"A window is to a human being as a frame is to a painting," wrote British satirist Max Beerbohm. "It strongly defines the content."
Whether or not we are what we look through, the right windows can turn almost any home into a showplace. Externally, they provide beauty, character and drama, making a tiny house seem spacious, a tract house distinctive, a plain house historic or high-tech.
Inside, transformations may be even more spectacular. Gloomy corners are flooded with sunshine. Small rooms seem to expand, low ceilings to soar. Storage space becomes living space. Once blank walls reveal fascinating views.
Adding and enlarging windows is often the cheapest, most effective way to remodel an unappealing house. Older windows used to be hard to match. Today, however, the business has grown so competitive that windows of every type and period can be ordered through neighborhood glass and hardware stores.
New "old" windows combine antique appeal with contemporary innovations: snug, glare-free insulating panes; burglar-proof locks; pivoting, easy-clean sashes; weather-tight frames that never need painting; removable fiberglass screens; even adjustable mini-blinds, built directly into the glass, to block excess sun and safeguard privacy.
The first residential windows were multi-paned because it was impossible to standardize the thickness of glass. As manufacturing techniques improved, the number of panes per window slowly decreased. Single-pane windows were perfected in this century.
Until 1945, all home window frames were wooden. Cheaper, low-maintenance aluminum frames were introduced during the postwar housing boom. They have been flooding the market ever since. But '90s homeowners tend to consider them inelegant eyesores. Now that there are alternatives, aluminum sliders and louvers are being scrapped.
Vinyl-clad wood-framed windows are just as maintenance-free and much better-looking. They come in an endless array of shapes and sizes. They are available in double-hung styles and with small panes (or snap-in grids to simulate small panes). And they work well with traditional as well as modern architecture.
Frank Goldstein of City Sash & Door in Marina del Rey explains the trend: "Apartments and little houses in outlying areas still buy aluminum, but housing developments all over Los Angeles are no longer the low-end tracts they were after World War II. Property costs too much. Now they are million-dollar homes. That's why nearly all new high-end construction is using wooden windows. And, today, the easiest way to dress up an older house is to take out aluminum and put in new wood windows."
Experts say overall window area should make up about 10% of overall floor space. Southern Californians want light and air--to bring the outdoors in. Glass walls can be created even in two-story Victorian homes through artful combination of new small-paned circle-top French doors, casements and clerestories.
A fun way to bring in extra natural light is with "surprise" windows--the Gothic arch that overlooks back-yard treetops from a staircase landing; the sunburst above a kitchen sink that makes it almost pleasant to wash dishes; the round, leaded bulls-eye that highlights a peaked ceiling; the floor-level band of glass that discloses a glimpse of pool, garden or ocean surf below.
Today's skylights have also gone similar improvements. Ones that open are replacing those that don't. All are airtight, weatherproof, glare-proof and designed to minimize condensation. Some earn tax refunds as passive solar collectors. They come with optional screens, blinds, shades and remote controls. They display the sky and admit dramatic beams of filtered sunshine especially welcome in windowless bathrooms and attics. Dormer windows just below the eaves and roof windows, set into sloping roofs, can also turn dark attics into bright bedrooms.
There are windows for "problem areas." For instance, sun and air may be needed where a standard window would invade privacy or expose an unattractive vista. Here, a wide, shallow window can be set close to the ceiling. Or, if light is more important than ventilation, glass blocks can be used.
If air is needed and full sunlight is not, a top- or bottom-hinged frame can be glazed with colored, frosted or sandblasted glass. Art glass provides the costliest but most magnificent option. Antique and salvage dealers stock century-old church windows and Tiffany panels as well as frosted art nouveau and Art Deco glass hand-etched with transparent motifs. Art glass studios also handcraft contemporary windows for modern homes.
Like the frustrating glass walls of office buildings, the large picture windows built into most '50s and '60s houses provide light without ventilation or charm. Nineties homeowners are replacing them with angled-out bay, bow and oriel windows and with circle-top-transomed French doors.
All stationary windows are declining in popularity, except for unusually-shaped light sources close to the roof. Those which cannot be hinged are removed. Picture windows that do not extend to the floor are being replaced by greenhouse windows. These indoor gardens, once available only in aluminum, now come with wooden frames, small-pane grids, opening side panels and brackets for window seats.
Window glass is tailored to every need. There are varying degrees of soundproofing, energy efficiency and sunscreen efficiency depending upon the amount needed case to reduce glare and keep upholstery from fading. Reflective glass, for example, screens out the most glare and provides the most privacy by day, but is transparent when illuminated from within. Budget-minded do-it-yourselfers can even shop for used, irregular and unclaimed glass.