your house. If you don’t want to eat fake food, why do you want to have fake windows? There’s a continuum here that it all sort of makes sense. Why would you want to create acres of trash and then demolish parts of your house unnecessarily? It all kind of goes together.
Danielle: It does, yeah, that’s very true. How do you keep up with trends in preservation?
Alison: I love to go to events. I think that’s probably the hardest thing for a lot of people who are working in the trades, is that they don’t have big travel budgets and they can’t get out to things. Making an effort to go and meet with fellow preservationists, we just had a wonderful meeting in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in February with the Window Preservation Alliance. This is a trade group that was formed two, three years ago now to bring together window restorers to raise awareness of window restoration, that we actually got started because there was a preservation conference that had one of the big replacement window contractors as a sponsor.
Danielle: Oh, yes.
Alison: We said, “This is crazy. How can we represent our side of the argument when we don’t even have a seat at the table?” The Window Preservation Alliance, we’re a trade association so we now have funds so that we can sponsor events so that we have the other side of the argument, we’re at the table so that we can be part of those discussions. It’s exciting how we’re finding more events, we’re helping to sponsor events.
Alison: There’s one coming up in Cincinnati in May that I’m going to where we’re going to be restoring windows in two buildings. There is one in San Antonio coming up. Then in September in Detroit the Preservation Trade Network will be putting on an event too, so I’m excited about the number of opportunities that we have to meet with one another and talk about what we do. We’re kind of an obscure little profession here, and it’s nice to meet other people who know what you’re talking about.
Danielle: Yes, and that’s exciting that you’re going all over the country. I wouldn’t necessarily think of restoring windows in Texas. There are buildings there that have windows to be restored, so that’s going kind of off of what people would necessarily would think about would be where the historic places are.
Alison: It’s nice that they are people who do this for a living mixed in with community people, because a lot of times homeowners do want to learn how to do things, how to get involved, but they don’t necessarily want to tackle the whole project. As my colleague Steve [Coullion 00:16:23] calls it, “The pros and the Joes working together,” we get a lot more done in a short period of time.
Danielle: Yeah, very, very exciting. That also helps build awareness in the community that there are other options. I know my mom used to sit on the Historic Commission here in Lancaster City, and people would come in wanting to put vinyl windows in, and they would say, “Well, there are other options,” and people would say, “No, there aren’t.” Then it’s a whole education process. That’s a way to do it before even those decisions are being made. That is very, very exciting. Do you have a favorite resource?
Alison: Since May is preservation month, last year was the first year we tried to get all members of the Window Preservation Alliance to hold an event for preservation month. We did one called a sash revival, so we encouraged people to bring in their windows, which most of them have broken glass, and we showed them how to cut glass, fit glass, and glaze a window. It was a really fun event. My crew had a great time working with people. Most of them came from the next town over, which has a fabulous collection of old houses.
Alison: There were actually events all across the country and we’re hoping to do that again this year in May. We had everything from, they did a driveway pop up, they just put a tent in their driveway and had people work on glazing windows. Somebody had a booth at a farmer’s market talking about window repairs. Then some people like me opening up their shop to have the public come in and learn more about what we do and actually get their hands on a window. It’s really fun to have events like that to, again, trying to raise awareness of what we do.
Danielle: Yes, that sounds like fun. To tie it into the national trust, making their whole push for preservation too for that month, it helps build awareness on multiple fronts, so I think that’s really great and exciting. I’m kind of sad that I didn’t think of it.
Alison: Some days you just have, and again, a lot of times it’s just hanging out talking to our other fellow window restorers going, “How can we do this?”
Alison: “Well, what if we just had people bring in windows?”
Danielle: We’ve even had classes before, but we never had people bring their own windows in, but that makes so much more sense. Then they leave with something that’s done. They don’t have to go back and kind of tackle it themselves.
Alison: I was trying to do the sad face/happy face as people came in and left, but I didn’t do so good at capturing my photographs. It was nice to be able to have something they accomplished in one day.
Danielle: Yes, yes, yes, and it makes it a little bit less daunting I would think for them. They know that they can at least, if a pane of glass breaks, they know that they can fix that and it doesn’t take all day.
Alison: Right. I think we’ve all had the frustrating experience of trying to get glazing putty to look neat. We’ve got a couple tips and techniques that we can show people to get them over that frustrating stage of, “It’s just all goopy and it keeps pulling up and it makes a lumpy mess.”
Alison: I don’t know what to say. We’ll help you.
Danielle: This will make it easier.
Danielle: What do you think makes you different from other businesses that do this work?
Alison: You know, I’m finding there’s more similarities than dissimilarities in what we do. We’ve become one of the larger shops. I have 10 employees, and so we’re able to tackle bigger projects. I think we’re also fortunate that in the Boston area there are a number of window restoration shops, so if we have a really huge project, we can divvy it up and all work together. It’s very much a collaborative type of business, which is great. It makes it much more fun than being a competitor.
Danielle: Right, yeah, I definitely agree with that. Okay, well thank you so much for joining us today. Why don’t you let us know how our audience can get a hold of you.
Alison: Probably the best way is through our website, which is window-woman-ne.com. There is a contact us page which has our email address on it, or you can always call the workshop at 978-532-2070.
Danielle: Very good, thank you.
Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to the Practical Preservation podcast. The resources discussed during this episode are on our website at practicalpreservationservices.com/podcast. If you received value from this episode and know someone else that would get value from it as well, please share it with them. Join us next week for another episode of the Practical Preservation podcast. For more information on restoring your historic home, visit us at practicalpreservationservices.com.