Monday, March 30, 2015

WHICH WINDOW? Part One of Two Parts

I recently came across a nice mid-century California Rancher that had been “upgraded” with new windows and doors. The trouble was, every single replacement evoked a different architectural style, none of which, alas, was appropriate for a Rancher. 

Perfectly nice, but a long way from mid-century.
The living room had originally had an aluminum window that was gracefully divided into three parts, but its replacement was a single huge, doughy-looking vinyl picture window. An adjacent sliding patio door, on the other hand, had been swapped out for a vinyl one with fake Colonial-style divided lites. Another nearby window had the now-inescapable Craftsman-style divided lites with crisscrossed corners. To top it off, the original clean-lined Rancher front doors had been supplanted by a pair of faux-Victorian leaded glass jobs with an ornate floral motif. 

This kind of incoherent jumble is the architectural equivalent of wearing striped pants, a Hawaiian shirt, and a houndstooth jacket. They just don’t work together.

Prairie yes; mid-century, no. 
Different styles of windows unavoidably evoke different architectural eras, both traditional and modern, so it’s important to choose windows that complement rather than contradict the style of your house. Here’s a quick rundown of which windows go with which style:

• Casement windows are probably the oldest type of operable windows, and their use dates back many centuries if not millennia. This long pedigree suits them not only to almost all period revival home styles except Victorians, but also to postwar styles ranging from Bauhaus to contemporary. Although the proportions of the individual casement units are tall and narrow, they can be ganged (combined side-by-side) into broad visual “ribbons”, as Frank Lloyd Wright often did in his Prairie style work. 
Top it off with a Victorian-style front entry,
and a formerly clean-lined mid-century house
becomes an architectural ragbag.

• Double-hung windows are typically found in Colonial, Victorian and inter war home styles, and have relatively tall, narrow proportions. Hence, they can look very strange indeed on postwar homes, which typically emphasize horizontal lines and broad proportions. It’s find to replace existing double hungs with new double hungs, but otherwise, avoid them. 

• Horizontal sliding windows are a hallmark of 1950s and 1960s design. Usually made of aluminum, with delicate frames and broad proportions, they’re well suited to the low-slung California Rancher styles that dominated this era. Hence, arbitrarily replacing sliders with other window types is generally a bad idea. In particular, substituting “modern” vinyl windows for aluminum ones is, ironically, just as misguided as the common mid-century practice of replacing Victorian wood windows with “modern” aluminum ones.

• Awning and hopper windows (awnings are hinged at the top and open out; hoppers are hinged at the bottom and open in) are both products of mid-century modernism. As such, they look quite alien on any home style predating World War II, and indeed on neo-traditional late century styles as well. 

If replacing your existing windows makes sense--and as we’ll find out next time, it often doesn’t-- you’ll get the best aesthetic results by replacing like for like. In other words, replace casements with casements, sliders with sliders, and so on. Just as important, don’t arbitrarily add decorative divided lites or other features if the originals didn’t have them. That way, you can be sure the style of your windows won’t fight the style of your house. 

Next time: Okay, we’ve settled on the style--now which material?

Monday, March 23, 2015


The single greatest misconception in architecture is the idea that we build in three dimensions, when in fact we build in four. And any architect who deems to neglect that fourth dimension—time—does so at his own peril. 
Try as one might, it's hard to find a more shopworn
example of Modernism than Corbusier's
Palace of the Assembly in Chandigarh, India.

The modernists of the twentieth century are already infamous for this oversight, to the detriment of their legacies. Many of our most celebrated modernist works--Mies’s Scharoun Residence, Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Gropius’s Bauhaus buildings--would be in a sorry state indeed if not for the constant and fastidious curation they now receive. Even so, they remain most impressive when seen in the handful of historical photographs that first wowed the world eighty-odd years ago. It’s these old images, not the pampered works themselves, that remain the most compelling argument for Modernism’s perfectionist aesthetic. 

Among the pinnacles of Postmodernism,
the Best Products showrooms—there were once
many—provided belly laughs, but no lasting
architectural lessons. This one stood in Houston.
Move away from acknowledged masterpieces to the second and third tier of modernist works, however, and the story is different. Here, the high-finish industrial materials beloved by the modernists show the same confounding inability to patinate over time, but without benefit of landmark-caliber maintenance. Under these less rarefied conditions, the modernist’s beloved snow-white marble is soon stained and dirty; his flawlessly smooth stucco riddled with cracks, his sparkling glass canopy littered with leaves and rubbish. Check out a few modernist buildings in your own town, and see if they still exude Corbusian purity. 

