Rachel Lee, right, works with other volunteers to stretch plastic over a window insert.
Rachel Lee, right, works with other volunteers to stretch plastic over a window insert. Credit: Lisa Prevost

The dozen or so volunteers gathered in a small gymnasium in Brattleboro, Vermont, last Sunday were much more focused on the cold winter ahead than on the sunny fall afternoon. Fortified by homemade soup and hot coffee, the group was busily constructing pine-framed window inserts that will help keep local residents snug once the chill hits. 

Nancy Detra, a retiree who lives in nearby Guilford, organized the effort as a local coordinator for WindowDressers, a nonprofit grassroots organization based in Maine. Last year, Detra corralled enough volunteers to build 180 of the insulating inserts; this year, she’s hoping they can complete 260 over six days. 

“Demand is rising,” Detra said, as she walked between workstations where people were quietly going about their assigned tasks. “People who get these inserts find that they really do help make their homes warmer and help save fuel. And those of us who are interested in the environment like to think we are reducing the use of fossil fuels.”

WindowDressers got its start in 2010, when members of a church in Rockland, Maine, designed inserts to insulate the heat-leaking windows in their sanctuary. They proved so effective that the parishioners began asking for the inserts for their homes, and the endeavor gradually took off. WindowDressers now has the whole process down to a science, and has expanded into Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. 

In order to keep their prices low — and make some inserts available for free for those unable to pay — the organization depends almost completely on volunteers, who gather in the fall for what they call “community builds.”

“We have 44 community builds scheduled this fall, the most ever,” including almost two dozen in Vermont, said Jessica Williams, the executive director. “And hopefully, this will be the highest number of inserts produced ever — 8,700 would be ideal. All through volunteers. It’s pretty impressive — and humbling, I should say.”

Each insert is made of a pine frame that is custom cut to meet each individual window measurement. The frame is wrapped in clear polyolefin film, one layer on each side in order to leave an insulating air space in between. 

Foam is wrapped around the edge of the frame in order to create a friction-based seal after the insert is installed. The inserts are designed to be easily popped in and out, and should last five to 10 years. 

Prices range from $32 to $60 per plain pine insert, depending on the size of the window. (Prices are slightly higher for painted inserts.) People who can’t afford that may receive up to 10 free inserts per year at no charge. Like everyone who orders inserts, they are asked to volunteer at least a half-day shift at a community build. Last year, about a third of WindowDressers’ inserts were provided free or at a reduced price, Williams said. 

“We don’t have a strict policy around that — we have a conversation with each customer about their situation,” she said. 

Detra was immediately interested in getting a local chapter going after hearing about WindowDressers two years ago. As a member of Guilford’s energy committee, she was frustrated that when they did outreach about weatherization and other conservation measures, it always seemed “that we were preaching to the choir. We felt there was a whole part of the community that was not being served.” 

She, her husband Steve and fellow committee members get the word out about WindowDressers through posters, the online Front Porch Forum, and informational tables. As orders come in, volunteers go to customers’ houses to take window measurements and chart each window’s location. 

The orders are sent to the organization’s seasonal production facility in Maine, where the frame pieces are cut, pre-drilled for assembly, and carefully labeled. 

“We cut all the wood for one community build at a time,” Williams said. “All of the measurement data gets entered into a spreadsheet. That goes into a computerized saw. The saw calculates how many cuts it can get from a 10-foot piece of wood while producing a minimum of waste. It’s all very efficient.”

Once the frame pieces, along with all of the other materials and tools needed for construction, are delivered to the Brattleboro build site, the first task is to assemble the frames. Then the volunteers set up workstations for each step of the process. 

One table to wrap adhesive tape around the edge. One to stretch plastic across the frame, held on by the adhesive. One to trim the plastic at the edges. One to tighten the plastic under a heat lamp. One to apply a final seal of tape around the edges. And as the last stop, one for application of the foam. 

Rachel Lee, of Wilmington, was working with a partner to stretch plastic over individual inserts, each one pulling the sheet taut from opposite sides of the table. Lee ordered four inserts last year to cover two large picture windows in the living room of her home. After she put them in, “it was very noticeable right away,” she said. “The room was so much warmer.” 

So this year, she’s bringing home five more inserts for her upstairs windows. 

Williams said they haven’t done extensive research on how much each insert can shave off a customer’s heating bill. Coming up with a precise number is difficult because of the many variables involved, including the age of the home, the type of heating fuel, and the age of the windows. But on average, they estimate savings of $27 per insert per year. 

Beyond the energy savings, WindowDressers is also serving another important need, in Detra’s opinion. 

“People need other people in the community,” she said. “This provides a way to build new connections and camaraderie.”

Lisa is a longtime journalist and native New Englander based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." Lisa covers New England.