Farmhouse Architecture: A Peek Behind The Windows

Popular looks change.

Over the centuries men have worn powdered wigs, crew cuts, “Beatle” haircuts and fades.

The Rubenesque female figure gave way to Twiggy.

So too with architectural styles. Within the past few decades Colonials, Cape Cods and split levels gave way — literally — to McMansions.

House on steroids.

Now we see a new trend. Gone are the steeply sloped roofs, jutting dormers and other architecture-on-steroid features that were must-haves for new construction.

In their place: the “modern farmhouse.” Its most distinctive feature: black window frames.

Westport’s new trend: farmhouse-style architecture, with black windows.

Where did this new style come from?

Scott Springer, his wife and son have lived in Westport since 2008. He is an award-winning architect, designer and preservationist with extensive international residential and commercial experience.  His project list includes Manhattan apartment renovations, country and coastal retreats and 5-star hotels.

Scott is vice chair of the Historic District Commission, and a member of both the Architectural Review Board/Historic District Commission Joint Committee and the Westport Public Art Collections Committee.

The other day, I asked him about this latest trend. Scott says that although black windows have been seen here for the past decade or so, the idea is not new.

“For residential construction in New England and many other parts of the country, all-wood windows have been commonly used for hundreds of years,” he says.

“In the 1960s, the idea of cladding the exterior side of a wood window with what was believed to be a more weather-resistant, low maintenance material resulted in the development of the wood clad window.

Scott Springer

“A factory-finished layer of thin material — often painted aluminum — is wrapped around all exterior-facing components of a wood window.  While the interior side of the window can be primed and painted any color on site, the exterior aluminum finish and color, once chosen, are intended to be the permanent finish.

“In theory, one can repaint the aluminum cladding in the future; in practice, the results of repainting these finishes are often not great. For a long time, white was the dominant exterior finish for wood clad windows as trim boards and other architectural elements were commonly white, and so white seemed to offer the most flexibility.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, all aluminum windows were popular, often in a dark bronze metallic painted finish. These windows gradually fell out of favor, however, primarily because they were not energy efficient and were subject to condensation and corrosion issues.”

In the early 2000s, Scott continues, a type of “retro-industrial” style started to become a popular trend in creative office and retail interior design.

“Often, these interior spaces were in former warehouse or factory buildings which featured exposed brick and steel windows that were painted in their original black. This might also be seen as a repeat of the 1970s residential loft and gallery aesthetic.”

While industrial steel windows are great, Scott notes, they became very expensive to manufacture. Eventually, the residential window industry realized that if they took a wood window, pre-painted the interior black, and then clad the exterior in black, they would have something that simulated (at least to some extent) the aesthetic of the steel window.”

As an architect, Scott says, black window frames — when properly used — can work quite well.

One example: a house painted a dark grey or black, or a more modern white stucco house with a flat roof and very large windows, could easily work with black frames.

An advantage of black interior frames is that they tend to blend in with the view of the outdoor landscape, thus better integrating the interior and exterior spaces.

However, Scott “would not generally specify black frames for a more traditional or transitional white house with a pitched roof and clapboard or shingle siding.

“Glass typically reads dark in a building elevation, so when a black frame is used, the window itself ends up reading as a large black rectangle. With a white frame, 6-over-6 window, the dark area is broken down into smaller areas.

“The now-popular 2-over-2 window (Window Diagram 2) also allows this reduction into smaller areas. A traditional 6-over-6 or 12-over-12 double-hung window painted white, which has either 12 or 24 divisions, integrates effectively with white trim and siding. This effect also works when a monochromatic approach is used with colors other than white.”

A now-popular 2-over-2 window.

In contrast, he says, “a black double-hung unit will read as a single large void in an elevation when the siding is white. This effect is made even worse when windows are ganged together.

Black double-hung unit.

“In traditional architecture, windows and doors are predominantly vertical elements in a façade that correlate to the verticality of an upright human form.  Ganging windows — especially ones with black frames — can create a seemingly arbitrary pattern of horizontal dark rectangles that takes a traditional building form in a much more modern direction. Sometimes it can work, but most of the time it really doesn’t.

Ganging windows.

Scott notes that “a very high percentage of new spec homes in Westport are white with black window frames. It seems these houses are being snapped up even before they can be completed.

“One can assume there is a large pool of individuals who think these window frames look good. Of course, general popularity is not always the main criterion for quality, and aesthetic preferences are highly subjective.”

Part of the popularity is that platforms like Houzz, Instagram and Pinterest, plus design blogs, digital and print magazines, and television home design programs, are hot now.

“Good and bad ideas spread around very quickly, and the original concepts behind them can easily be lost or taken out of context,” Scott says.

As for history: “By the late 19th century, operable steel windows were commercially available in England, primarily for warehouse and factory applications. The use of such windows quickly expanded to other parts of the world.

“In Germany, Peter Behrens, and later Walter Gropius and other architects associated with the Bauhaus, utilized mass-produced steel windows and other building components to achieve innovative architectural concepts.

“From the 1920s through the ’40s, steel casement windows for multifamily residential and hotel projects from New York to London to Shanghai was common.

“For brick buildings, the steel windows were often painted black or dark red. In New York, the Starrett-Lehigh Building, completed in 1931, is a prime example of a building with black window frames.  The windows in this building form horizontal bands that wrap the building, and they alternate with horizontal brick bands.

“Today, old steel windows are great candidates for restoration. It is possible to significantly improve their performance by using vacuum insulated glass in place of the original single layer of glass.”

Park Avenue restored steel casement windows. (Photo courtesy of Scott Springer Architect)

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7 responses to “Farmhouse Architecture: A Peek Behind The Windows

  1. Peter Blau

    Interesting treatise on steel (or at least steel-look) window frames, but the current “modern farmhouse” look also relies on hard, smooth surfaces all around.

    Of course, aside from the windows and roof, all of these smooth surfaces need to be white, white, white!
    All in all, these houses looks like they’re molded out of plastic, just like the little green houses and red hotels in a Monopoly game.

    Soon, perhaps, they can be manufactured by giant 3-D printers.

  2. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Meanwhile, in Bridgeport.

  3. Next time my house need a repaint, I’m tinting the windows dark, repainting the window frames vanta black, and the siding bright white.
    This will get me $500K more on resale, right?

  4. Lois Himes

    Well, that was totally fascinating; had always wondered about those black windows!

  5. Michael Calise

    There actually was a time when windows were a work of art. Beautifully designed and constructed of selected wood to last forever. The work of craftsman not high-speed construction lines firmly encased in foreign materials and destined for failure and replacement (uh renewal) I have windows that are over a century old. I constantly marvel at their beauty and functionality and the way in which they add to the beauty and function of the buildings they are in.

  6. Valerie Ann Leff

    It seems like the architectural style in Westport is always uniform in any given era—copied by every builder in town. To me the “modern barn” is the ugliest of all, except for some of the 80’s contemporaries. But the worst part is the loss of lovely old homes in favor of uniform monstrosities on small lots. And in terms of architecture, doesn’t anyone have some creativity?

  7. Morley Boyd

    I can’t recall any actual farmhouses around here being fitted with steel sashes when I was growing up but I suppose we’re all farmers now. As an aside, the sashes on my house are now well over 200 years old and they work perfectly. Every element of them is user serviceable and the old growth wood from which they are constructed is apparently bulletproof. Those crummy clad sashes on the arrivistes’ fake farmhouses will be lucky to last 20 years. They’re called “replacement windows” for a reason; you can’t repair them, you just put them in the landfill when they fail.