Anatomy of a window

From foundation to finishes, Bower Haus has done a lot of work on the Pink House, but the most transformative work so far in terms of the atmosphere of the place has been replacing old windows and installing new ones. A south-facing window on a sunny day ranks pretty high on my List of Things Needed to Survive the Winter Blues and Grays, and this house has some great south-facing windows.

Windows are so great! They provide us with protection, natural light, and sweet metaphors. (And who doesn’t love sweet metaphors?) But they are also way more complicated and finicky than I ever imagined.

Do you know how a window works? I had never really thought about it before, but behind all that decorative trim and sill is a fairly complicated little machine that hangs on the the frame of the house. A sash window—one with sections that slide up and down—is basically a box, called the casing, that holds the sashes (sections of the window that slide, made up of a single pane of glass or multiple panes separated by strips of wood or metal called muntins).

You want to install a window so that it’s both plumb and square; that is, horizontally and vertically level and untorqued so as to measure the same length measured crosswise from both pairs of opposite corners. Those suckers are surprisingly flexible and this is surprisingly difficult. You also want them to lean just slightly outward so that moisture doesn’t get into or under them, which is obviously bad for your walls and frame. When you insulate them, you have to use non-expanding foam, or, if using fiber glass, stuff them tightly enough to block air flow but not so tightly that you squeeze the casement. If you do squeeze the casement, the windows won’t open or close very easily because of the pressure on the sides.

Add to this pages of building code regulations (and historic commission regulations in our neighborhood) and you’ve got a pretty tricky little gadget. If you’ll excuse me, windows can be a real pane in the sash.

Still: worth it and wonderful. Always.

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