Window talk

Windows are an essential part of all our houses. The shape, size, quality and placement of the windows in a house can greatly influence how we feel. I want to share 5 assets of windows, each of which come with a liability and how to deal with that liability.

The first asset of a window is that it provides us with natural light. This does not only help us save on energy, it makes the things we do inside the house much easier, as our eyes function better. Many people also believe that exposure to plenty of natural daylight keeps us from getting the “winter blues”. Studies have shown that people tend to need less sleep and feel better during the day if they wake up with natural daylight. We therefore try to provide East facing windows for our bedrooms and kitchen in order to give us that “bright morning” feeling.

The liability connected to this asset is that at night the windows turn into reflective, black surfaces, letting everyone see in while you can’t see out. The obvious solution is of course to bring in mini-blinds, curtains, or any other form of drapes.

Skylights are incredibly effective in providing natural light into the house. Per square foot of glass, they can provide at least 10 times (!) as much light as glass in a vertical window. Be careful however not to position the skylight on a south or west facing roof, as this will quickly overheat your house.

A second asset of windows is providing your house with pleasant, radiant heat on sunny winter days. As a matter of fact, a well designed house with correct window placement can provide you with all the heat you need (when the sun is out), even if it is freezing outside. A significant amount of south-facing windows will do the trick. The liability of this asset is the potential of overheating your house. However, there are three simple things you can do to avoid this issue. The first one is to greatly limit or avoid windows on the west side; late afternoon sun tends to overheat your house quickly, especially in the summer. Secondly, have significant roof overhangs on the south side so that the sun, which, in the summer, is more or less directly above your house, cannot shine through your south-facing windows. And third, make sure that your house has a lot of heavy things within it’s walls. Anything that has mass has the ability to store heat and therefore will keep your house from overheating. Think stone, cob, tile, water (aquariums), slab floors, thick plasters, and yes, drywall is also heavy.

Another liability related to using windows for solar heat is that at night, they function like big holes in the wall, letting the heat that we collected during the day disappear. Even the most high-tech windows, still don’t insulate as well as an insulated wall. The best way to remedy this is thick, wool curtains, and in very cold climates also wooden window shutters on the outside. It is also a good idea to limit the number and size of windows on the north side of your house. They let in very little light and actually are making your house colder, even on a sunny day.

A third asset of windows is they give us a connection to the outside, whether this is a neighborhood street life, a back yard or a forest, it greatly feeds our soul to see that there is something going on outside our walls. Too few windows in a room makes it feel “prison-like”, even if it was bright, let’s say because of a skylight. On the flip side, too many windows will make us feel exposed and vulnerable and sometimes even unsafe, so a nice balance needs to be achieved. It is pretty difficult to create coziness in an all glass building. However, in this context, it is interesting to note that feelings of safety are increased if we can see through a small window to who or what is approaching our house. Hence many front doors are designed with a little window in them.

A fourth asset of windows is to give us beauty! They function like lively, ever-changing paintings on our wall. In order to make this work well for you I want to share a few suggestions.

First, have the proportions of your windows resemble the proportions of the Golden Mean, which in the case of windows would mean 1×2, 2×3 or 3×5. This Golden Mean proportion tends to please us and hence it is used in many areas of our lives, from credit cards to television screens and yes, also in paintings. It roughly resembles a proportion of 1 to 1.6 and rectangles resembling this proportion tend to be the most pleasing.

Secondly, plan your windows in sets of 1, 3 or 5, rather than 2 or 4. If a wall has 2 equal windows in it, your eye tends to be drawn towards the middle, which is usually the least attractive part of the wall.

And third, plan for multiple smaller windows, rather than huge sheets of glass. Not only will this make it easier to keep the heat in and create coziness as explained earlier, it will actually enhance the “view”. This is a difficult design choice for people who paid top dollar for a house or piece of land with a “million dollar view”. Here is how this works: as you look through a large window, from any place in the room the view will be more or less the same, especially if the view is expansive (deep and wide). Now, imagine the other extreme, a 1×1 foot window. from each place in the room, the view is different, the “painting” is constantly changing. This is partially why paned windows feel so attractive to us. The large view windows are good for real estate prices. But just like you would get bored eating your favorite meal every day, the same great, static view looses it’s attractiveness over time. Smaller windows tend to make you look at the view a little differently each time. Panes are just one way to break up sheets of glass. You can also use stained-glass, bamboo, branches or mobiles (sticks and wire, balancing rocks, shells or other objects). You can even use oil paints and make designs on your window. Try this at home, even on moderately sized windows. Keep it simple and orderly. If it becomes too “busy”, the purpose of breaking up the window into smaller sections will not be achieved because your eye will be drawn too much to what you use to break up the window.

The fifth asset of windows is that some windows can be opened to provide us with fresh air which can cool off our house on hot summer days. If well placed, they can actually provide a breeze through the house. It is therefore important to get to know the predominant wind patterns around your house, which can vary from season to season and also change drastically during the course of 24 hours. The other consideration is to look at your house as a “chimney”, by carefully planning small operable windows both low to the ground on the north side of the house, and high up near the ridge of the house (orientation is not as critical). Hot air will rise and leave through the top window, while it is being replaced with cold air from the open window on the north side, letting cool air in. Before air conditioning we designed houses more carefully with these ideas in mind.

The obvious liability of operable windows is that they tend to “leak” heat, even if they are closed. In the worst case scenario you get drafts, which is the worst for your thermal comfort during the colder months. New modern windows tend to do a great job with gaskets and foam to keep these leaks to a minimum.

The “climate controlled house” and the light bulb has given us the freedom to ignore the issues of solar heat, natural ventilation and natural light, but at a great cost, both to our environment and to how we experience our houses. As convenient as the seemingly endless supply of fossil fuels has been so far, it has brought us to the point where now most modern houses are designed with complete disregard for natural pattern and for how we function and feel as human beings. However, a lot can be fixed fairly easily and inexpensively, and looking at your windows is a good starting point!