For years now I assume you, like me, have been plagued by cold calling double glazing salesmen trying to offload their products in order to earn themselves a commission. These people have no interest in the actual properties of the products they are selling, the effects they might be having upon the environment or the actual issues that may arise from placing uPVC windows in your property. Found implanted in most houses up and down the country, an alien visiting the planet would be forgiven for thinking that we are inexorably amorous with these white rectangles.
So, because we’re a friendly bunch that want you to understand the issues with installing plastic window frames, we thought we would outline the pros and cons for you.
- Unlike many natural products, uPVC will not biodegrade.
- It is resistant to weathering, requiring little to no maintenance.
- It retains its shape in normal weather conditions, and does not suffer the problems of movement as timber products can, however this is more relatable to older timber windows. New technology allows timber windows to be made from multi layers which means the grain of each layer is opposite to each other which stops expanding the wood, preventing the wraping which would happen in single layered timber.
- It can be reshaped, and therefore can be recycled.
- It is cheap.
Now, all of these things sound fantastic, however there are a few cons to the use of these kinds of plastics that we should all be aware of.
- Extremely hot weather conditions can cause the frames to rupture (Not that you have to worry about this with the British weather!!!)
- They come in limited colours and designs.
- Unsustainable resource (uPVC is a petro-chemical product).
- Manufacturing process of uPVC emits dioxins which are poisonous and have been proven to cause serious illness to those working in, and living nearby factories.
- Often not recycled, landfills are stuffed with uPVC products that leech harmful chemicals into the soil.
- In the event of a house fire, burning uPVC releases toxic fumes.
- The lifespan for uPVC windows is thought to only be 35 years unlike timber windows with the new technology can last 60 years, which means your investment will last longer.
- Although uPvc windows generally has low maintenance, over time the use of the window can cause the bolts to become loose and fall out.
- uPVC windows tend to make more of a negative impact to the environment as statistics, but timber causes a positive effect as the trees used to make the timber use co2 in order for the photosynthesis cycle.
- uPVC windows tend to decrease the value of a property and some councils planning proposals don’t allow uPVC windows to be installed.
Clearly the overriding problem we find with this material is that uPVC, unlike say... wood, is an unsustainable resource that is having a massive impact on the environment. Basically a malleable poison, this plastic product, though easy to work with (in terms of large scale industrial manufacturing), is fundamentally harmful.
Even regarding its pros we find that more sustainable products made of materials such as wood offer alternatives that can do just as good a job. The issues with biodegrading and movement in the timber are combated by the right treatment of the product (through achieving the right humidity of the timber, to finding the right kind of finish to use on the final product).
Speaking aesthetically, uPVC, though it will often offer neutral decor, will rarely add any value or character to a house. In fact, in a campaign run by English Heritage a few years ago, in which they sought to spread the message that buying uPVC was a detriment to conservation areas, the organisation claimed that installing uPVC windows was in fact lowering the value of properties. Predominantly found in its stark white guise, these plastic window frames cannot even be considered to rival the richness that a hardwood such as Ash can add to a property.
The frank reality is that this love affair with cheap and cheerful products, much like the CFC fridges of yesteryear that polluted our planet for decades, had to come to an abrupt end, so too does our sordid sortie with uPVC.
image by Daveybot
The swathe of uPVC windows being fitted in period buildings reached such an alarming peak a few years ago that the English Heritage took to the streets in a country wide campaign to stop the influx of plastic double glazed windows. Whilst you would have heard a great deal of support for keeping the period look of the building, with the original timber windows, there was a large, growing voice advocating the use of uPVC.
So the question is, is placing uPVC windows in conservation areas really wrong?
Well, the short answer is yes! But why?
uPVC is the cheaper solution and, really, we can’t expect everyone to afford the installation of bespoke oak windows in their homes. Therefore, for those who are suffering during winter at the cruel hands of single glazed wooden frames, it seems like the best option.
Yes, they will save on your heating bills, but at the same time there are other, even cheaper, solutions which will achieve the same result. What are they? Well, buying or even just closing your heavy curtains will show a dramatic increase in heat insulation, as will the installation of draught proofing strips. These are far cheaper than installing those plastic frames - though, of course, perhaps not as long lasting.
The secondary option is to install secondary glazing. Sure, we’re not very happy with what secondary glazing does either - they’re a little cumbersome (stealing sill space) and often not the prettiest, but they will ensure you can keep the original aesthetic of your period windows whilst offering very good insulation as well as noise reduction. If money is the object then these units, which you can often install yourself, will do what you need for a low cost.
The Green Cost
Sure, they are cheaper to install, but why are they cheaper? It’s because their manufacture and production doesn't cost as much - and why’s that? It’s because uPVC is a bi-product of the petrochemical industry, and has a whole heap of nasty chemicals added to it in order to stabilise it and make it fit for purpose. Unlike their timber alternatives, plastic frames will not harmlessly biodegrade, meaning that landfills will be laden with those unwanted window frames for aeons. Like most things, if you’re saving money on something, you’re incurring costs elsewhere, and in this case it’s the environment!
The Aesthetic Cost
Perhaps not the most important, but ironically the most protected reason is the aesthetic cost. Houses in most conservation areas will require like for like replacements - uPVC is quite simply out of the question. And whilst this may seem like a flimsy argument for those who want to just install cheap double glazing, it’s very important for us to protect our architectural heritage and the, frankly, quite ugly dulled white of plastic frames does nothing but detract from our otherwise beautiful buildings.
So what’s your opinion? Do you think the English Heritage and the insistence upon using more expensive timber frames in conservation areas is something that hurts those that can’t afford it, or is it a necessary cost for both conservation and the environment?
Image by Stephan M. Höhne