What are French windows?

French Window

If you’re looking for a timeless and elegant window that will let natural light stream into your home, then a French window could be a great option. With an ancient heritage and a wonderful ability to bring completely unobstructed views to your home, we explore this fascinating window design in more detail…

The French window is a rather misunderstood design, and it is easy to see why there’s so much confusion around them. Technically, they didn’t originate from France – and yes, you can walk through some of them like a door, but they are classed as a window. To make things even more perplexing, French doors look very similar, and standard patio doors are often called French Doors by fanciful estate agents who know the appeal they have to potential buyers.

french windows

With a French window, you can always be sure on its timeless beauty and its ability to transform the aesthetics of a home. Here’s everything you need to know:

Beautifully designed, perfectly functional

In France they’re known as portes-fenêtres, which means ‘windowed doors’ or ‘door-sized windows’. As the translation suggests, some French windows can be tall enough to walk through, like a door. And just like a French Door, they operate by making use of a primary and secondary leaf, so that both casement sashes can be opened. A true French window, however, is much narrower than the wider, more commonly used doors and has more elegant proportions.

While French windows are similar to standard casement windows, which are attached by a hinge to the window frame on one side only, they don’t have a central post or mullion. This means that they create one large opening, without any structural elements obstructing the view from the window. They can be fitted with an espagnolette locking system and fitted with a handle to each opener.

You’re most likely to come across them in dormer windows in the upper floors of a property, where the views are the most impressive. French windows can also be an ideal solution for first-floor windows where the opening isn’t large enough to meet fire escape regulations, or when a French door is too big to appropriately fit into a space on the ground floor as less timber is used.

French windows were originally made from wood and iron, and despite the fact that they are available in many different materials in the modern world, a traditional product champions classical beauty and heritage in a way that uPVC and aluminium just can’t compete with.

By using a sustainable, high-performance engineered timber like Accoya® you can ensure that your French windows will maintain their quality finish for years to come, and will also require less maintenance. Accoya® is a water-resistant material that doesn’t swell or shrink, meaning that there is little to no movement in the joints. Find out more about this environmentally friendly material here.  

When French windows are done badly…

If you look at the two sketches below, you’ll see the difference between a correctly designed French door and French window.

A French door has higher proportions of bulk and frame, which can obstruct the view and therefore ruining the whole point of having a French window. The sketch on the right shows how a French window should be designed, with narrow frames and less obstructions to result in a timeless and elegant look. It’s very common to see a French door design incorrectly used in Juliette balconies, where a French window is more suitable to maximise on views.

A legacy from ancient civilisations

These windows do not originate from France, as their name suggests. Their story actually begins in Italy – and if you go further back, you could even say they are Roman or Greek. During the Renaissance, the former design principals of symmetry, proportion, and geometry were revived and architects took inspiration from traditional Greek features like columns, arches, and lintels. This trend influenced everything, including windows.

By the High Renaissance period of the 1490s, floor-to-ceiling Palladian windows flanked by sidelights and fanlights were popular across Italy. Architects couldn’t get enough of the generously-sized windows that could double up as doors and lead out onto Juliette balconies, and that helped to maximise the light and ventilation in the building.

It wasn’t long before this style was spotted by the French, who gave the design their own twist by embedding numerous window panes into the structure held by mullions. The way the classically proportioned windows brought light into a room and gave accessibility to balcony areas made them an instant hit, and the concept was used widely during the Baroque era. French windows soon became doors in their own right, which were used both externally and internally for separating rooms.

Like many different architectural elements of the Renaissance, French windows then spread to Great Britain, and then to the United States. They are particularly common in the bourgeois houses of New York, where they are often converted into stained-glass windows with various animal and floral motifs.

Is it a window or a door?

Interestingly, many people think that a French door and a French window are the same thing, and it would be easy to see why but there are some subtle differences. A true French window is much narrower, with more elegant proportions than the wider, more commonly used French door.

Westbury Windows and Joinery is a FENSA registered company and has been designing and supplying bespoke joinery to homeowners and specifiers for over 25 years, using expert design knowledge and understanding to help you choose the right products. If you’d like to discuss your requirements with a consultant or request a brochure, get in touch today.