Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Wood Windows
by Daniel Frisch
Posted January 28th, 2019

The Case for Continuing Education

My passion for residential architecture is very personal.  I grew up in a mid-century modern house with a flat roof – in western Michigan, of all places – with three smokestack style chimneys, a split-level entry, and a forty-five-degree orientation on its meager partial-acre lot.  The house was stained charcoal grey, really, black, with white trim and a fire engine red front door.  Never has there been a house better designed to receive and display thereafter airborne eggs on Devil’s Night (Halloween eve).  The house featured a near curtain wall of south-facing aluminum windows and given its orientation, was an early example of a passive-solar home, before passive solar design was popular.  This extremely remarkable house in an otherwise unremarkable Grand Rapids suburb had a tremendous influence on my youthful fascination and love for architecture and its component parts.

During high school, I spent a summer in Cambridge, MA, having enrolled in the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s (GSD) Career Discovery program.  The GSD is housed in Gund Hall, a modernist wedge-shaped building designed by Australian architect and GSD graduate Jon Andrews and opened 1972.  To get from the studios to Harvard Square, we usually walked through Harvard Yard, home to some of the country’s oldest structures and the difference in architectural idiom was lost on none of us. Many of the buildings on the Yard date to the seventeenth century, and at the photographer’s golden hour, their original leaded glass windows shimmer magically.

At UVA, we got to know the Lawn and the Rotunda, Jeffersonian architecture writ large, and we often visited and studied Monticello, arguably the first architect-designed American residence.  Next time you have occasion to visit, please take special note of Jefferson’s triple-hung windows and the chain-driven simultaneously closing French doors. These meticulously preserved examples of 200-year-old wood windows and doors are simply extraordinary.  Soon after college, I remember visiting friends in Siasconsett on Nantucket.  The family home was at the very eastern tip of the island, about as far easterly as you can be and still be in the United States, and the 200-year-old wood ocean-facing windows were subjected to extreme salt and wind conditions.  That summer, the sashes were brought down to the yard and we re-painted them.  Perhaps with appropriate maintenance, they will last another two-hundred years.

Graduate school brought me to Columbia University, a New York City campus designed by McKim Mead and White, with countless wood windows to study, even while enrolled in a school dominated by deconstructionism.  Post-graduation, I joined the profession, and have had the opportunity to work on and restore numerous Landmark properties, in New York City and beyond.  We’ve been fortunate to document and preserve and/or replicate windows dating back 250 years.

I’ve spent half a lifetime studying, experiencing, and practicing architecture, and if I were to pick a subject to teach, one of my favorites would be wood windows, both their history and what to consider when considering them for contemporary projects.

When we study the evolution of double-hung windows, the earliest versions traveled up and down in vertical wood channels.  To keep a sash in its open position, one could either insert a peg in a hole in the jamb or place a block of wood on the sill.  Both options are low-tech, but very effective.  The simplicity of the design and the few moving parts of early wood windows ensured their durability.

The engineers of the next generation of double-hung windows sought a solution to keep windows in any open position.  Ingeniously, designers fashioned counterweights with chains and pulleys hidden within a vertical chaise at the side of the sashes.  The concealed counterweights weigh the same as the sash, and the sash is balanced in any position.  The system also delivered the benefit of making the sash feel weightless when opening.  My family recently rented an apartment in a Landmarked property built in 1907.  Within the apartment were three of the original oversized weight-and chain windows.  After more than a century, these three windows operated more effortlessly than any of the aluminum replacement windows throughout the rest of the apartment which had been installed during the last twenty years.

Properly maintained, historic wood windows can last indefinitely. I’ve often used this experience and the above anecdotes to assertively lobby clients to install wood windows and sign up for the perpetual maintenance associated with painted wood windows.  Further study – continuing education of a sort – has made me rethink this recommendation.

Modern wood windows are superbly engineered.  Air infiltration is reduced to almost nothing.  The sashes accommodate double and even triple glazing.  Sound infiltration can be addressed, and UV transmittance can be reduced.  Conveniently, sashes can be tilted in for cleaning.  These modern benefits, together with multi-generational durability further the case for wood windows.

Yet, it turns out that manufactured modern wood windows differ materially from their ancestors in two important ways, their material and their engineering.  To save costs, manufacturers have switched from old-growth dense hardwoods to lighter pine species.  To reduce the variability of working with a natural product (wood), sashes and frames are machine-planed and finger-jointed, creating a precise product that can satisfy rigorous laboratory testing and can be warranted by the manufacturer. Unfortunately, modern production techniques cannot make soft-wood hard.  Problematically, pine also has a lot of sap and resin, making the material less ideal for painting.

The second challenge facing the perpetuity of today’s wood window is its modern mechanism for raising and lowering the sash, and most importantly, for keeping the sash at its intended position.  Whereas first-generation windows ran up and down in simple channels (held in place by pegs), and second-generation windows were of the weight-and-chain variety, modern windows run up and down on something called sash liners.  These are concealed and inaccessible tracks, usually made of plastic.  Instead of chains and counterbalances, the windows are held in position by leaf springs, which fatigue over time.

The finger-jointed pine materials and mechanics of modern window both work against the durability of currently manufactured products.  While I’ve been telling my stories and recommending painted wood windows for years, I feel we’ve gotten a bit lucky in that clients have often opted for a more cost-effective option, windows clad in aluminum or fabricated entirely out of synthetic material.  For die-hard preservation cases when budgets are elastic, we can still specify custom-fabricated historically accurate windows, either weight and chain, or reproductions of pegged colonial era windows – both of which can last generations; but for the rest, we’ve moved on.

With both humility and wisdom, I realize my nostalgic bias for historic windows has been tempered by continuing education.