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The Charm of Historic Windows

Recently, while doing research for a client, I came across an article on the care and repair of historic windows published by Historic England in 2014.

“Windows are the eyes of a building - they let in light and give views out - and profoundly affect its appearance. In addition, traditional windows bear witness to the artistic, social, economic, and technological developments of past ages. Their design and detailing were influenced by contemporary architectural fashion, and reflected the status of a dwelling (and often the individual rooms within it). They were further shaped by factors such as methods of taxation, building legislation, and craft advances, particularly in glass manufacture.”

- Historic England

This made me think back to how, when I was little, I loved to draw houses. They were modest, childlike drawings, nothing extraordinary. Yet, in my imagination, each house took on a human-like persona, with windows as eyes, a door for the mouth, and in my mind, the roof was a hat. My fascination with houses stayed with me all my life and windows, in particular, continued to capture my attention, not only as functional elements but also as artistic expressions that could add character and life to any building.

Historic windows

One of the biggest threats to our heritage is the disappearance of traditional windows from older buildings. They form an integral component of the architectural design in older buildings and can be valuable items, frequently crafted with exceptional skill and ingenuity.

Due to the increasing focus on enhancing the energy efficiency of existing buildings and as windows are relatively easy to replace, replacement plastic uPVC windows still pose a substantial threat to the character of unlisted historic buildings, particularly in towns and villages.

According to the English Housing Survey (2011) commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government, more than 52% of dwellings built before 1919 have had the original windows replaced by uPVC double-glazed windows.

PVC window

PVC window

Original windows replaced by uPVC windows. Images - Historic England

Replacing or altering historic windows can have a significant effect, not only on the building itself but also on the overall visual appeal of the street and the local area. It’s impossible to imagine our old buildings without their original windows as they form such an essential part of our architectural landscape.

A little bit of history…

Most of the windows during early medieval times were unglazed. In timber-framed buildings, a window was a simple opening in the frame with vertical bars to keep intruders out. Timber shutters were also used as glass was very expensive and rare. Sometimes a window would also have been covered with oiled fabric, and nailed to the frame.

Medieval Shutter window

A reproduction medieval shutter sliding in a groove in the timber framework at the top and an attached rail at the bottom.

Image: Historic England

Prior to the 13th century, England relied on imports for all its window glass primarily from the continent, particularly from northern France and Germany.

According to Historic England, there is archaeological evidence of a glassmaking industry that developed in England during the 13th and 14th centuries but very little is known about how the industry grew or who was consuming the glass.

By the 17th century, glass became more affordable and was also used for ordinary houses. Broad glass was one of the earliest forms of glass and crown glass was widely used from the 1440’s until the middle of the 19th century. It is easy to see that the distinctive appearance of historic hand-made glass cannot easily be imitated in modern glazing. These imperfections tell a story and create an aesthetic that modern glazing struggles to replicate.

Cabinet with crown glass

An example of crown glass which is now very rare, but was widely used until the mid-century.

Image: Historic England

The popular sash window

Sash windows in England can be dated back to the 17th century. According to some, it came to England with Dutch influence, but others credit the architect and surveyor Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703) with being the inventor of sash windows.

Georgian sash windows

Georgian Sash Windows. Adobe Stock Image

It’s easy to recognise sash windows as an iconic feature of the UK’s architectural heritage. Although many of our original box sash windows have been lost due to demolition and replacement, they have once again become popular due to their timeless elegance and craftsmanship.

In a time where both sustainability and heritage preservation have never been more important, the unique design of sliding sash windows, characterized by vertically sliding panes that allow for excellent ventilation and aesthetic charm, has become popular again. They are now being meticulously restored by homeowners who are recognizing their aesthetic value and energy efficiency benefits.

If you have a problem with windows in a listed building that needs repair or replacement, it is vital that you consult your local planning department before undertaking any work in case Listed Building Consent is required. Today, there are many dedicated professionals who are able to repair and restore historic windows while respecting the building and its period.

Period stone cottage Cotswolds

A Stone Cottage in the Cotswolds, England. Adobe Stock image.

The conservation of historic windows in England is not merely a preservation of architectural aesthetics, but a testament to our shared cultural heritage. These windows, often dating back centuries, are windows into the past, offering insights into architectural, social, and technological evolution. By safeguarding these windows, we are ensuring that future generations can connect with our rich history and traditions, appreciating the craftsmanship, design, and stories that these windows encapsulate. Conservation is not just about bricks and glass, but about our collective memory and identity, making it an enduring commitment that enriches our cultural landscape.

I hope you've enjoyed reading the post, and, as always, if you'd like to ask me anything, please get in touch!

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