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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Okay, Now Where Do We Put Them?

Bon Jour

Windows and doors cost a fortune, and they’re all terrible. Got it.

No, no, that‘s not what I meant to say. The windows are fine, really, and I’m sure you’re smart enough to avoid the pitfalls.

Now there’s two ways to look at these things. For example, let’s look at vinyl siding. I’ve told you I don’t like it, and wouldn’t live in a house that was encrusted with it. Plenty of people share my sentiments. Many don’t, as a cursory look out the window in the car reveals. (By the way, my vinyl friends, no matter what the salesman told you, I can tell it’s vinyl at ten thousand yards, and I can barely read the road signs)

But I understand vinyl siding. People couldn’t get a straight answer about painting their house. Why does it peel? Why can’t I find someone to paint it? Do you really expect me to climb that ladder every four years and fight the bees and scrape that shingle? The football game’s on! Both the vinyl installer and the painter have a parole officer, but the vinyl guy only comes once.

And so, people who value neatness, and haven’t the funds to hire someone or the Wallenda gene for ladders, choose vinyl. Different strokes, as they say. I might suggest you might be happier with masonry of some sort, but what’s done is done.

My questions are different. I ask: “Can I paint it?” not “Do I have to paint it?” I know from long experience that something that requires regular maintenance can be rejuvenated. And it will last much, much, longer than something that is very durable, but can’t be refreshed. Paint is a sacrificial layer, and one that can add color, and texture, and you can change if need be. I’ve painted 275 year old windows, still going strong. They were surrounded by the vinyl siding of their day, weathered shingles. The shingles were over a hundred years old, and weathered to a lovely color you couldn’t ever mimic. I assure you, “permanent” things like vinyl siding won’t last that long. It seems counterintuitive, but the stuff sold as “the last thing you’ll ever need” is really disposable. It’s that stuff you have to take care of that lasts forever.

And with windows and doors, there are two ways of looking at it too, in general. There’s the hi-tech approach, and the old fashioned approach. I’ve taken both, at one time or another. What’s the diff?

Go to a window showroom, and they’ll lay the hi-tech jargon on you. Low-E glass, hermetically sealed glass, with a vacuum between the sheets, or perhaps argon gas in there if you want to impress your neighbors. Space shuttle rubber for weatherstripping- Check.

You can still buy old-fashioned windows. They’re really not old-fashioned. They are made of wood, and can be painted or stained, but they have modern jambs or crank hardware, locks, and weatherstripping.

The best windows I’ve ever seen are on the front of my home. They are true divided light windows, 12 over twelve, wood, in wood frames. You can tilt them in to paint them or wash them, and they don’t slam on your fingers like old windows use to, but in all respects they are the real deal. They get their requisite energy efficiency by the installation of a glass panel, which is routed into and fitted to each sash panel on the exterior side with a few clips. You can get the glass with low-E coatings, which protect the interior contents from damaging UV rays, while reflecting the hot sun in the summer, but not the winter. Don’t ask how it knows; it’s like your thermos, it just knows.

If someone tosses an errant baseball, and breaks a panel and a pane, you can remove a panel from an adjacent window and cover the broken pane. The exterior side of the muntins has old fashioned putty glazing holding the window panes in, but because the putty is inside the glass, and protected from the elements, it doesn’t degrade like it does when exposed to the weather; mine are over ten years old, and haven’t required repainting yet. The exterior side of the sash frames can be painted by tilting the windows in, and running a brush around them. Easy.
The windows are wonderful in use, because they allow you to grab any of the muntin bars and operate the window. Sooner or later, either you or your children try that with the fake muntin bars, and make kindling out of them. And they have a real depth to them, and throw real shadows and reflect the light, and look authentic and fine.

The rest of the windows on the house are of the more usual vacuum sealed double pane glass variety. About a third of these “low maintenance” windows now feature a fogged sash, as the seals didn’t last, while the “high maintenance” windows are just getting warmed up on their three or four hundred year run. The “permanent” ones didn’t all last ten years. And they can’t be rejuvenated in any cost effective way. The whole sash has to go.

