M u l l
i o n s
A brief in favor of traditional window mullions.
muntins) are the wooden dividers between windowpanes. They are an
essential part of traditional architecture, largely because the
patterns they create are integral to what designers call "visual
texture" on the exterior and interior of a house. It's for this
reason that artists often emphasize their effect in renderings
such as this:
Here is an example of
a fairly typical, modest suburban colonial home, enlivened considerably
by true wood mullions in its windows. Without them, the facade of
this house would be quite bland. This is because of an interplay
of various visual textures (clapboard siding, slate roof, brick
chimneys, mullioned windows, and vegetation). The ensemble
depends on each and every
one of these ingredients for its effect.
The impression is
pleasant and welcoming.
The house is also notable for complete stylistic integrity, which is not typical in newer houses.
That is, its sides and rear are treated exactly the same as the front,
architecturally. Builder houses nowadays often apply
'fake facades' onto shed-like boxes. People accept this,
often, because they've never seen anything better.
Now here is what happens with fake window mullions. A
perfectly-attractive Cape Cod-style house, with fine masonry and
another slate roof (this house is across the street from the previous
house, in fact). But the windows have vanished into black
The effect is vacant and forbidding.
Window screens intensify the effect. But as the
example below demonstrates, even without screens the reflections caused
by uninterrupted sheets of glass on the exterior are disrputive
to the overall aesthetic. Notice that when in shadow (such as on
porch) and in sunlight (such as the upper floor window) the fake
mullions effectively disappear.
Okay, I need an antidote after those!
Better now. And on to the Arguments ;)
1. First and foremost, my goal is that we should use "simulated
divided-lite" (SDL) mullions which are far less expensive than genuine,
"true divided-lite" (TDL) mullions--but far more convincing,
than fake "grilles" whether they be metal or plastic, and whether they
be on the surface of the glass or between the glass (GBG). I have
designers use the "true divided lite" mullions with insulated
(double-paned) glass but I do not believe
they justify their (considerable) additional cost.
The "simulated divided lite" window (above) has spacer bars
between the glass, which continue the mullion line through the glass
providing the effect of a continuous material without compromising the
insulating benefits of double-paned glass.
Above: SDL glass (left) and TDL (right)
In practice, except at very close range, these two are mutually
indistinguishable; however TDL costs considerably more which is why we
make a reasonable compromise with SDL.
Above: snap-in grilles (left) and 'grille-between-the-glass'
Neither of these options produces the shadow lines or "visual texture"
(as described above) of the SDL and TDL options. They
present an uninterrupted sheet of glass to the exterior, which produces
large-scale reflections and generally disrupts the window/wall textural
relations on the facade of a house.
C o n t e x t
2. Since the Second World War, builders have generally gravitated
toward items made of plastic and aluminum which sometimes sought to
mimic the shapes and forms of traditional building materials--some
times more successfully than others. Generally the faithfulness
(or lack thereof) with which these new items responded to authentic
models became more important aesthetically than the materials of which
they were composed. Therefore, when designers talk of shoddy
'plastic' or 'aluminum' products they're often really speaking of their
appearance rather than the intrinsic nature of the material in question.
3. Fake window grilles originated in trailers and other 'manufactured
slowly migrated to the cheapest speculative builder houses as builders
found they could save money without too many homebuyers being wise to
it. During the housing boom they have even been found in
million-dollar-plus homes in places like Great Falls.
4. Builders do it, lots of people don't know the difference! But
also like to provide molded, hollow-core
"fiberboard" doors--cardboard, really, stamped with a panel design to
mimic actual solid wood doors. You'll find these in
million-dollar-plus homes, too, because most homebuyers aren't
educated and many nowadays did not grow up around authentic
architecture to begin with. cf: The Portico Pages
5. Now, your house has its original solid wood doors. Suppose I
were to come in and replace them with hollow-core fiberboard doors with
pressed imitation panels? You'd string me up, and rightly
so. If we built additions, would you want them to have
solid wood doors or fake fiberboard doors? Builders now put these
in $1million+ homes with regularity now, even though real wood doors
cost less than $200 each. Why do they do this? Because they
can get away with it. Too many people don't pay attention, and/or
up in houses with real wood doors, and don't know better. Will I
specify fiberboard doors? Nope.
6. Similarly, builders like to install a single overhead lighting
fixture--often coupled with a cheap fan--in the center of each
room. The ugliest, cheapest kind of lighting and yet many
homebuyers don't know any better. Even when builders install
recessed lights, they're usually arrayed in a grid pattern without any
thought toward fuction or aesthetics. The results are an
ergonomic disaster, and visually unpleasant besides. They
generally cause people to throw shadows directly upon the surfaces they
wish to be lit.
7. However and whenever it happened, a real assault upon your house's
architectural integrity was mounted when its original wood windows with
true mullions were replaced with plastic windows with fake
grilles. The house's stone facade is a thing of great
beauty, difficult to replace today except at tremendous cost, and
compromising that is a thing I would never want to do. As
originally designed, there was a subtle rhythm of visual textures as
the stone masonry and windowpanes played off one another. That's
been compromised. The obvious solution is to replace
the plastic windows in the
main (existing) house with quality windows, as time and finances
permit (as you're doing in a couple of locations on the rear). At
the least,I'd replace the ones on the front stone facade where
they detract so greatly from the otherwise handsome apparance of your
8. We have already cut out many mullions from the back and sides
money, and are substituting less-expensive brands and varieties of
windows throughout. This is simply where I hope we can draw
the line. As an architect, a tragedy of my life is that
everywhere I go, I am confronted with
the handiwork of amateurs who have taken beautiful old
and ruined them. Naturally I care about this more than most
people; it's not only a passion of mine, it's my life's work. But
for me, it's unbearable even to see these desecrations. To
be party to one is something I've never done, and hope never to do.
Thank you for your time.