Steel Windows Then and Now

Ask most people in the United Kingdom about steel windows, and they will talk about the ubiquitous, mass-produced standard metal window.


A much smaller number will mention the use of the Universal Casement in the inspirational designs created by the world’s foremost architects.



Steel windows were used by Frank Lloyd Wright at Fallingwater, regarded by many as his masterpiece.



Louis Cordonnier’s Peace Palace in The Hague



Albert Kahn’s General Motors Building, Detroit


Even fewer will talk of the architectural movements which were made possible because of the essential characteristics of steel windows.



Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus (House of Building), one of the most influential architecture and design schools of the 20th century.



The Hoover Building a Showpiece Art Deco Design in Perivale, Middlesex


My love affair with steel windows, and, with that, a dislike of inappropriate refurbishment, started very early in life. I was brought up in a row of imposing, large, Victorian semi detached houses, in a North Western town.


At the end of the row, the local coal merchant had built himself an art deco villa, with flat roof, white rendered walls, and sweeping curved corners.



A Typical Art Deco Villa


Eventually I went away to university, and started working in London. Then, on a visit home, I was horrified to find that it had been split into two houses, and the new owners had modernized it. One half of the flat roof was now pitched, the render on the other half had been replaced by pebbledash, and, worst of all, the curved steel windows had been replaced by facetted plastic.


What do you think?


Side view Courtesy Google Street View


So, how did a blacksmith’s shop in a small market town in North Essex become the world leader in window manufacture, with manufacturing plants on five continents?


Metal windows had been used since Tudor times. The Elizabethan casement glazed with leaded lights was an architectural feature unique to Britain. Glass was so expensive in Britain that people took great care to ensure that the frames were strong. They were very popular as nearly every village had a skilled blacksmith who could manufacture them, but very few had skilled joiners to provide an alternative in timber.


Elizabethan Casement


With the advent of Palladio and Wren’s architectural styles, coupled with improvements in the glass manufacturing process, the fashion for larger, more dignified house building, with corresponding larger windows, grew. The double-hung wooden sash window became the window of choice for the discerning homeowner.


The Courts, Holt, Wiltshire


However, there was some dissatisfaction with timber sash windows. Complaints ranged from broken sash cords, warped sashes, and sticking, shrinking or rattling.


Crittall’s had been manufacturing metal windows for agricultural buildings, and churches using wrought iron, bronze, and increasingly with mild steel. With the attitude that epitomizes the spirit of the Victorian age, Francis Henry Crittall, with his team of skilled craftsmen, set out to develop an engineered window, made of metal, which would overcome all of the problems of the wooden sash.


At the same time, a number of companies around the country were manufacturing metal windows. Wragge’s of Manchester were the pioneers; they were soon joined by Wenham & Walters, Williams & Williams, Hopes, and Burt & Potts.


Improvements in machine tools allowed the first change made to the design, which was the introduction of rudimentary dovetail joints for corners rather than brazing, which resulted in a considerably stronger and more reliable product than before.


Despite the improvements in the steel windows, they were not readily accepted in the residential market. However, in other sectors, the new windows were extremely popular. Projects included the National Gallery, Harrow School, the Royal College of Music, and the Public Records Office.


The next major development in the design of steel windows was the fenestra joint, which, because of its strength, allowed slimmer glazing bars, and therefore more daylight through the windows.


In 1909 following rationalisation work carried out by Walter “Pink” Crittall, the Universal Ranges of steel sections were launched which allowed improvements in the manufacturing process, with the result that consistent manufacture of steel windows could be achieved by semi-skilled workers, rather than skilled craftsmen as previously.


Cover of the 1911 Crittall Catalogue


Further innovations followed, including the welding of corners, hydraulic straightening of bars, and a dual strike plate for handles to allow night-time ventilation with no loss of security.


This all resulted in a better performing window, at a lower cost. However, the Universal Casement was still a luxury product at a premium price.


The First World War proved to be a turning point for the steel windows industry as a whole. Factories were turned over to the manufacture of munitions, and many lessons were learnt which would be adopted in the immediate post war era.


At the time, steel windows were still more expensive than their timber counterparts.


This was about to change.

Productivity improvements that could be gained as a result of standardisation, was the first lesson put into practice. Crittall’s closest rivals, Henry Hope, proposed the adoption of a standard design, to help the steel window industry compete to supply windows for the 200,000 new homes promised to be built by the UK government in 1919.


A new, light, profile was designed to act as a mullion which would allow composite units to be built. Following long discussions with architects, standard units were designed, which matched the current brick sizes, and suited the height of the modern room.


The first project which used these ‘cottage windows’ was for the Admiralty in Chepstow. A typical window was sold for £1.95 including fittings which was a few pennies cheaper than the equivalent timber window without fittings. Further work was carried out for Bristol Corporation, which had a massive building programme for the post war years. The increased volume saw even further cost reductions.


Crittall Brochure for The Cottage Window


In 1920, following much canvassing by Valentine Crittall (later Lord Braintree), the Ministry of Health, at that time responsible for government housing specifications, agreed to include the standard cottage window in its plans for housing schemes. From then on, it was used in almost every housing scheme throughout Britain up until the 1980s.


The success of the steel window is due, in no small part, to the continuous improvement in product, and manufacturing processes.


Further innovations followed which include the development of a comprehensive range of standard metal windows, zincspra, and subsequently, hot-dipped galvanizing, to protect the steel frames, and the Duralife polyester powder coating to provide an enameled finish to the windows.


Performance improvements have been achieved by modified profiles to incorporate double glazed units, and improved weatherproofing.


Today, the steel window is no longer a high volume product in mass production. As a result, there are cheaper alternatives available. But, you get what you pay for.


Today’s homeowners’ decisions on refurbishment take into account energy performance and sustainability of the materials used.


The thermal performance of the modern replica steel window has been tested and proven to be 400% more efficient than the original single-glazed window.


Steel is the most recycled material in the world (source:  The mild steel which goes to make today’s steel window frames contains 98% recycled material.


In March this year, a West London homeowner was refused planning permission to replace his Crittall steel windows with aluminium units, on the basis that modern, double-glazed steel windows were readily available. (source: Planning Magazine)


In North America, the steel window is seen much more as an aspirational product, as can be seen by the images and comments at this popular North American interior design blog, appropriately named Things That Inspire The Crittall Windows’ North American residential customer list reads like a Who’s Who of successful businessmen, politicians, and entertainers.


Crittall Windows are so successful in North America that in April this year, it was announced that they had won the coveted Queens Award for Enterprise in International Markets. This British-owned, independent company, the largest supplier of steel windows in Europe, is now the No 2 supplier of steel windows to the North American market having built a distribution network from scratch following a management by out in 2004.



Posted via email from John’s Posterous


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