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McMansions 101: Windows

Howdy, folks! Today’s McMansions 101 is allll about windows, and not the kind owned by a huge multi-national corporation based in Redmond, WA. I’m talking about the holes we use to put light and fresh air in our houses. 

Let’s start out by talking about how people talk about windows. Most of us just know terms like “window sill” and “window pane” but it turns out there are a TON of window words. Like the columns post, I’m gonna start this one by posting a picture explaining this obscure and sometimes ridiculous jargon: 

A window doesn’t have to have a lintel over the top of it, many windows have no decoration at all. Some windows are pedimented:

Now that we’re finished with the terminology, let’s move on to the fun stuff:

Good Window Principles:

Well-designed houses tend to follow these guidelines regarding windows and their ornamentation. Like all rules, these too are flexible: 

1.) The same window styles are used across the entirety of the elevation, creating/maintaining continuity and visual order.

2.) To avoid visual clutter, only two or fewer window shapes are used across the entire facade. (The exception is if one is imitating a historical style that commonly features multiple window styles, such as Chateauesque)

3.) Windows that are located one above the other are aligned vertically. Windows (of differing sizes) are aligned horizontally by their heads and not by their bases. 

4.) Windows on the 2nd story are never larger than those on the ground level - breaking this rule results in an imbalanced and top-heavy facade. 

Good Window Ornamentation Principles

Shutters: 
    - should fit over the window (e.g. if you were to close the shutters they would actually cover the window as intended)
    - should NOT be placed outside or set back from the window casing/trim
    - should compliment the color/style schemes of the elevation. 

Headers and Lintels: 
    - lintels are always horizontal. Curved decoration above windows are headers or arches. 
    - are structural elements used to support the weight above a window. They should be composed of sturdy materials like wood, stone, or steel. 
    - should be integrated into the wall, otherwise they risk taking on a “tacked on” appearance. 
    - Keystones should only be applied to curved headers, as they function as structural support for an arch. (NOTE: THIS RULE IS BENT A LOT AND IS GENERALLY A MINOR OFFENSE)

Generally speaking, McMansions are really, really bad at windows. Some McMansions look like they were built by someone who’s never even seen a building in real life before. 

Without further ado, let’s start with Window Wisdom #1

Window Win #1: Use the same window and trim styles across the entire elevation. 

Ok, this is SUCH an easy rule to follow, but still every friggin time, McMansions foul this up in the worst way. Like, following this rule can make a generally ugly house look pretty ok:

In the case of this house, the muntin spacing is the same for all windows, forming a cohesive style, even if there are slight variances in window groupings. (I’m choosing to be more liberal with my interpretation of shape)

 If an all-EIFS tract house can do their windows right, YOU TOO can do your windows right. 

Rules 1 and 2 often go hand in hand - houses with two or more different shapes usually have different styles as well - but sometimes a house with two basic shapes (and their variations in size and groupings) can have vastly different styles:

Seriously, it can’t get any worse than that house so let’s move on:

Window Win #2: Use no more than two different window shapes across the entire elevation.

This rule is way more flexible than the style rule, in my opinion, especially if you’re counting clerestory windows and transoms/sidelights individually. 

Still, a house with one consistent style and a couple of shapes is pretty much timeless:

But man, does shape make a difference; I mean, check this out. This house in (of course) New Jersey has one “style” of window, but the shapes are all over the place: 

Bonus points for the BS half-timbering. 

Here are two examples (courtesy of Houston, TX) of houses that blatantly break both Rule No. 1 AND Rule No. 2:

Of course, the first two rules can totally be bent. Here’s a house built in 2000 that breaks them, but is still A-OK in my book. The materials used to build this house are extremely fine. Does it have cascading gables? yeah, ok. But that is REAL stone, not a veneer. Look at how it’s not consistently the same pattern, and how interesting the texture is. Combined with the genuine stucco and the slate roof, this house is proof that a house can break some rules and still be well-done. 

Seriously, though - if you pass Rules 1 and 2 you’re most likely going to be ok. 

Window Win #3: Align your windows vertically. Align your windows horizontally via the top of the window, not the bottom. 

Kinda self-explanatory: 

99% of people follow this rule, because it makes so much damn sense. However, there is always that special 1% (the same 1% that owns all the wealth and none of the taste)

Yeah. 

Window Win #4: The second story windows should always be the same size or smaller than the ground floor windows. 

Why? Because it implies a more stable ground. Some styles of houses, like the raised ranch or the split-level Colonial Revival popular in the 50s, despite being top-heavy styles, STILL FOLLOW THIS RULE. Seriously, implying that your house is structurally unsound should be left to the Modernists. 

Again, this is a rule followed by literally 99% of people, including most McMansions. But, again, there is always that special few:

Common Window Mistakes No. 1: Shutters

Ok, ignoring all shutter/shudder puns, seriously people are apparently unable to do their shutters properly. Either the shutters are the wrong size or they’re the wrong shape for the windows they’re attached to.

Common Window Mistakes No. 2: Headers

Headers are supposed to be part of the structure of the window/wall because before the days of decorative veneers that hide their ugliness, they were literally the only thing keeping the weight of the heavy-ass wall from crushing the living hell out of the cute little glass and wood thing. 

Headers and lintels (and I keep wanting to spell it as lentils, which I am allergic to) that are tacked on (not embedded in the wall) are a common feature of the McMansion. 

Common Window Mistakes No. 3: Transoms

A transom should never overwhelm the door or window it’s sitting above.

Here’s an example of how to transom:

And how to…not:

Well folks, that about wraps things up for this week. Stay tuned for next week’s House of the Week, this time from Encino, CA. Next Sunday’s McMansions 101: Roofs! 

Copyright Disclaimer: These pictures are screenshots taken from Zillow.com and are used in this post for the purposes of education, satire, and parody, consistent with 17 USC §107.

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