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Windows of the Soul

Winery window with glass blocks

If eyes are the windows of the soul, windows are the eyes of the house. The very word has "eye" within it, for it derives from an Old Norse term for "wind eye," an opening through which the wind could see. When children draw houses, doors become mouths, and eyebrows arch over windows. Perhaps because the inhabitants look out windows, the windows themselves seem to peer at passersby.

Ancient homes did not, as a rule, have windows. A house was built as protection against the elements, so cutting holes in the walls made little sense. But humans love light as well as heat, so ingenuity got to work. In some regions, windows were literally holes, covered with shutters or leather when the weather got rough. In Asia, paper was used as a window covering; in Europe, ancient windows of thin-cut marble have been found.

But nothing is quite as good for windows as glass. Around 3,500 years ago in Egypt, we find the first evidence of glass being used to glaze pottery; a millennium later, glass by itself came into use as a material for bottles and other containers, although such objects were rare and precious. Then, in northern Europe around 1000 CE, artisans learned to make glass of wood ashes, a plentiful material, and glass windows became affordable for those below the rank of king.

My windows bring in such lovely light, but they are really not much better than those early holes in the walls. At the end of the 19th century, the builders of my home provided storm windows and screens, and the windows opened on their double sashes. But over the last hundred years, both storm windows and screens have disappeared. Various denizens have painted the windows shut, which means that cold air does not creep through in winter, but ventilation in summer is dreadful. A houseful of single panes of glass set in decaying old putty may be a step up from holes in the walls, but I heat the outdoors all winter and stifle inside all summer.


The time has come for new windows, but that is a pricey project. The payback should be good; approximately one-third of wasted energy in homes goes out through the windows. I have appointments with various contractors and window dealers, to see how much it would cost for a whole new set — prohibitive, I suspect. I've measured some of the windows and started shopping for replacements at discount wholesalers. But no matter what route I take, new windows will be costly. While I save for that inevitable large outlay, I am seeking ways to stop the leakage of heat during the winter and to provide more ventilation in summer.

I cannot imagine limiting the light that pours into my living room, where I sit in the east alcove every morning and enjoy my coffee. I'm willing to invest more heavily in that room than in others. Meanwhile, I've begun in a place where the heat loss is significant and the lack of light would be bearable.

That place is what we call "the winery." It's actually the laundry room in the basement, but I've set up wine carboys and bottling equipment there because the laundry sink makes sanitizing easy. Wine doesn't like to get chilled, so I have a little electric blanket for the wine when it's undergoing primary fermentation. In later stages, I've learned to just be patient; the cellar chill may delay the wine's progress, but doesn't impede it.

foamboard fitted for the window

I fixed up the cellar a few years ago. Like other houses of its era, mine has a limestone foundation that, over time, had lost some of its mortar. Filling the holes led to covering them with a new coat of cement, then a waterproofing paint. Now I like to fancy the stone windowsills look like an Irish cottage. And it's cold and sometimes damp, like an Irish cottage, too.

When I did the walls, I had the plate-glass windows replaced with glass block, which is certainly more energy-saving but still not as efficient as I want. In winter, the basement stays around 50-55 degrees; not dreadful, and of course heat rises, so the basement will always be colder than the rest of the house. But the temperature difference between window and wall is significant. And there is a simple, efficient way to fix the problem: foam insulation, easy to cut to any size.

I was reminded of this while visiting my spry neighbor Diana, who at almost 90 is my ideal earth-conscious crone. Most of the windows of her house are blocked up all winter with bright fabric-covered inserts of foamboard rigged up with little handles so that they can be easily pulled out when spring arrives. Measured for a tight fit, such inserts cut down heat loss significantly.

I didn't use such window inserts in Alaska, where I covered every window of my home with window quilts, the subject of an upcoming article. But I built my house with a double envelope wall, with two rounds of lumber studs (2x4s and 2x6s), both insulated and then covered with a tight plastic vapor barrier, over which I nailed one-inch blue foamboard, and of course sheetrock on top of that. At 60 below, a wood stove kept the house warm. I'm not going to rebuild my walls here, but foamboard window inserts are a good place to start saving energy. Even though foamboard is a petroleum product, I reason that saving on the natural gas I use to heat my house daily is a good trade-off for employing petroleum-based products.

finished product -- a foamboard insert for wintertime energy efficiency, with pull tab for easy removal for summer light and ventilation

The winery windows project itself was simple, except for carrying the 4x8 sheet of foamboard home. If I had been buying several sheets, I might have piled them on the carry-rack of my Subaru wagon. But the sheets are light, no more than a few pounds each, and I worried that the single sheet would break if I carried it ten miles home on the rooftop. So, before leaving the home supply center, I slashed it in two, whereupon it fit neatly in the wagon.

Tools were simple: measuring tape, yardstick, and razor knife. The edges of the windows are rough, so it wasn't possible to get a precise fit; I may glue VELCRO® to the window and the insert in order to tighten the seal. But even with the difficulty in precisely measuring an uneven opening, cutting the foamboard was a snap: literally. I scored the board, snapped it, then cut the foil on the uncut side.

The roughly-square inserts were easy to cover with fabric from an old sheet, in the center of which I had sewn some removal-ribbons. Duct tape is a traditional fastener, applied to the fabric on the outside-facing edge of the insert. But I used simple carpenters' glue, gluing the edges and then the overlapped fabric on the back. Because the fabric was relatively thin, carrying it around the corners was not difficult.

Total investment of time? Picking up the foamboard (90 minutes) and gathering material (30 minutes) took more time than actually making the inserts (a little over an hour). Total financial investment? About $13 for two inserts, all for the foamboard, as the fabric was recycled. It is difficult to know how much money these inserts will save, but the drafts are considerably less in the winery area. During the summer, when coolness will be welcome, I can withdraw the inserts and enjoy the light pouring into the basement. But come fall, the inserts go back in. For a season, these "wind-eyes" will be open, but when winter comes, they will close for a nice long sleep.

Graphics Credits

  • foam board window project, photos courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.
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