Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What About the Windows?

When a house is being constructed, there comes a day when it’s ready for the doors and windows. The roof is on, generally, or at least sheathed and papered. No siding yet. But the framing, except perhaps interior partitions, is done. The doors and windows are expensive, sometimes the most expensive single outlay for a house, so they’re rarely stored on the site during construction. When you’re ready, they bring them, and you try mightily to put them all right in the framed holes that very day. When they’re in, the house is said to be “tight to the weather,’ and the contractor is happy that his crew can work under the roof if it rains and the house can be locked up at night, at least enough to keep honest people out. Your house looks like a house now.

That’s quite a laundry list of benefits, and you don’t even live there yet. For something so important, and expensive as the windows and doors, you’d think they’d given more attention.

In today’s rant, I have to talk about subtlety again. Sorry. You thought you were off the hook after we covered paint, and we could talk about things that require hammers again.

Look, there’s lots of things in your house, and they affect you deeply, sometimes so you can notice, others in ways that you can’t quite put your finger on, but they annoy you just the same, and they cause most of the endless tinkering I see people doing to their homes, trying to solve the same problems over and over again.

For example: You want to watch entertainment on a screen. You wish to have a place to do so, that can accommodate you and the furniture and necessary equipment. And you tinker with the rooms you have, and then add room after room, until your house touches the neighbor’s houses on all four sides, and is four stories tall, trying to find a place to do it. Your formal living room was too small. You couldn’t dodge around the furniture, and got tired of cracking your shin on the coffee table, and the windows behind the couch always seemed to reflect on the screen, so you made it a dungeon with curtains, and then it was too depressing a room to stay in, and you cast a longing look at that vaulted family room off the kitchen, there’s a TV in there already, let’s try again. And you have more room for the furniture and equipment, but you get tired of the dishwasher noise, and you can’t make out the dialog in the movies because the acoustics are terrible, and the sliding glass doors make glare ten times worse than the living room had, so you get blinds for them, but the dog is always whacking at them to get out, and you’re constantly having to fix them and clean them, and you think, I’ll build an addition. But it’s just another version of the same thing, only now the windows are behind the screen, facing you, and the sun’s in your eyes. Or something.

You try the basement. Bang Bang Bang. No glare. Privacy’s nice. Kinda cold in the winter, though, and the concrete under the carpet is tough on your ankles. And after the third time you rip out the carpet when the basement floods, you try again somewhere else. And so on.

The best houses avoid problems, and additions add to the sum of the dwelling, they don’t try to address the same problems over and over. You can save yourself a lot of problems by intelligent design, suited to your lifestyle, and starting with a house that has the bones that allows you to make it your own, and not be an uphill battle the whole way.

The easiest way to make rooms in your house unlivable is to botch the windows and doors. Get them wrong, and Martha Stewart, Norm Abram, Frank Lloyd Wright and Harry Potter won’t be able to fix the rooms for you. And many times, the reason for your dislike for certain rooms will be subtle, as I mentioned, and you’ll waste a lot of blood and treasure trying to fix them, and never know why you still find yourself avoiding them.

I live in a colonial house. That means certain things. For windows, it means that the widow glass is divided up into panes. Some of my windows really are divided light windows, and some mimic the look with muntins that snap in the frames.

Of all the crimes against windows, the bizarre nature of false muntins is the worst.

Let’s reject any window with flat aluminum grids sandwiched between the sheets of glass right off. They look like a prison window, even from fifty yards away. A pleasant house is not a prison, unless you’re Martha Stewart. The muntins, even if they’re false, are there to look picturesque. Steel grids between the sheets of glass cannot be picturesque. Don’t do it. Cased closed.

The main reason colonial houses had windows with small panes of glass, is that glass was expensive, and big pieces of glass were either unavailable or crazy expensive. So window sash dimensions were based on multiples of fairly standard sizes of relatively small glass panes. 6x8 inches, 7x9, 8x8,8x12, and if you’re rich, and needed stately windows back then, perhaps you could afford 9x12, set in bigger frames.

Now, you could get various proportions of height to width by varying how many panes a sash held, like 6 over 6 (very common,) or 12 over 12, and so forth. Vary the height to width even further by having 9 panes over 6, or 6 over nine, or 8 over 12, and so forth.

Nowadays, you can get glass any size you want. There’s no controlling factor for the dimensions. Windows are chosen without regard to proportion, and then divided up willy nilly by clip on, between glass, or applied muntins. And they look bizarre, if you know how strange the proportions are, and even if you don’t, they are the kind of subtle detail that you might miss, but affects you nonetheless. The windows look really squat, or too tall, or the panes look wrong in number, and the effect cuts up the view in disturbingly proportioned boxes. The worst offender is when the false panes in a really wide window are wider than they are tall, and you feel like you’re in a funhouse.

In general nowadays, the capstone to this foolishness is using a brickmould for the exterior frame, in a shingled or clapboarded house. The thin, 2-1/2 wide moulding brings the siding right up to the sashes, and the house looks like a face with the eyebrows shaved off. The windows are like holes punched into the siding, as they would be if they were in a masonry wall, but are vaguely weird looking, like a black eye in a deep socket. Builders save a few pennies on the 4 inch frame that should surround the window, and tell you it’s low maintenance because there’s no frame to paint. It’s not worth it. Don’t do it.

Now mistakes like these are essentially unfixable. Even if you noticed the difference and wanted to change things, you’re not going to rip out the most expensive items in your house and start over. Even if you did, the window opening is still the same (badly proportioned) size. It’s got to be right from the get go.

When choosing windows, determine a pane size, even if the panes will be false, and stick to it. Use appropriate multiples of the panes to get windows of various sizes and shapes, but that will look like they all belong in the same house. If your home isn’t of the colonial variety, the windows are still based on a proportional system of some sort. Have your designer find out what it is, and stick to it. It’s actually easier to specify windows if you can just extrapolate everything from one pane size, than it is to simply look at the window catalog, and the hundreds of available dimensions, and wonder how tall and wide each should be.


Okay, Now Where Do We Put Them?

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