Addison Mizner's Spanish Revival work in
Palm Beach, Florida, built almost
ninety years ago, has survived beautifully.
Mizner understood the fourth dimension.
Alas, the International Style modernists weren’t the only architects oblivious to the fourth dimension. In their consuming search for irony, the Postmodernists used intentionally diagrammatic design, chintzy materials, and pointedly tawdry detailing. The greater irony is that in doing so, most managed to seal their own dooms as far as timeless building was concerned. A glance at the numerous moldering Postmodernist works in cities large and small will quickly confirm this fact. 

Architects of the last two decades have made many of the same errors, though by a different route: they built substantially and expensively, but used a palette of demanding finishes--highly polished metals and stone, complex paint schemes, acres of plate glass--that make their works both costly to maintain and highly susceptible to the indignities of daily use. 

If anything promises to improve the architect’s cognizance of time and nature, and their inevitable impact on our best efforts, it may be the growing prominence of the green movement. With its refreshingly broad insights into how much energy we invest in creating building materials, putting them together, maintaining them, and then tearing them apart again, green architecture has the potential to change our entire architectural aesthetic. 

We'll see how green design stands the test of time.
Demonstration green home, Bornholm, Denmark.
(Copyright Kristoffer Tejlgaard and Benny Jepson,
the architects).
For many architects, the ideal of beauty has meant using precisely those materials and design details that evoke the greatest possible separation between man and nature. This school of design routinely demands costly, highly finished, and technically complex materials assembled in as  flawless a manner possible. 

 The green architect, by contrast, may well include materials that have already lived one lifetime, making this usual standard of perfection quite moot. After all, time--that most exacting of judges--has already proven them worthy. 

Monday, March 16, 2015


Last time, we talked about the various types of garage doors found in older homes. This time, we’ll look at the modern standard for garage doors, along with some tips on choosing the right style for your home’s architecture.

Interior view of sectional overhead door, today's
default standard. Unlike older one-piece doors,
they're very kind to garage door openers.
Today’s most popular door type by far is the sectional overhead door, which typically consists of four or five horizontally-hinged sections that roll up into the garage ceiling on a curving track. There’s little doubt that this is the most easily operated garage door design since the Victorian biparting door--a fact that explains its wide use as a replacement for older types. 

First, a quick rundown on sizes: Single-bay doors are typically eight or nine feet wide by seven feet high, while double-bay doors are typically sixteen feet wide (occasionally eighteen) by seven feet high. Double-bay doors are mainly found on broadly-proportioned home styles such as California Ranchers. 

Well-chosen garage doors complement this contemporary
California Bungalow-inspired home style.
(Courtesy of Roberts Garage Door Professionals)
On the other hand, a bland, unadorned garage door will look very strange on a traditional home style. The best approach is to reflect the same general level of detail that’s found on your home: If you have a traditional-style house with lots of exterior moldings and trim, then a moderately ornate garage door will probably look fine. However, if it’s a relatively clean mid-century home style, you’re better off choosing a simpler door with a plain plywood finish.

Contemporary carriage-style garage door—
yes, it can be fitted with an operator.
So if you have the real thing, don't get rid of it!
Pre-Depression era homes, which were originally fitted with either biparting or bypassing garage doors, present a special case. The horizontal proportions found on most stock sectional doors, whether plain of fancy, look foreign on houses of this era. Door manufacturers do offer super high-end designs that attempt to hide the sectional door’s telltale horizontal joints, mimicking old-fashioned bypassing or biparting doors. But the prices of these doors can be astronomical, sometimes ranging into five figures. 

Therefore, if the original doors are still in place, you’re probably better off reconditioning rather than replacing them. And regardless of what naysayers tell you, an automatic garage door opener can indeed be installed on biparting doors (they’re even occasionally installed on the inner leaf of bypassing doors). 

No filigree please: Clean-lined aluminum garage door
is an excellent fit for this modern design.
Lastly, a word about windows: Most sectional door manufacturers offer optional glass transom lites for their doors, as well as a whole array of muntin (divider) patterns to fit over them. Although additional light in the garage is always welcome, choose these window designs carefully. The now over-familiar sunburst pattern, for example, is very well suited to colonial style houses, but not to much else. Likewise, arch-topped windows are probably not the thing for a California Rancher. 

Take your time choosing the right style of garage door for your home--after all, it’s the biggest, baddest door you’ve got.

Monday, March 9, 2015


What’s the biggest, baddest door in your house? Nope--not the front door. In keeping with America’s automotive obsession, it’s much more likely to be the garage door. And though architects and builders like to pay lip service to the importance of the front door, in practice, it’s often the garage door that’s more conspicuous.

This wasn’t always the case. Before World War II, the front door was the undisputed focal point of any house, while the garage was pointedly hidden away at a back corner of the property. In the booming postwar economy of the 1950s, though, Americans finally attained Herbert Hoover’s pre-Depression promise of “two cars in every garage”--and then some. Our houses haven’t been the same since.  

