Many builders were once leery of cladding on window frames because we'd seen the worst examples―materials that separated from the wood and encouraged leaks and rotting. Plus, the early products just looked cheap.
Those days are gone. The top window manufacturers now offer reliable cladding that seals well in the harshest weather, holds shape and color over the long haul, and requires little or no maintenance. What's more, because they can utilize less expensive materials, clad windows often cost less than comparable all-wood systems.
Here are my suggestions:
• Don't cheap out. Buy a good-quality clad system. Find some other place besides windows and doors to pinch pennies. They're the moving parts of a house's skin. Just about everything good and bad that can happen to a house occurs via these portals. They deserve serious investment.
• Don't be a pioneer. The latest technology may revolutionize the window business, but let someone else test it. Ask your neighbors about their windows, especially cladding installed three or more seasons before. Is there evidence of interior water damage? Outside, is the cladding cracking, peeling, or separating from the wood? Do the windows open and close easily after years of use? Go with manufacturers and options that have proved themselves in your region.
• Be color conscious. Aluminum and vinyl windows come in an increasing variety of factory finishes. But if you're thinking about exotic palettes, you're better off with wood. Sure, you can find a way to paint vinyl or aluminum whatever color you want, but what's the point? You choose cladding to cut down on maintenance hassles.
• Combine cladding and tradition. In Nantucket, to satisfy requirements that new construction fit the island's historic feel, we sometimes use cedar trim to frame the exterior of high-grade, vinyl-clad windows. The trim does require attention from time to time, but its surface is easy to stain or paint, and it can be replaced easily if it shows signs of deterioration―all without affecting the window system. If the wood surround is carefully done, even traditionalists will approve of the look. And you'll end up getting the best of both worlds: You can indulge the old prejudice for wood without sacrificing the advantage of cladding's long-term, maintenance-free protection.