Awnings and shutters add character and protection to your home
It's no secret that the abundant sunshine is among the major benefits of California living. But it's also no secret that too much of a good thing can be unpleasant and damaging, especially when it's heating up your house, fading your furniture and causing your energy bills to soar.
Certainly blinds, shutters and other window coverings help, but an even more significant effect can be achieved when windows are covered on the outside rather than the inside. By keeping the heat (and sometimes the cold) out, exterior shading devices are said to lower utility costs by as much as 40 percent, as well as provide extra privacy and security.
"Some say this is the best-kept secret in Santa Clara," says Helmut Blum, president and owner of European Rolling Shutters in San Jose. "Ninety percent of our customers complain only that they didn't know about them earlier."
Generally, there are three types of retractable exterior shading: awnings, solar screens and rolling shutters. All can be operated either manually or automatically, in which the motor is controlled by an interior wall switch, remote control, timer or even sun and wind sensors.
Retractable awnings are made from a durable acrylic fabric that is mounted to a wall, eves or the roof and provide shade for a patio, deck or even windows or doors. Typically, these awnings are supported by specially designed arms and require no posts, providing instant shade at the touch of a button.
Most manufacturers of awnings offer hundreds of different patterns and colors in fabrics made to withstand the sun and block out UV light, strong winds and rain. The price varies depending on the size, and whether they're manually or automatically operated, but a large awning over a patio or deck typically costs about $3,000 to $5,000. Most come with a five-year warranty (though they should last two or three times that long).
"The No. 1 advantage of these awnings is that they definitely keep the house cooler during the summer," says Roy Cerrito, owner of City Canvas in San Jose. He says that when installed over windows and doors, awnings block out a good deal of UV light from entering your home, much like a sun visor. But in addition to energy conservation, the benefits stretch even farther, literally. Cerrito points out that awnings can extend up to 14 feet from the home, essentially creating another room for entertaining. "I've had birthday parties and baptisms with 30 or 40 people under mine with plenty of room," he says.
If awnings are like sun visors, then solar screens can be described as sunglasses for windows and skylights. Installed on the outside but operated from the inside, solar screens are made from a mesh material, much like a regular window screen. A small housing box is installed over or under the window, allowing the screen to slide up or down.
The major advantage of these solar screens is that they block out UV rays without compromising your view, since looking out from the inside is virtually the same as looking through a tinted window. Solar screens are available in a variety of neutral colors, as well as a variety of "openness factors," which is a percentage that indicates how much light is allowed to pass through.
Depending on the type of screen selected, solar screens can effectively block out 86 percent to 94 percent of UV light, says George Pfaller, general manager of Alutech United Inc., a manufacturer of exterior shading products based in Selbyville, Delaware. "Glass magnifies the sun's rays, but an exterior shading product like a sunscreen will cut that intensity," he says, which of course results in significantly lower utility bill. (As the name implies, solar screens are made for blocking the sun, and therefore are not effective at keeping out the cold.)
Solar screens can be placed on all the windows of a house, or just on the windows that receive the most sun exposure. They typically cost about $18 per square foot, although it costs a bit more for motor-operated screens, or screens incorporated into a home automation system, according to Blum.
If even more light blockage is desired, in addition to window and door security, rolling shutters are a better option for exterior shading. While solar screens block out up to 94 percent of the sun, rolling shutters can block out 100 percent, says Pfaller. Made of aluminum, rolling shutters come in a variety of colors and thickness. Like solar screens, a small housing box is installed either above or below the windows or doors with tracks mounted on each side, allowing the shutter to slide up and down in any position to let in all, some or no light at all. Each blade is 1.5 to 2 inches wide with perforations between them that, unless completely closed, will allow some light in. "It's a pretty cool-looking effect," says Pfaller.
And because shutters block the wind from coming into contact with the windows, indoor heating needs are dramatically reduced. These shutters provide more privacy and security and block out neighborhood noises, as well as the noises of nature like wind, rain and hail. In fact, Pfaller says the popularity of rolling shutters rose dramatically on the East Coast after Hurricane Andrew, and that 85 percent of his company's business is in storm protection and security, with solar protection being an added bonus. "On the East Coast, the solar benefits, and the fact that they keep the furniture from fading, are just added benefits that people realize after buying exterior shading products," he says.
But the advantages don't end there.
"I have heard many times that the shutters have some sort of psychological effect," says Blum. "People sleep better, and have a greater feeling of security."
Rolling shutters typically cost around $25 to $30 per square foot, again with a higher cost for automatic operation.
Slow to catch on
Blum, who is originally from Germany, says that nearly every home in Europe has exterior shutters; in fact, it's a $5 billion industry there, he says. In California, the market is much more limited, with Blum one of few manufacturers of rolling shutters in the area. Pfaller attributes the limited market to a relative lack of concern over energy consumption.
"Energy is so cheap in this country compared to Europe that we just don't care," he says. "Here, it's not uncommon to have a nice summer beach house with all the doors and windows open in the middle of August, with the A/C units cranked on to 65 degrees. In Europe, they're more energy conscious."
