Industrial-style steel frame windows have come a long way since the days of the drafty factory window, and they’ve become increasingly popular in high-end townhouse renovations. Their skinny mullions allow more sunlight to reach the depths of dark row houses, and the industrial style creates a striking contrast against a historic home.
“The slender profile is just a beautiful thing,” said Jeff Sherman of Delson or Sherman Architects. “You can accomplish the same stuff using wood or aluminum, but it just looks so clunky when you do it. It looks very heavy in other materials. That’s why we go back to it again and again.”
Over the last decade, window companies have developed new ways to insulate steel windows, making them more energy efficient and protecting them from leaks using a thermal break, or barrier, between the inside and outside layer of steel. Steel also lasts longer and is stronger than other materials.
“Steel has longevity, and a larger opening can be obtained because it’s a stronger material,” said Chris Pearson of Optimum Window of Ellenville, N.Y., which makes custom steel windows. “It has thin sight lines, so maximum daylight can be achieved.”
But the windows don’t come cheap. Steel windows can be almost double the price of a wood-clad window, and the lead time is longer.
“It takes a longer time because everything is custom-made,” Pearson said. “There’s nothing on the shelf. Each opening that’s done is done custom to make sure that the project arrives OK.”
When a homeowner opens up the back of a townhouse with a wall of steel windows and door from the garden to parlor level of a 20-foot-wide brownstone, architect Brent Buck of Buck Projects tells clients to expect to spend $90,000 to $150,000 just on the window. Additional costs include structural support work, additional HVAC considerations and shading devices if the window is south-facing.
“There’s a whole host of other considerations and triggers,” Buck said.
A similar-sized wood window with an aluminum-clad exterior would run $45,000 to $50,000, although the mullions and door jambs won’t be as thin.
“It’s half the price,” Buck said. “Though most clients wouldn’t necessarily accept that as a solution.”
Often, the steel window frame comes without glass, which is installed by a separate window glazier. Steel frames can be designed with many small panes of glass separated by a frame like traditional factory windows, or with fewer large openings, or lites, for a more modern look.
Steel frames are also used in some instances as shower enclosures or room dividers. But they are most often used in townhouse renovations to open up the back of the house.
“It matches handsomely with the weight and mass of brick,” said architect Brendan Coburn of CWB Architects, referring to the brick exterior of most townhouses. “To have this light, delicate steel structure — the juxtaposition is very satisfying.”
Coburn uses steel in about half his townhouse renovations where he’s connecting the garden and parlor levels with a large window. But he cautions that the windows can still be cold, even with the thermal break. And steel should match the style of the renovation, he said.
“It’s really a case-by-case thing,” Coburn said. “If budget’s not an issue, it’s something worth considering.”
Architects agree that clients are increasingly requesting steel windows at the onset of a renovation, though some are deterred by the cost. Their resemblance to old factory windows or the steel casement windows of many prewar apartment buildings may trigger the same sense of nostalgia that many feel for old brownstones.
“It’s an industrial feel from another era. It feels modern and machined, and like something out of the past. It jibes with different styles and goes with a lot of things,” Sherman said. “People who are drawn to brownstones are also drawn to steel windows. It appeals to that kind of person because it’s part of the endangered species of historic buildings.”
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