So pick your poison, and let’s get on with it. Where do we locate them? How many do we want?
I’ll try to make this simple:

-Don’t leave any room you enter, bathrooms and walk in closets included, without a window.

-Don’t put skylights in your bathroom. Ever.

-Don’t put a big window in your bath over the tub. I don’t care how secluded your yard is, you won’t bathe in front of it anyway. Even women who dance around a pole are generally wearing a thong. I doubt you’re more of an exhibitionist than them. And no matter how many ads you see for towering vaulted bathrooms with skylights, it’s always a bad idea. No amount of ventilation and lighting is going to fix it, either. Trust me, I’ve talked to hundreds of people after they’ve lived in their homes for a few years. It’s always, always, a bad, bad, idea.

-Surprisingly, a window over your bathroom sink is pleasant. It’s nice to look out the window at the birds and flowers while you’re brushing your teeth. Put the mirror off to one side,or on a stand on the countertop. No one ever seems to do this though. They do often put the window over the toilet, which I don’t get; facing either way, it’s no use to me.

-Don’t light any room you want to stay in for any amount of time from one side only. Light means natural light, by the way. Two adjacent walls is great, three is superb, but hard to come by. Four is weird and disorienting.

-If you can’t get windows into adjacent walls, the room will be harder to fenestrate, and requires a lot of thought. Gang windows together, put transoms over them too, and raise the ceiling height some, if you can. Paint the walls lighter colors to try to get that light as deep in there as you can and bouncing around. A real big mirror on the wall opposite the windows can help too. Look, I’m warning you, this is the most common mistake in housing today. A bedroom with a window on one wall is a prison cell. Don’t do it.

-If at all possible, in almost any clime in the USA, orient your house to face the southeast. That’s where the light is. In the winter, where I am, it’s your only hope. If your house can’t face that way, get the windows working as much as possible in that direction.

-Put a window you can see out next to, or in, the door where people call. Read my rant about having a door people can find to call at in my snout house rant.

-If you seek privacy in a room, like facing a busy street or too close to your neighbor’s house, use bands of monitor windows to get light in the room, and a view of the sky. Monitor windows are bands of horizontally configured windows with a sill no lower than your chin. If you use awning windows for these, you can leave them open in the rain, too.

-Interior glass is a forgotten art. Use transom windows and interior glass, translucent for privacy if need be, to get light into the middle of your house.

-If you live in any climate that requires heating for any portion of the year, don’t put windows right over your bed. This is a common fad these days. Skylights are pretty bad too. In heating seasons, room air hits the glass, cools, and heads to the floor. This is what is commonly termed “a draft.” This is not desirable. Put the windows on each side of the bed instead, and the breeze will come in in the summer, and you won’t feel like you’re sleeping in the bottom of a Siberian mineshaft in the winter. And if you want to gaze at the stars while in bed, put a window or skylight on the opposite side of your room from the bed, not right over it. Last time I checked though, you did very little stargazing while you were asleep. File the “stargazing window” over the bed under “goofy ideas.”

-Every stairwell needs natural light, at every landing. The big window on the second storey over the doorway in a stairwell is there for a reason. The stairwell is usually hard to light from the back end, it generally ends smack dab in the middle of the house. So use the advice for rooms with windows on one side. Skylights are superb here, generally. Designers are getting better at this, in general.

-Don’t buy great big sheets of glass. Gang smaller units together.

-Use windows to frame views. Huge expanses of glass gaping at the landscape makes even spectacular views into a kind of wallpaper. The Mona Lisa has a frame. Your ocean view should too.

-Don’t use sliding glass doors for any door you use often. Think of them as windows with a really low sill that you can climb out of. That’s about how convenient and easy to use they are, no more.

-A regular door at the top of your cellar stairs instead of a bulkhead is a luxury you should spring for.

-Insulated metal doors are cheap and durable. Use them for your high traffic areas. Choose a formal entry door made from real wood. It will get less use, but you’ll feel like a squire when you can turn away the Jehovah’s Witnesses and hear the door close with that satisfying thunk, the one that says: “…and stay out”

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