Classic early-20th century biparting doors
with strap hinges and the familiar crossbuck
motif to prevent sagging.
Thanks to the countless Americans who still equate the number of cars they own with their value as human beings, multi-car garages have become status symbols. No wonder garages are the most prominent feature in so many modern tract homes.

As my many prior critiques of our autocentric society might suggest, I don’t like the notion that doorways for cars are more important than doorways for people. Still, I’m a pragmatist, and since in-your-face garages remain a reality for the present, we may as well try to make them look decent.

Bypassing garage doors. These are
a contemporary example, courtesy
of Real Carriage Door Co., Inc.

Let’s start with a look at the most common types of garage doors. The very earliest was naturally enough derived from the simple paired swinging doors used on Victorian-era carriage houses (technically known as biparting doors). Many old houses predating the Depression still use these doors, and other than needing a good bit of  clearance in which to swing, they serve perfectly well. Many of these old timers are quite charming, featuring recessed panels, decorative battens, or windows. Nevertheless, I see many homeowners ripping out perfectly good biparting doors because they think they can’t be fitted with a garage door opener. Well, they can--so if that’s why you want to get rid of yours, please don’t.

With the elaborate period revival styles of the 1920s, garage doors got so heavy and ornate that side-mounted hinges were no longer up to carrying their weight. This brought about a widespread switch to bypassing doors, which are suspended from a heavy overhead track and slide past each other. This arrangement, which was derived from barn door hardware, could accommodate doors weighing up to four hundred pounds, and had the added plus of not requiring clearance for the door to swing into. Over the years, of course, neglect and lack of maintenance can make bypassing doors hard to operate, but this problem can often be remedied just by cleaning and lubricating the track.

Typical mid-century one-piece overhead door
with abstract ornament.
Cheaper, one-piece overhead doors superseded bypassing doors after World War II, and they’re typically found on all styles of postwar houses in both single and double widths. Since most such doors were hastily site-built to complement the style of the house, they’re not as durable as modern factory built doors. What’s more, their spring-counterbalanced hinges can be very balky when coupled with a garage door opener, not to mention downright dangerous if improperly adjusted.

Next week, we'll look at the modern default standard for garage doors,along with some tips on choosing the right design.

Monday, March 2, 2015


One Sunday a while back, I dropped by an open house that had just been remodeled and put on the market. It was a speculative renovation, otherwise known as a “flip”. In keeping with the usual modus operandi of such projects, the builder had refitted the modest mid-Sixties Rancher with shiny granite counter tops, gridded plastic windows, glossy prefinished flooring, and so on. 

For obvious reasons, this isn't an actual photo
of the living room I'm describing.
In any case, this one has more windows.
This familiar slate of so-called upgrades, as painfully predictable as it was, wasn’t the real problem, though. The builder had also made some heavy-handed changes to the home’s original floor plan, evidently hell-bent on pumping it up to the overblown market standards of recent years. And here he made a classic amateur mistake: So busy was he swaddling the place in glitzy finishes that he completely overlooked a number of eye-popping flaws in his “improved” design.

The worst of these errors was the layout of the entry and living room--probably the very last place you want to screw up a house. The builder, convinced that a really huge living area would impress potential buyers, had combined the former living room and master bedroom into one gigantic rectangular space with--drum roll please--no windows at all. Oh, the front door (which led directly into the room, another no-no) did have some glass in it, but this only captured the feeble light from a shadowy, roofed-over porch. Rather than the effect of extravagant space the builder was after, his living area felt more like the rumpus room in a church basement. 

You don't have to go crazy with
glass, but for heaven's sake,
at least allow people to see outside.
(Image courtesy of
 Interior Gallery Design)
Compounding the error, he provided an elaborately-appointed kitchen completely open to both the living and dining rooms--but also lacking any windows. In fact, the only direct light in the whole vast space came from a single sliding glass door in the dining ell.

For the builder to presume that his open floor plan would miraculously allow him to make do with the light from a few distant windows was a blunder of epic proportions. For one, building codes have minimum requirements for window size in habitable rooms, and I doubt that he satisfied even those rock-bottom standards. 

More importantly, though, windows have a purpose beyond just providing adequate light--otherwise we could fit every home with artificial lighting and call it a day. When humans occupy an enclosed space, they have a very clear psychological need to see natural light, not to speak of some sense of the world outside. Hence, any purported living area that lacks windows inevitably feels oppressive and claustrophobic.

The lesson is simple: If you’re remodeling, don’t miss the forest for the trees. Lavish materials and fastidious detailing are fine, but by no stretch of the imagination can they compensate for a fundamentally defective floor plan. Therefore, approach any architectural problem from the broad-brush aspects that really matter--the things that will make the place livable, like solar orientation, circulation, and convenience--and satisfy these fundamentals before fretting over details of color and finish. Otherwise you may end up as this builder did: With a very fancy mess, but a mess nonetheless.