Two volunteers stretch plastic film over a frame to build window inserts for Camden residents on Nov. 1. The nonprofit Window Dressers hosts community builds of custom-built inserts to minimize heating costs for Mainers. Credit: Jules Walkup / BDN

The organization Window Dressers got off to a modest start 13 years ago in Rockland.

At the time, Dick Cadwgan made a set of inserts for the windows at First Universalist Church in Rockland. The inserts — which include custom fit wooden frames with pieces of clear plastic on both sides — were meant to help insulate the church by blocking out wintery drafts.

But soon, members of the congregation began asking his team to build inserts for their own homes. Cadwgan teamed up with Frank Mundo, the former congregation president of the church, to start Window Dressers.

The group has been ramping up production ever since, now donating or selling about 10,000 inserts each season. It’s had to move into bigger and bigger locations, and its workshops now take place across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“It grew like wildfire,” Cadwgan said in an interview.

Now, in a time of economic uncertainty and fluctuating energy prices, Window Dressers plays an important role in helping people across northern New England to insulate their homes and cut their energy bills.

The inserts are free for those who cannot pay, and for others, each one may cost between $35 and $83 depending on size and materials, according to sample prices on its website. 

Peter Lindquist and Ruth Sybil Reece pose for a portrait while volunteering to build Window Dressers window inserts for Camden residents on Nov. 1. Credit: Jules Walkup / BDN

The group estimates that its inserts can generally pay for themselves within two seasons. For example, in a typical house, one medium-sized insert could save an average of 8.5 gallons of heating oil annually, or $15 to $43.

According to the Maine Governor’s Energy Office, an average, well-insulated home will use about 540 gallons of heating oil per year. With average oil prices currently at $4.05 per gallon statewide, this means a single Maine home could spend over $2,000 on heating.

Window Dressers estimates that its inserts cost 50-70 percent less than similar commercial products. It’s been able to keep those prices low through its community build model, in which volunteers contact Window Dressers if they think there’s a need, and the organization sends someone to talk with them and be their director.

They then organize a build that lasts about a week, where volunteers take custom measurements of windows for people who want inserts, build the inserts, then distribute them to the community members.

“We gave talks, and pretty soon realized that there were people scattered around that were interested. And I was like, ‘Whoa. They can’t all drive here to work. So why don’t we take our gear and send it to them?’” Cadwgan said.

During one recent community build in Camden, the group worked to complete about 300 inserts, with community members, students and members of the local Rotary Club pitching in to put them together at the Watershed School after some training.

The process is simple. First, the measurements are taken and frames are made from pre-cut wood. Then, the frames are taped along the edges, and plastic wrap is placed over both sides of the frame. The plastic is shrunk using heat guns, packing tape is put on the outside, and a layer of foam is placed around the frame to make the insert airtight. Each insert is custom-made with the help of computers and volunteer workers.

Chris Facq, the on-site build leader in Camden, said most people who come in to volunteer don’t have a background in carpentry. After some training, they’re usually able to get the hang of it. Each person checks the work of the person before them to make sure it’s proceeding correctly.

“We had never done this before,” said Connie Evans, co-coordinator of the project in Camden. “We got trained at other builds that happened before ours started.”

The science behind the inserts is as simple as the construction. The plastic film allows light through while stopping drafts, and the space between the film on each side of the insert adds a layer of insulation, according to the Window Dressers website. This stops cold air from entering the home.

Window Dressers has several more community builds planned through Maine this month. They include ones in Belfast Nov. 8-22, Castine Nov. 10-19, Cumberland Nov. 9-11, Mount Desert Island Nov. 11-15, Vassalboro Nov. 6-11, Waterville Nov. 10-15 and Wells Nov. 9–Dec. 8.  

Jules Walkup is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by BDN readers.

Jules Walkup reports on the midcoast and is a Report for America corps member. They graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism and moved to Maine from Tampa, Florida in July 2023.