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What’s New Looks Like Old Again In His Heirloom Windows

Necessity Found Its Inventor in Bill Hepburn

In 1993, Bill and Lois Hepburn moved with their three (one day to be five) children into the 1890s Victorian farmhouse where Lois grew up in Crawfordsville, Indiana, with historically accurate restoration in mind. One of  the most pressing updates was the original, 100-year-old windows– so drafty, even with storm windows, that Lois suggested they look on the bright side and install wind chimes. They made do for the first winter with “shrink wrap” and Bill started shopping for a permanent solution, with a list of criteria: the windows should be historically appropriate as well as air-tight, with insulated glass, and open and close easily. He soon found that none of the major manufacturers of replacement windows offered anything resembling an old window, and none of the niche replica window manufacturers offered the necessary insulated glass, even at over $1,300 per window.

That’s when Hepburn began to investigate building the windows himself. He realized that by buying used equipment he could build his own windows for a fraction of the cost of new windows, and own some really cool equipment in the bargain. As he started setting up shop in one of the large pole barns that came with the farm property, the thought occurred to him: “Surely I’m not the only person who wants a historic window appearance with contemporary performance.” Before he even had the chance to finish the refenestration (an obscure term for “window restoration” that now comes up often in conversation with Hepburn) a neighbor called to ask for help in replacing the 60 windows in his 1840s woolen mill listed on the National Historic Register.

Did we mention that Hepburn began this journey with no wood-working experience whatsoever? Although his history is colorful and varied, including military service in Germany during the Cold War, gigs as a lumberjack in Alaska, a crab fisherman off the coast of Oregon, and owning his own insurance company, he says he had never even operated a table-saw before he began filling the garage with industrial equipment and designing custom-made tooling. But, this undaunted jack-of-all-trades says of Heirloom Window’s first job: “Diving in with a 60-window project was a ‘trial by fire’ experience’ and after that, everything became easier.”

It may have been just that naive approach to a complicated process that allowed Hepburn to make some crucial innovations in the design of his high-performance replica windows. After those cold winter days cursing shrink wrap and storm windows, he threw out all the mass market standards aimed at ease of installation. In order to make room for insulated glass, he “designed the window from the inside out,” ending up with a thicker design. The resulting “Magnum” window is a bit trickier to install than the major manufacturer’s windows, but includes insulated glass as well as the deep profiles characteristic of traditional windows. This may be heresy to some but the result is a beautiful, traditional appearance with modern functionality.

Just a quick glance at the Heirloom Windows web site will convince any skeptic that Hepburn knows his stuff- It’s practically a textbook on window restoration, with more information than you may want to know about windows. He, however, describes the process of learning all the arcana of fenestration in one word- “FUN.” He has devised several “work-arounds” to streamline the process of window-making without sacrificing fidelity to his guiding principles of historic appearance and modern functionality, such as using a tiny triangular extrusion of vinyl between the wood and the glass to replace the days-long process of “glazing” a window with putty. The result is indistinguishable from the historic method.

Since that first crucible of learning, Hepburn has taken on other historic window projects, from three windows for a tiny residential cottage to 350 windows for a major “commercial to condo conversion” in downtown Indianapolis, with scores of projects in between, including some store-front renovations in Crawfordsville’s turn-of-the-century Main Street area. But principally he’s remained with windowing old houses like his own. For many owners, the windows are the last piece of the puzzle in a historic renovation. It’s in these projects that Hepburn encounters the satisfying reaction of customers. As he puts it: “Is ecstasy too strong a word? How about delight?”

Houses enhanced by Hepburn’s Heirloom Windows may not immediately stand out. When asked what his windows bring to the look of a building, Hepburn replies that, in a way, “We haven’t brought anything to the look of the building, because it looks exactly as it was designed to look originally. What one doesn’t immediately see that we’ve brought to the building is a functional ventilating window with thermal efficiency, and elimination of drafts and the need for maintenance.”

The like-new look of a recently refenestrated home might not be immediately apparent to the average eye, but the effect is palpable nonetheless. Hepburn waxes poetic: “Why do people visit vernacular museums or reenactment sites? Why do they enjoy visiting restored or preserved historic areas? They enjoy being transported to, or immersed or steeped in a time and place other than the here and now. It’s the same with peoples’ homes and downtown districts. The more historically homogeneous the surrounding the more convincing the ‘transportation’.

“If one is visiting Monticello or Mount Vernon, even a refenestration ignoramus would recognize something amiss if the buildings were fitted with vinyl windows or contemporary wooden windows. They may not be able to put their finger on the source of the historic and aesthetic dissonance but it would be felt. When applied to historic downtown or historic residential areas, the same is true to an even greater degree. Common vinyl or wood replacement windows significantly detract from that ‘I’m there then’ feeling, whether or not their presence is noted consciously.”

Take a drive around any historic neighborhood with Hepburn, and he’ll point out house after house with either rotting old wood windows, or– worse– nationally marketed vinyl windows, a jarring sight in a house that’s otherwise restored with lavish attention to detail. He’ll tell you that the windows are the eyes of a house, and a cheap window solution on a beautifully restored home is as discordant as garishly-made up eyes on a woman wearing Armani.

This, Hepburn says, is why he’s passionate about his work. In an increasingly plastic, careless world of cheap design, his Heirloom Windows help homeowners take back that experience of aesthetic harmony in their home– an experience they might not have even realized that they were longing for.

But besides this “big picture” purpose, he says he also just loves “making sawdust and using power tools” every day. “I love the sounds, the smells and the feeling of power one gets when milling wood. There’s also a lot be be said for spraying on the final top coat of paint or varnish and seeing the completed window frame. Seeing something unique and useful gradually being created from raw materials is very satisfying.”

Although Hepburn, a bit of an adrenaline junkie, makes no secret of the thrill he gets from using his machines — one of which cost him a third of his right index finger — the real purpose of all that tonnage is not power but precision. For all the sawdust, grease and noise that goes on out there, the result is something elegant and balanced, a juxtaposition of transparency and opacity, a study in glass and pine. Once you view the finished product in situ, you can see why Hepburn just can’t get windows out of his head.

So where does he go from here? Whatever he does with his working hours, he’ll probably continue to begin each day over shredded wheat, reading the Bible, then the newspaper, and end it with an hours-long evening session reading historical fiction with his wife, bourbon in hand. But Lois hopes that the first thing he’ll do is build her some windows. She’s only been waiting for 20 years.

Hepburn’s unique “Magnum” windows sell for about $800-$1,000 each, considered a competitive price for that category of product. Visit Heirloom Windows’ website at www.heirloomwindows.com to learn more. Additionally, you may read a third-party review of Heirloom WIndows’ products at http://www.oldhouseguy.com/replica-windows.