How to Design with Picture Windows

Before choosing picture windows for your home, consider these insightful design tips from a seasoned architect.

May 9, 2022

Picture windows can be multifaceted design elements and choosing them for your home prompts lots of questions. When choosing the size and location of a picture window, you’ll need to consider the effects of light and airflow; find the best way to leverage views or maintain privacy; and think about how a picture window will interact with a room’s intended use and furnishings.

What is a Picture Window?
Picture windows are large, non-operating windows often found in family rooms and other shared living spaces. They are specifically designed to take advantage of beautiful views and pull in as much natural light as possible. Picture windows can be built in most any size or shape and can be mulled (connected) together with operating windows.

Take Advantage of the Best Views
Installing a picture window is the ideal way to capture a scenic view or expansive landscape just like a picture frame can capture and define a beautiful painting. If your home is located in an urban area, your scenery might consist of a captivating cityscape or inspiring skyline. If your home is surrounded by nature, a picture window is a great opportunity to highlight your ever-changing nature views. And while most often found in shared spaces, don’t discount the idea of installing picture windows in offices, bedrooms, and even large bathrooms.

Minimize the Unsightly
Not every home can be perched up on the side of a mountain, tucked away in a tranquil forest nook, or surrounded by bucolic countryside, but that doesn’t mean you can’t install a picture window to open up a room and take advantage of the health benefits associated with natural light.

Baron Gibson, a principal at the Gibson Taylor Thompson architectural firm, explained one of his firm’s strategies, “When trying to mitigate less-than-ideal views, pushing windows higher up on a wall can help. Pulling that glazing moment above the eyeline, where you might be looking up and over something outside while still getting a view and the benefit of natural light, is a viable option.”

Maintain Privacy
Picture windows are not just for living rooms. More private rooms can also benefit from a well-placed picture window. While one obvious advantage is that it allows an occupant a view of the outdoors, the flip side is that a curious neighbor or passerby can see inside the home.

“Natural light is desirable in most every room, but in some spaces, privacy is a necessity,” Gibson said. “When choosing a glazing plan for bedrooms and large bathrooms, and even garages, you can always consider using tinted glass, frosted glass, or glass with an obscuring texture like rain or reed glass.”

Think about How a Space Will Get Used
At the very beginning of the design stages, it’s crucial to envision exactly how any given room will be used. You need to think about which parts of a room will benefit from harnessing the most light, how that light will affect TV and computer screens, and how the furnishings and traffic will interact with the size and location of the window. It might be best to have the bottom of a picture window located just above the height of a sofa, or a full wall of glass might be the perfect complement to the way you plan to interact with the space.

Both Interior and Exterior Need to Work Together
In addition to envisioning how a room might be used, you need to reconcile that plan with the aesthetics of the exterior.

“The exterior of a home can’t be neglected. It’s all about scale and proportion, for both the interior and exterior,” Gibson said. “If you spend all your energy focusing on a functional interior plan, the aesthetic results on the exterior, if that hasn’t been thought about simultaneously, will not be desirable.”

Make Smaller Spaces Feel Larger
Another advantage of picture windows is that they can change the impression of the size of a space, especially if their placement is well thought out.

“We try to think about glazing as experiential,” Gibson said. “Take expansion and contraction for example. When you first enter a home, you might get a sensation of contraction, and when you walk through to the back of the home and meet a whole wall of glazing which pulls the view of the landscape indoors, it can make a space feel three times larger than it is.”

Using Glass as a Transition
You’ve probably seen a home addition that just doesn’t look quite right, even when similar materials were used on both the new and existing buildings. And it’s likely that you’ve seen an addition designed in a dissimilar visual vernacular that seems to flow naturally with the primary structure.

“We sometimes use large picture windows as a transition when trying to tie in an addition to the original building, especially when adding on to a historic building,” Gibson said. If we are adding a clapboard sided structure to an existing brick façade, placing glass between the two can ease the transition and make the connection feel more seamless.”

Which Window Shape is Best?
Picture windows are available in hundreds of geometric shapes, and specialty shaped picture windows can be configured to custom fit your specific project’s needs. If you can imagine it, it can be built.

“We are big fans of specialty shape windows and often use them as a tool to help create symmetry or to fill in a visual void,” Gibson said. “It’s one of the reasons we work with Marvin. They have the ability to create any shape we need, which is especially important when working on an addition where we need to mirror certain architectural elements of the existing structure.”

Direct Glaze Can Make Big, Bigger
One reason picture windows came into existence is that non-operating windows can be configured in larger sizes, sizes that can now reach 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide. And even though most picture windows don’t operate, the majority of them still have a sash (the part of the window that slides or swings open), it’s just that the sash is sealed shut. The reason for this is that a picture window with a sash will match the profile and sightlines of the operating windows that surround it.

But when precisely matching surrounding windows is not a concern, direct glaze windows are available. A direct glazed window has no sash. Instead, the glass is attached directly to the frame. That means, a direct glazed picture window features narrower sightlines and delivers more glass than a standard picture window in the same size rough opening.

To Mull or Not to Mull…
While newer technology makes it possible to create huge, uninterrupted expanses of glass, many home designers still choose to add mulls, divided lite bars, or grills.

“Homes have natural sight lines, both vertical and horizontal,” Gibson said. “Even though we have massive glazing options at our disposal, we might choose to mull two or more windows together in order to add continuity to the regulating lines of the rest of the facade.”

When Bigger is Not Better
When it comes to size Gibson said, “It’s all about scale and proportion. Bigger isn’t better when it architecturally doesn’t work from a scale perspective. If we just built in the largest windows we can from a structural standpoint, it might dwarf and dominate other features of the home or even seem out of place compared to the other homes in the neighborhood.

“And while we love to open up a northern facing elevation where we don’t have to worry about the interior being blasted with direct sunlight, creating a wall of glass on a southern exposure, where there’s no protection from shade trees or large overhangs, might create an extreme solar heat gain situation that a conventional mechanical system might not be able to manage.

“We also need to consider sheer conditions and the force of high winds that the glazing will be subjected to. Standard large windows may not be suitable for a farmhouse that sits up on a hill in an open landscape.”

Which Materials are Best?
“We steer away from vinyl,” Gibson said. “The windows that we spec most often are Marvin Ultimate, which are made with wood and clad in aluminum. They have proved themselves to us many times from a performance and aesthetic perspective. We’ve also used Marvin Modern windows, which are made of fiberglass and give us the freedom to create a large glazing experience while maintaining a high level of energy efficiency. And when working on a historic restoration that requires precise duplication of original profiles and materials, there’s no better option than Marvin all-wood custom windows.”

Don’t Forget about Fresh Air
Screens are an often-overlooked aspect of designing a picture window into a room. Like natural light, fresh air has proven health benefits, but by design, most picture windows don’t operate, which is why they’re often paired with windows that do. However, you have to remember that in most parts of the United States, operating windows require screens to keep out unwanted pests.

A modern, high-quality screen is more transparent than the coarse screens of the past, but any screen will obscure a view somewhat. And from the exterior, a window with a screen will have a somewhat different appearance than one without a screen. That doesn’t always matter, but when it does, Marvin offers an operating picture window that features projection venting and a perimeter screen that leaves the glazing perfectly transparent.

Why Marvin?
“In our opinion, and we mention this to our clients, there are a lot of window manufacturers, but Marvin has established its solid name and reputation for a reason,” Gibson said. “Also, Marvin has an accessible and collaborative R&D department that has been able to push the envelope on several of our projects.”

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