It's easy to get carried away with window placement in a house
design and end up with a jumbled-looking facade. This article
illustrates some simple guidelines for making windows
compatible with the other elements of a house.
First, keep these two rules in mind:
• Windows are an integral part of a house design, not
something you glue on to an otherwise finished design.
• Begin your window design from the inside, to suit the
room and furniture arrangement. Then work on the outside. If
you need to change the windows to make the elevations work,
always check to be sure you haven't altered what you were
trying to achieve inside the room.
Two basic approaches. To
create openings in a building, whether windows, doors, or
colonnades, you can use one of two basic approaches:
• the "holes in the wall" approach
• or the "divided facade" approach
It's best to emphasize one or the other of these approaches in
a given building. If you try to use both at once, you may end
up with an unpleasant visual confusion.
Holes in the Wall
To use the "holes in the wall" approach, you start with the
solid-looking mass of wall and roof planes and punch holes in
it. Most traditional house designs employ this method. In the
more successful designs, the punching is done in an orderly
fashion, rather than at random.
Use lineups. The design at
top right has a jumble of discordant shapes placed almost
randomly on the gable end. In the design at right, the edges of
windows are aligned with each other and with important lines in
the building; the result is a satisfying sense of order and
Symmetry vs. asymmetry.
Using the principle of symmetry is an ancient way of bringing
order to any composition, but it works best on a grand scale.
On smaller houses, such as the popular "center-entrance
colonial," a symmetrical window layout works only if the floor
plan is simple and symmetrical. If you were to add a garage or
rearrange the floor plan, you would create a powerful
A better approach is to use styles that are based on balanced,
asymmetrical forms, such as some Victorian designs. Then you
can plan freely and still end up with a good-looking building.
Note that individual wings often have symmetrical windows: I
call that "local symmetry" as opposed to "overall
Enhancement. Windows are
the eyes of the house. Just as eyes look eerily vacant if not
enhanced by lids, lashes, and brows, windows need geometrical
enhancements such as casings, muntins, shutters, and side
lights. We often take these for granted until someone removes
them to save money.
Vinyl windows are a great improvement over thin aluminum or
wood windows, because even without casings, they have
relatively hefty frames and sash bars. If you use casings,
however, take the extra width of the vinyl window into account.
You might want to keep the casings narrower than usual.
Contrast and rhythm. A
facade with windows that are all the same size looks boring.
Placing large and small windows along with the plain vanilla,
ordinary-sized ones creates more visual interest.
To avoid oversized panes of glass, try using narrower sash, or
use two narrow sash and one wide one to create a nice rhythm.
If you want a local symmetry, put the big window in the middle.
Don't put symmetrical groups side by side, one after the other,
or the facade will lose its vitality and movement.
Contrast and Rhythm
The other basic approach to creating openings is to divide the
building facade into a grid of solids and voids. Each of the
divisions can be further subdivided, through several
Horizontal bands. Most
western architecture is based on Greek and Roman examples,
which almost invariably divided the facade into horizontal
bands representing the foot, torso, and head of a body. But
Frank Lloyd Wright created a more useful sort of horizontal
band that divided the facade into two parts (the roof became
the essential third part). Most of Wright's houses are
organized with a horizontal window band right under a big roof,
all set on a heavy base.
Well detailed, but
Horizontal band at top clarifies
The nice thing about any horizontal window band is that you
can put the windows almost anywhere, and in almost any kind of
group, to suit the interior room layout. Buildings with shed
roofs are notoriously hard to design, which is one reason they
have gone out of favor. One useful way to arm-wrestle a shed
with a shallow-pitch roof is to run a horizontal band in a
contrasting color under the roof, leaving a big rectangular
Vertical bands. As with a
horizontal band, you have great flexibility in placing windows
within the contained space of a vertical element. In recent
years, builders have been emphasizing the vertical. Buyers like
the image of such houses, because they seem to have a
Vertical window bands are difficult to handle, however,
because they tend to break up the facade into independent,
unstable-looking pieces. Gravity holds horizontal bands
together, but it threatens vertical elements.
One thing you can do to avoid this problem is to give the
vertical element its own roof, preferably a gable instead of a
hip. The point of the gable "discharges" the energy of the
vertical form, rather like a lightning rod.
Gordon Tullyis a principal of Tully Architectural
Consulting LLC in Norwalk, Conn.