24 March 2007

Avec ou sans les petits bois ?

In April, while we are waiting to get the new pup, we'll be working to get our kitchen spruced up. We got two bids for a new kitchen window and shutter yesterday, and now we are trying to decide whether we want divided lights (in French it's called a window with petits bois) or just plain glass in the new kitchen window.

The other windows in the front of the house have divided lights. True divided lights, with small panes of glass separated by wooden mullions, are definitely a "look" that some people prefer. Our house isn't historic, though, so trying to keep some "period" look is not really an issue. The fact is that true divided lights make windows a real pain to clean. So one of the realities of life is that such windows are dirtier than they ought to be most of the time.

Why did windows have divided lights in the first place? I believe it was because glass technology hadn't been perfected to the extent it has now and that large sheets of glass were prohibitively expensive if they were available at all. So small panes of glass were fitted into frames with mullions — wooden dividers — to make large expanses of glass possible and affordable.

A summertime view of the house as it is now

We take window glass for granted but in my life I have known at least one person who said the house he grew up in didn't have glass in the windows. Glass was too expensive. The windows had oiled paper in them that let some light shine through, but the paper was not transparent, of course. The house was in south Florida, so cold weather was not a big issue. I'm sure some people in my town in North Carolina didn't have glass windows much before the beginning of the 20th century.

Nowadays, divided-light windows don't present the same difficulties as before when it comes to keeping them clean. You can have that look without having true divided lights. In double-glazed windows, the mullions are installed in the space between the two big sheets of glass that form the window. So they can't get dirty, and the glass you have to clean is one smooth sheet on the inside and another on the outside. Cleaning is a breeze.

So there are three things we are sure we want in the new kitchen window: glass (!), double-glazing, and sliding window panels — not another window à la française. As Josette, the previous owner, said to me one day, the windows in this house "are too big for the rooms." That comment mystified me at first, because the large windows were one of the features that attracted me to the house in the first place.

A mocked-up view of the house with a new kitchen window.
I don't think a kitchen window without mullions looks bad.

Then I came to understand what Josette was talking about. When big windows open inward the way French windows do, they sweep across a big section of the room. You can't put anything in front of them, or even near them.

In the kitchen, the French-style window does the same thing. And it's hard to leave it open when you want to, because just a slight breeze can catch the open window panels and cause them to slam shut. A sliding window will be much more practical, even if we lose the ability ever to take advantage of the full window opening, as you can with the French window.

Not only has window-glass technology improved greatly, but so have computer technology and graphics. To see what the house would look like with the two different kinds of windows — divided lights or no divided lights — I can now take a picture with a digital camera, open it in Photoshop, and "remove" the mullions to see what the window and the façade will look like without them.

Why worry about having divided lights or not when ease of cleaning is not an issue? The fact is that an undivided window light lets more light into the room. You can see outside more clearly. It's a totally different look, from the outside and from the inside. And adding fake mullions to a double-glazed window adds about 30% to the cost. So if you want the divided-lights look, it will cost you.

After above, and before below.

We already had new windows put in our bedrooms and bathrooms. We got rid of the divided lights. We also put in sliders to replace the old French windows. I really like the result, inside and out. The windows are so easy to clean that you are motivated to clean them more often. The views out over the back yard and the vineyard are better without the mullions.

The new shutter we're getting will be a roll-down model with a crank inside the kitchen (ha ha ha, I know some of you would say the crank has been in the kitchen for nearly four years already) to open and close it. That's the kind of shutter we have in the bathroom, and it's very practical. You don't have to open the window and let in all the cold air when you want to close the shutter.

French-style window shutters don't really work with sliding-glass windows, anyway. They are made to cover French-style windows. When you pull the window panels toward you to open them, you have total access to the window opening and the shutters, which then are easy to close or open.

With a sliding window, you have to open one side, fold the shutter back to open it, and then open the other window panel and do the same on the other side. Closing the shutter is even more difficult, because the latch is right in the middle, where the window frame is. It's hard to reach.

Isn't this fascinating? It's one of those lessons you learn when you have sliding-glass windows put in but neglect to think about how they will work with the shutters you already have. Some people don't bother closing the shutters, but I'd rather do that every night than have to have heavy curtains on the windows.

In the winter it gets dark as early as 5:00 p.m., so you need curtains or shutters for privacy. You feel like you are on display, otherwise, especially in a house with big windows. In summer we don't often close the shutters at all. It's light until 10:00 or even 11:00 p.m., so there's no need to.


  1. I'm a divided lights fan myself, but I agree that the undivided window looks better on your house.

    I wish it were practical to have working shutters chez nous. It would be really helpful for securing our large glass French doors.

  2. We have real mullion windows in the original part of our house, but went with clear windows for our sun porch and we prefer them.

    I think the sliding all glass windows will look good in your kitchen. Do you have an attic with a window above your kitchen?

  3. Hi Evelyn, yes that's an attic window up above. That window is one argument for going with the divided window below. But I think we won't; we'll eventually change the attic window.

    Chrissoup, shutters are good for security against burglars and wind. Why isn't it practical there?

  4. No one here seems to have shutters that actually work except for stores in iffy parts of town. The only place I've ever seen them advertised is located in south San Jose; they import them from Germany. I assumed that they'd be very expensive. Maybe I'm wrong.


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