A self build house project diary
by Oliver Cannell

Going window shopping

Choosing the right windows to the match style and budget is much harder than we thought.

To me, the windows are one of the major items of a house. Everyone looks at them and they are tangible items which can be used daily. It's imperative they are right.

Ths first feeling you get for what the windows will be like, in this whole self-build process, is in the early sketches and drawings created by the Architect. He drew them as floor-to-ceiling frames, in a dark grey colour. Very trendy and apt for the overall contemporary design.

The size is great because they maximise the amount of light into the house - especially applicable as nearly all our windows are facing south. With the colour though, having looked through lots of self build magazines, the stained or varnished softwood look turned out to be more appealing as they have such a warm feel to them - particularly from the inside looking out.

Wood vs uPVC vs Aluminium

So, what materials to specify for the windows. Most new windows in this country are uPVC (unsaturated Polyvinyl Chloride). They are the cheapest, quickest install, mostly maintenance-free and easy to keep clean. However, they can be pretty tacky looking (if you buy cheap ones)... are made from plastic (which comes from oil) which is highly unsustainable and are basically an eco-nightmare.

Alumnium windows probably offer a better eco spec than uPVC, as they are recyclable at the end of their life and don't require much in the way of maintenance. They also tend to be good quality - which has the downside of meaning they're generally more expensive.

But - in my opinion - the only option is to go for is wooden windows. Timber is sustainable and cost effective and you can paint or stain them in virtually any colour you like. Yes, they will need more tender loving care over the years, but then owning a house is never a maintenance free experience, so that doesn't frighten me. I've always had timber windows and I love their warmth and character. I find the uPVC windows soul-less and the aluminium ones can be cold, hard and clinical.

Stained vs painted

I love the natural look of wood. Call me a hippy, but it gives me a warmth inside that other materials just don't live up to. Since day one, I've been hoping to have nice looking, good quality timber windows, to really give the house a homely feel. Yes, you can get timber-style uPVC windows - but they just stick out like a sore thumb... looking too much like fake timber windows.

Originally, painted windows weren't really considered as an option because most of the new-build houses I've seen with painted windows, have looked a bit a tired after a few years. Maybe this is because the windows or paint jobs have been poor, or maybe it's because they haven't been maintained properly (or even cleaned for that matter!).

However, I was worried that having stained softwood windows on this house, would make it looks a bit 1980's. Apparently only 5% of new windows ordered, are for a stained finish these days - but that wouldn't influence my decision. So we contemplated the idea of having slate grey painted windows instead. They would (in theory) look like the grey aluminium frames as design by the Architect, but be more affordable.

For about 3 weeks, we became "window magpies" looking around at any modern houses we could see from the street, to see what kind of windows they had.

I decided to mockup some test frames and stain/paint them. Then a spent few minutes in Photoshop to see how they might look with glass in and with the finished render on the walls.

In the end, as the chosen window manufacturer didn't have a stain colour as light as I was hoping for, we opted to go for the painted slate grey frames. This took about 3 weeks to decide. Headache!

I think they will match the blue engineering brick around the house and boundary wall and will look very smart.

Contemporary style on a budget

There are some beautifully manufacturered timber windows out there, but they are very expensive - and not really an option when you're trying to do everything on a budget. And hardwood windows looking amazing, but softwood is the only viable option.

When you're building a contemporary house, it would look strange having traditionally styled windows, so we were hoping to obtained something sleek and modern. This generally means narrower frames, larger expanses of glass and few openers/vents. However, when looking at the plans, and thinking about the practicalities of living in the house, you realise that more opening windows and vents are pretty useful. It does mean that some of the design lines are broken up, but being practical is more important I think.

The two 'budget' options that we looked at primarily, were Jeld-Wen and Howarth Timber. We visited some building sites to see how they looked... we saw some very badly presented and maintained windows in a chain of builder's merchants... and we even met an extremely helpful and knowledgable sales rep at his home to discuss the options. It's unfortunate that the budget windows also tend to look more traditional. These suppliers do offer more simple/modern looking frames, but they also cost 25-50% more.

In the end, it just so happened that the most affordable windows (had the most helpful sales rep) and looked much better quality.

I would love to have been able to spend five times more money on the windows and french doors - and bi-fold doors would have been awesome instead - but maybe that'll be possible one day on another self build or renovation project.

Double glazing vs triple glazing

We've tried to make the house as realistically economical to run as possible, so it makes sense to think about triple-glazing. Although the improvement in performance over double glazing isn't as great as you'd think... the price is almost double.

Again this option literally went out the window when we found that out. I'm sure this will change over time once more triple-glazing is used in this country.

Next entry: Lintels and padstones (Thursday 25th September 2014)

Previous entry: The only way is up (Monday 15th September 2014)

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