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The well-considered window seat

by Steve McKee on June 18, 2006

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 2×4’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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