Published Benicia Herald June 18, 2006

The well-considered window seat

What is it that’s so darn lovable about window seats? The name itself conjures images of a house that has its act together. If you pay attention to window seats that you come across you’ll notice there is quite a broad range in the quality of experience offered by these different seats.

Some really deliver the goods, while many seem more like mere afterthoughts, eye candy at best, a place to stage an arrangement of pillows. Even without being able to list all the particulars that go into a successful window seat, I think most people can recognize a good one at a glance. Its qualities seem to draw us in, make us want to pass time in its embrace, lounging in total comfort, reading, relaxing, chatting with a friend while we gaze out and watch clouds slowly change their design. Napping even.

Even when they’re not being used, window seats can provide satisfaction just by looking so thoroughly domestic and cozy.

There are two impulses people have when they go to settle themselves in a room. One is to find a comfortable place to sit; the other is to be drawn toward light and view.

If both of these needs can be met in one place, then an important function of this room has been met with great success. And if you think about what we ask of our rooms, this truly is an essential aspect: to be able “hang out” there in comfort. These human impulses are what make window seats so potent in our psyche.

What follows is a recipe for a successful window seat. Some of these insights come from my own experience, and others come from my favorite design book “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander. This wonderful book is discussed at length in my December 11, 2005 column, which may be viewed at www.smckee.com.

Depth, length and height: The depth should be at least 18” and preferably more like 24”. The extra depth will allow for a certain amount of slouching, which is what people tend to do when seeking extended comfort in a seat. The length of the seat can vary, but five feet to seven feet of length will make for true comfort and even the ability for lying down. Height should be 18” to 20” from the floor. Take into account that a cushion will add to the height and subtract accordingly.

The cushion: The most comfortable window seats have them. The alternative is a hardwood finish or painted, both of these can look good. But if we’re after the truly winning window seat then we go for the cushion. Two or three inches of cushion pad cut to fit the space and covered in a fabric chosen to look great and also hide dirt and cat hair.

Bay window or not: If a bay window is created by this window seat there are two possible configurations for the ends of the seat. It may have forty-five degree windows at the ends, or it may have perpendicular windows at the ends. The latter is sometimes called a “box” bay window. There’s nothing wrong with these forty-five degree angle bay windows, but the squared off ends of the box bay window make for a better window seat configuration because a user can turn sideways and lean against the sides. It’s also possible to do a window seat without having to build a bay window at all if you take a regular (non-bay) window and install tall cabinets on both sides of this window and then place a lower cabinet (18” tall) between these tall cabinets to serve as a bench at the window. This is an inexpensive way to create a very nice window seat.

The outlook: This includes both the view outside and the view inward. Give the seat some sort of view. If the outside view is unavoidably dull, be sure the seat gets to overlook parts of the room that will allow for easy conversation.

Placement in a room: The window seat needs to be placed prominently, not tucked away in a corner. It’s a major feature of a room and an attractive one at that and should be featured as such. If the window seat is correctly done it will support the emotional life of the room and positioning near the heart of things will allow it to do so.

The quality of light: We want natural light that is bright enough to allow us to read comfortably but not be blasted by the sun. How about dappled sun through a tree? Not bad, eh? If you have a sunny exposure for your window seat, at least make it so you can modulate the sun. We can make all sun exposures work with the right window treatment. Vertical blinds or shutters (set inside the window frame in order be out of the way of our leaning) will allow for sun blockage but still allow you to see out through the slats. There will be days that are sufficiently cool that you may want to stretch out like a cat in the direct sun. Speaking of light, for night use you should add an overhead light with a dimmer switch that is controlled right there at the seat, not across the room.

Storage inside or not: Classic window seats have storage inside them, either accessed with a lift-up hatch under the cushion, or in drawers on the front. If budget is a concern, you can also simply make the window seat out of 2x4’s without any storage. Next cheapest would be the lift-up hatch, followed by the pull-out drawers.

Nothing poking your back: Make sure any window sill trim isn’t going to jut into your back. After all our good work creating such a special place within our house, having pain in our shoulders would sure ruin the effect pretty quickly wouldn’t it? Flatten the profile of the trim in the area of the window seat. The trim is still there, it’s just that the poking out part (the sill itself) is made to not protrude out past the flatter pieces of trim (the casing.) Make it stylistic match the other window sills of the house, but comfort is “job one” in this location and don’t you forget it.

