The Southern Architect

Architecture, New Construction, Remodel, Windows

The Great Window Debate: Clad or Wood?

There was a time, not that long ago, when our firm would never consider using anything but a wood window. After all, we pride ourselves on authentic and honest designs marked by fine craftsmanship. But we also pride ourselves on building livable, modern homes for the families who entrust their home design to us. In the past, the appearance and construction of clad windows were such that they were not an option for us and our clients. But today’s clad windows, when applied correctly, are very much an option. We still love mill-worked wood windows, though. And, there’s no replacement for their warmth, customization and craftsmanship. But the reality is both options probably have a place in most homes – it just depends on the application.

A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Both mill-worked and clad windows are expensive. No matter how you cut it, the investment is for a life-time window and you’re going to pay a premium for either.
  2. Neither wood nor clad windows are bullet proof. Both types of windows can and do fail for a variety of reasons – quality of construction, installation errors, material failure, etc. Don’t be fooled into thinking any window will last forever.

When To Use A Mill-Worked Wood Window:

Large and custom-sized windows
A custom mill-worked wooden window can be made to any size and specification. One of the biggest limitations of clad windows is size. To make a large window (anything over about 4’x6″ wide) clad manufacturers have to literally join two or more separate window units. The result is a window with an unusually and disproportionately large joint in the middle, as you would expect when two window units are literally stuck together. For large windows, the seamless custom look of a mill-worked window simply looks better.


The Ghilcrist home utilizes both clad and mill-worked wood windows.

When Authenticity Is An Issue
When remodeling an historic building, or designing a new but historically accurate building, wooden windows might be non-negotiable. This isn’t just for historical accuracy, but also because it is highly likely that the windows on an older or historic building would be considered a custom size today and not available by any window manufacturers in the first place. However, if appearance of wood is the only issue, it should be noted that today’s clad windows can be nearly indistinguishable from wood.

When A Truly Custom Color Is Needed
Many architects and designers, ourselves included, like to have the option of “field finishing” with color and stains. We often use the environment on the property itself to determine what color paint or stain to use. For instance, Al and our painters have hand-mixed stains to match the color of the dirt or grass on which the home sits. That’s not possible with a manufactured window, as they come already finished.

When Architectural Design Is A Priority
One of the primary reasons people hire an architect is to get a custom designed home – a unique vision specifically for them. There are lots of reasons to choose clad over wood, but if your architect has paid particularly close attention the design of a specific mill-worked window, it’s for a good reason – it’s important to the overall design and character of the home. In other words, that custom window is specifically designed for you and your home – which is the reason you hired an architect in the first place. Listen to your architect.


When To Use A Manufactured Clad Window:

When Upkeep and Maintenance Costs Are An Issue
One of the biggest selling points for clad windows is that they are low maintenance. They are made of materials that don’t rot (usually aluminum or fiberglass), warp or crack, they tend to have very good warranties, and the pre-installed casing can be more immune to water- and air-infiltration. On top of that, the color is baked into the aluminum meaning you won’t have to repaint every few years as you do with many mill-worked wooden windows. Keep in mind though, once an aluminum window is damaged, it has to be replaced. It can’t be repaired like wood can.

When Installation Costs & Time Are A Priority
Because clad windows come factory-assembled and painted, installation time is cut as much as 4 or 5 times what it might be for a wood window. That’s time your contractor is not having to build casings or prime and paint trim, which should translate into a cost savings for you.

There are exceptions to this rule, however. When your architect needs to make alterations to the window, installation times can rival those of wood windows. A a good example is if your architect has designed working shutters for your windows. Drilling and attaching a shutter to your clad window will void its warranty. In this situation, for our homes, we simply remove the exterior clad trim and replace it with a wood trim. We then attach our shutter to that wood trim. The warranty of the original clad window is protected, and the shutters are in working order – but the installation time is significantly higher than it otherwise might be.

When Standard Sizes And Patterns Are Used
Today’s clad windows are truly almost indistinguishable from their wooden counterparts. If they didn’t look great, we wouldn’t even consider them, no matter their function. But they do, and when you consider the ease of installation and lower maintenance costs, they are a almost a no-brainer for standard sized units that don’t require the kind of customization a larger or more architectural application might.


A Word Of Caution:

As mentioned before, either window choice is expensive and will greatly enhance or detract from the overall beauty and livability of your home. This is why architects spend as much time on window design and application as we do. It’s also one of the ways we, as architects, are important as an advocate for you the home owner. There are certain applications of both types of windows that require a great deal of creativity and thought. Though clad windows, in particular, can have very simple installations they can be installed haphazardly or without concern for form and aesthetics. An architect will ensure the priority of construction is on design consistency, overall look and feel, scale and proportion and the longevity and quality of the installation (vs. simply getting the job done as quickly as possible). In other words, your architect will protect you and your shared vision for your home.

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