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Living Architecture - Windows and shutters

Living Architecture - Windows and shutters

So far we’ve looked at why the basic structures of our traditional homes look the way they do. We now turn our thoughts to windows & shutters, which not only keep things dry and secure, but can also add a touch of style.

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Sooner or later you’ll find yourself wondering just how many more ways there can possibly be to create something as apparently basic as a window or a shutter. In their most basic form, windows can be simple openings in a wall to admit daylight and provide ventilation, and you won’t have to look too hard to see examples. The upper storeys of many country properties (and even those in towns) were originally intended to serve as greniers.While many have since been converted to provide extra living accommodation, countless others remain empty voids without so much as a sheet of glass in the windows, let alone shutters.

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One thing they have in common with their more sophisticated brethren in the inhabited storeys is a need for a structurally sound opening. Regardless of the materials involved, the basic component parts are a window sill (seuil or rebord de fenêtre) to protect the masonry below, a reveal (tableau de fenêtre) either side of the opening, and finally a lintel (linteau) to support the masonry above. To keep things weather and draught proof, a glazed window frame then sits within a rebate – easy enough with timber or brick construction, but more labour intensive where stone is used. As we noted when we looked at stone construction styles, masons long ago perfected the art of producing cut stone reveals which incorporate an inner bay-style splay to maximise the amount of daylight entering the interior, a rebate to locate a timber window frame and often a second, smaller one designed to allow outer shutters to close flush with the walls.

If you’ve got it...

Some architectural features are the result of simple logic. For example, regardless of their owners’ social standing, individual homes in rural locations could be oriented to take advantage of a south-facing aspect, and it’s not uncommon for structures like these to have no windows or door openings at all on their much colder northern facades. Other things, though, convey a building’s aspirations and those of its original creators, not least the dimensions, proportions and decorative detailing of windows and doors. Creating and maintaining them has always been costly, and tall, elegant windows and doorways are also clear evidence of similarly extravagant interior volumes. The message to the outside world, therefore, was along the lines of: ‘I possess both the taste and means to create this...’. To see these kinds of features at their most potent look no further than the legendary chateaux of the Loire Valley, or the hôtels particuliers created by wealthy merchants in Bordeaux or Nantes, where effects were literally heightened by adding fixed, second-stage window panels above already tall windows and doors.

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Many older structures also feature opening timber window frames set within stone mullions (menaux de pierre). Not surprisingly, this can be a highly durable system, particularly if the stone happens to be tough Limousin granite, the real tour-de-force for granite mullions (and much more) being the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne in Limoges.

A final obvious point on the subject of windows is that they aren’t necessarily always found in walls; large loft spaces within steeply pitched roofs can be inhabited by the simple addition of dormer (chien-assis) windows.

Shutting it out

Think of windows and in France you inevitably think of shutters (volets). A fine set of shutters is not only an attractive architectural feature, but also offers valuable protection against intruders, being secured from within the property (which requires windows to open inwards, not outwards as in the UK). Traditional, craftsman-made shutters incorporate subtle features to prevent them from sagging under their own weight, with additional support from similarly hand crafted hinges (pentures). Locking is achieved by espagnolettes – top and bottom brackets linked by a rod with a central securing handle.

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Since most security concerns have always focused on ground floor windows and doors, upper storeys often have louvred shutters (persiennes) to allow some light to enter, and in hotter locations around the Mediterranean a top-hinged opening louvred panel (abattant relevé) is sometimes incorporated to encourage cooling breezes to enter. Non-louvred shutters are also subject to a striking north/south divide: while most of France is wedded to the idea of vertical tongue-and-grooved panels, in Provençe you’ll find that shutters are laminated, with vertically joined outside panels fixed to horizontal inner ones. A simple folded strip of zinc weatherproofs the top join. While more labour intensive, this system is inherently more stable when well bonded, the traditional method being to use oversized nails, whose heads are then neatly hammered flat horizontally against the interior faces of the boards.
Finishes also vary according to regional location. Tannins in chestnut mean that it can be left untreated, but other timbers require primer and paint finishes. Strong colours often perpetuate local tradition, such as Pays Basque blood reds, Ile de Ré deep greens, etc., while pastel blues are traditionally believed to discourage insects. More widespread are dependably understated greys, which coexist well with the subtle colours of limestone. Some careful thought (and local research) will help you find what’s right for your traditional home, and help it sit perfectly within its surroundings.

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Words & Photos: Roger Moss

© All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Living Magazine April 2014