Act: Inspiration

Building Community Resilience One Window at a Time

March 30, 2021

In 2019 the Vermont Charlotte Energy Committee and Transition Town Charlotte (population 4,500) participated in an exciting initiative to make and install inexpensive energy-saving window inserts in ten Charlotte homes and one community building. All had drafty or single-pane windows. Several other towns in Vermont also participated in this energy-conservation initiative, including Glover, Craftsbury, Greensboro, Montpelier, Thetford, and Strafford, through their town energy committees.

The window-insert project was reminiscent of the “energy visits” that Transition Town Charlotte volunteers had conducted several years ago under the sponsorship of a State- program called “Efficiency Vermont,” by which residents were introduced to simple low-cost solutions to common sources of heat loss in building envelopes and lighting and heating systems. Volunteers had fun getting to know their neighbors better, while raising awareness about important energy and climate issues.

The window inserts, consisting of custom-made wooden frames covered by clear shrink-fit film glazing, are much less expensive to make and far easier to install and remove than conventional storm sashes. They fit on the insides of existing windows, adding two insulating spaces. Foam gaskets around the frame perimeters provide tight seals against drafts and hold the inserts in place without fasteners.

This “green” energy idea germinated in the state of Maine eight years ago, when a church group made and installed simple interior storm sashes in their building’s old windows. They were so impressed by the resulting energy savings and improved comfort of the meeting space that they eventually formed a non-profit organization called WindowDressers to share this amazing low-cost solution with other area residents.

Over the past eight years, WindowDressers has conducted over 106 workshops in Maine, has produced over 34,000 window inserts, and has saved Maine residents an estimated 1.2 million gallons of heating fuel. A window insert can save as much as one gallon of heating fuel per square foot of window per heating season. Pricing depends on the window size, with a 30-inch by 60-inch insert costing about $42.

After running successful workshops in many towns throughout Maine, WindowDressers decided in 2019 to see how well their technical assistance might work in other New England states.

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Thanks to a grant from Energy Vermont, special pricing was reduced to $5 per insert for low-income Vermont residents. To further reduce costs, all recipients were asked to join other volunteers to help with the final assembly of the inserts at a community workshop, at the Grange in Charlotte.

In its first year, Charlotte’s WindowDressers project produced inserts for 10 homes and the local Grange hall. COVID has put the project on hold, but organizers hope to resume next year.

Three challenges of this project are: being invited into people’s homes, making it comfortable for people to ask for financial discounts if they need them, and finding the volunteers to take so much time to make the visits. The invitation needs to be open and welcoming. The people chosen to go into people’s homes (remember, we’re going into all the rooms needing inserts) will be kind, helpful, friendly, and understanding. It can’t be just a business transaction. And when calculating the cost, it’s important to be clear that the most important thing is to get the inserts installed–that way you can make an opening for someone to ask for a discount without being embarrassed.

Behind these facts is the personal story of local teams that went to homes to measure for the inserts: they enjoyed getting to know other town residents and knew they were making a difference in the world.

On one occasion, my husband Louis and I, both members of Transition Town Charlotte, went to a house to measure for inserts. The woman was delighted that we had arrived because she was very concerned about her winter heating bills. Louis pointed out that all the windows in her house were relatively modern, energy-efficient types but were lacking their normal storm window inserts. The woman said she had never seen any storm windows but thought they might have been stored in the basement by the previous owner. We went downstairs, and sure enough, there they were. After a good laugh, Louis showed her how to insert them, and we went away knowing that, although we hadn’t added another “customer” for our project we had helped her to have a cozier and more energy-efficient house for the winter.

Another memorable encounter was with a woman who recently had rented a very large, old house. The day of the measuring appointment was wintery, and every room we walked into felt drafty and uncomfortable. So, knowing that she didn’t have a lot of money, we suggested that she close off several unused rooms and install window inserts only in the remaining living space. After taking the measurements we sat at her kitchen table and shared our calculation of the cost of that many window inserts. When we saw that she was still concerned about whether she could afford that much, we told her that the WindowDressers program allowed for people to pay what they could, since one of its purposes is to make the inserts affordable. Her relief was palpable, and we agreed on a discounted price. As it turned out, she was one of the recipients who came to the window-insert assembly workshop, and she added a lot to the life of that gathering.

When the time came for volunteers to assemble the inserts, the sense of community and camaraderie was reminiscent of an old-fashioned “quilting bee.” Assembly jigs created by WindowDressers had been delivered to the community workshop site, and the room was laid out with “stations” for each stage of the assembly. The conversations among the volunteers were lively. Coffee, tea, and treats were available throughout the morning, and lunch was provided by a local caterer for the noon break. More important, hearts were filled with a sense of purpose, caring, and love.

Although Covid-19 has put the project on hold, we look forward to resuming this rewarding program to help create a more resilient community.

Ruah Swennerfelt

Ruah Swennerfelt is part of Transition Town Charlotte, Vermont

Tags: building resilient communities, energy efficiency, energy savings