There is nothing quite so nice about a house as when it responds directly to our needs without us having to work at it. A house that’s ergonomically ready to receive us. A window seat is such an opportunity for something exceptional, something that so directly responds to the sort of relaxing and livability that we wish we could get from our home, that it would be a shame to get it wrong.

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Archive:
2010
May 25, 2010 - A Day in the Life of the Architecture Student
May 4, 2010 - Job Site Tips I Learned the Hard Way
March 25, 2010 - More Than Just a Pretty Picture
February 18, 2010 - A Benicia Sense of Place
January 27, 2010 - Aging in place

2009
December 24, 2009 - Why we travel: the hidden Puerto Vallarta is there for the taking
December 1, 2009 - Paradise stolen: greed and redemption on the Mayan Riviera
October 25, 2009 - The new rules for downtown
September 20, 2009 - Ongoing adventures in city life
August 23, 2009 - How to almost miss out on architecture school
August 2, 2009 - Visiting Italy in the movies
June 26, 2009 - Secret weapons of design
May 24, 2009 - Germany, the war, and why we like life in Benicia
April 23, 2009 - A hundred and sixty years in Benicia
March 12, 2009 - On dream houses in Mexico and life lessons
February 15, 2009 - Building a House in Mexico - the Reality

January 15, 2009 - Phil Joy's house move enters the home stretch

2008
December 26, 2008 - Fireplaces: New Rules
November 27, 2008 - A Benician in L.A.
October 22, 2008 - Why I'm Doing My Addition Now
September 17, 2008 - Why We Travel
August 20, 2008 - Americans in Paris
July 30, 2008 - Front Porch City
May 30, 2008 - On turning fifty, crescent moons, and Frank Lloyd Wright
April 22, 2008 - Building green, getting real
March 27, 2008 - Benicia versus the country club
February 27, 2008 - Stone arches totally rock
January 23, 2008 - These are a few of your favorite things
January 6, 2008 - Another vintage house is delivered to Benicia


2007
December 16, 2007 - How First Street keeps us together
November 22, 2007 - You, the tile shop, the decision
October 23, 2007 - A Benician in New York
September 19, 2007 - Figuring out how much your building project will cost
August 21, 2007 - Why we travel: The city of Prague is a marvel – who knew?
July 22, 2007 - The “it” moment with my new house
June 20, 2007 - Dreamhouse for rent
May 20, 2007 - Artist Open Studios Reveal Creative Undercurrent Alive in Benicia
March 2, 2007 - Haiku Moments and Performance Art in the Comfort of Your Own Home
April 22, 2007 - Once in a Lifetime Adventure: Say Yes
January 28, 2007 - Countertops: We Live in a Stone Age

2006
December 31, 2006 - The Day the Thompson-Joy House Came to Town
December 3, 2006 - The Revenge of Unpaid Carpenters (And Other True Stories)
October 29, 2006 - A House Move for the Ages
September 24, 2006 - My Best Five Seconds at Design School
August 17, 2006 - Getting Bids: "The Rules"
July 23, 2006 - Benicia's Growth Rings
June 18, 2006 - The Well-considered Window Seat
May 14, 2006 - Hearst Castle - Residential Design Mind Blower
April 16, 2006 - San Francisco April 1906: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times
March 17, 2006 - Dog Handling at the Ititarod

February 12, 2006 - Your House's Defense Against Rising Energy Costs
January 8 , 2006 - Not Your Father's Living Room

2005
December 12, 2005 - The Best Design Book Ever
September 23, 2005 - Further Adventures in the Eternal city
August 28, 2005 - Lessons from Rome
July 31, 2005 - Roadside at the Tour de France
June 9, 2005 - My Accidental Getaway Room
May 8, 2005 - Lighting Basics: It's the layers
April 10, 2005 - Architecture School: The Reality
March 13, 2005 - Southampton Concrete Slab Floors: What's to Know
Jan. 30, 2005 - Some Basics to Know Before You Build

2004
Dec. 26, 2004 - News Flash: Good builders earn their money
Nov. 14, 2004 - The Wonderful Failure That is Benicia
Sept. 26, 2004 - Energy Laws and Your Building Project
August 14, 2004 - Architecture Goes to the Movies
July 11, 2004 - What's Really Up with a 2nd Floor Addition
May 30, 2004 - Home Design in Earthquake Country
May 2, 2004 - Sightlines Make a Huge Impact
April 11, 2004 - Meeting of the Minds in Your Design
March 21, 2004 - Welcome to the New Column