Still, even while exterior shading is not widely used, Blum says the people who do have it on their homes often say they'll never go without it again.
"My customers often say, 'I wish I would've done this earlier, and I would never again move into a home without shutters,'" he says, adding that shutters also increase the resale value of a home.
Blum says that another reason exterior shading, particularly shutters, hasn't caught on here is because people are more accustomed to having blinds and window coverings on the inside of their windows, rather than on the outside. "We get the question "Why on the outside and not on the inside?' a lot," he says.
And the answer to that is simple, says Pfaller. "With interior shading, you still have the significant heat gain through the glass once the sun enters before it has any reflection off the window treatments or draperies. But an exterior shading product will block a lot of that out," he says.
Though it's not necessary, many people opt to have both interior and exterior shading, usually because they already have blinds or draperies up before deciding to add exterior shading.
Interior shutters have returned in popularity too, in part because they "are wonderful for acoustics and sun control," says interior designer Wendy Teague, ASID, design principal of Garcia Teague Architecture + Interiors in San Jose.
They also look good.
"Shutters dress your windows in class while raising the value of your home," says Julie Garden, co-owner of Bay Area Vinyl Shutters, a family-owned business since 1972. "Vinyl plantation shutters have become popular in particular because of these added benefits to the homeowner: They are inherently flameretardant, better insulating, virtually nomaintenance, lower in cost and easier cleaning," Garden says.
Clearly, one of the biggest fringe benefits of exterior shading is that it's like installing instant air conditioning - without the monthly cost. The reason involves a little bit of science, and a lot of common sense: With interior shading devices, when the sunlight hits the window glass, it heats up the space between the glass and the shading device, as well as the shading device itself. These elements have direct contact with the interior space of the house, therefore heating it up. With exterior shading, the sunlight touches only the shading device, and because it's outside the house, the heat does not have direct contact with the inside of the house.
Blum says people can't help but notice this significant effect when they get their utility bill, especially in the summer. To illustrate his point, Blum says that the interior temperature of a typical home usually maxes out at 90 degrees, even if it's 120 degrees outside.
Anything 80 degrees or above starts to feel uncomfortable, which is when most people turn on the A/C. But exterior shutters can cause the temperature to drop up to 40 degrees, making air conditioning obsolete. "The temperature can easily drop from 90 to 80 degrees without even having to touch the A/C switch," Blum says.
Still, Blum says that people often initially shy away from shutters because they don't want to block their views, or take away the natural lighting in their homes. "People envision that shutters block all the sun and views out, but in reality, it's not a problem because you just target when the sun comes around," he says. "As the sun comes in from the top of the window, you can close the shutters halfway. You can sit in a chair and still easily see out the window."
Because these exterior shading devices are made durable enough to withstand the elements, Blum says they should last a long time with proper care. Maintaining them simply involves hosing them off occasionally. Blum says the hardware parts can last for decades, while the fabrics last at least 10 to 12 years.
Despite the important benefits they can offer, exterior shading devices can also be the bane of many homeowners associations, a fact that Blum is actively working to change. Energy conservation, privacy and security aside, it's aesthetic appeal that concerns such associations, often causing them to either ban or require special approval for exterior shading devices.
However, Blum says aesthetics shouldn't be a concern because the window boxes that house these devices are made to blend in with the rest of the home, appearing as an enhancement. He also points out that because these devices come in a variety of tones and styles, they can easily blend seamlessly with the architecture of a home.
Pfaller says one way to achieve this is to have the installer place the boxes into the soffits on the face of the home, or in the case of a newly constructed home, have the architect design false fascias to go across the boxes to make one smooth line on the front of the house."You just have to think about it and be a little artsy to get a cleaner, prettier look," he says. "One of our fortes is that we do things to look better, so wherever possible, we try to put them up into the soffits."
Teague says that though she doesn't see exterior shading used very often in the Silicon Valley area, she thinks it's a good idea that can also be made to look good.
"I'm all for energy efficiency, and when they come in different colors and materials, there's a lot you can do, and that's a good thing," she says. Of course, the colors and the materials used depend on the design of the house, but the she says the key is to think ahead.
"With the proper design, exterior shading can look great, but you can also easily use the wrong materials and it ends up looking terrible. You don't want it to look like a Band-Aid that has been applied as an afterthought."
But even then, Blum says his customers are so enamored with the practicality of their shutters, that the aesthetic issues are usually forgotten. "People have concerns in the beginning about how might look, but once they have it and live with it for a while, the question becomes, 'Why didn't I have this earlier?'" he says.
To him, and to the majority of Europeans, covering the windows from the outside instead of the inside makes perfect sense. "It's a feature that brings you in control of your house. You can completely correct the heat and the cold and the security, and whatever other problems you have with windows. It's no problem."
There's also an element of coming full circle, says Teague: "Outside shutters also connect historically with our original ranch houses that had shutters for practical reasons."
Alutech United Inc.
Bay Area Vinyl Shutters
European Rolling Shutters
Architecture + Interiors