Ryan Schleper, owner of All City Builders, Buffalo, Minn., remembers working on a framing crew when the window shipment from the supply yard arrived. It included a half-round window that didn't fit. "We spent several hours remodeling what we'd already built," Schleper recalls. "That's about the worst feeling a carpenter can have."
That's a good thing for him to remember, because currently, the contractor is pitching a six-figure remodel that includes transforming the existing garage into the home's new kitchen, and the client wants "something unusual" where the kitchen window is. "She told me she was willing to lose cabinet space to have a better, bigger window. The sale hinges on this."
Triangles, transoms, trapezoids
Remodelers who work on old buildings often come across the need for custom windows. And unless what's specified is extremely unusual, these are readily available from the custom departments of major window manufacturers. John Miller, co-owner of Waldenwood, Shorewood, Minn., guesses half the houses his company works on require some type of custom windows, just because of the need to match existing styles. "We've done ellipses, half-rounds, squares, and transoms." The most unusual so far were large trapezoid casements so heavy they had to be lowered with a crane.
Huntingdon Valley, Pa., remodeler Reis Calfayan, of Calfayan Construction Associates, says that in more and more of the projects he builds, windows in unusual shapes, sizes, or finishes are the centerpiece. "There's always some focal point or detail people want, and obviously natural light is a big thing." On his most recent job, Calfayan installed three "huge" trapezoids in a gable wall. The job he's working on now involves a triangular window with a grille featuring a floral motif and a quarter circle with art glass pane.
Because their cost is typically 30% to 50% or more above stock, and because their one-of-a-kind nature allows for no return, great care must be taken in the framing, installation, and trimming of nonstandard windows.
"I learned the hard way," says Michael Menn, whose company, Design + Construction Concepts, Northbrook, Ill., does at least one job a year involving a nonstandard-sized window. "Check. Double-check. Triple-check." And then, Menn suggests, let the window rep measure the opening.
"If I think I can handle it," Miller says, "I'll do the measuring and the defining of the specs myself. But if I have any qualms about it, I'll have the rep out."
Calfayan suggests that, because custom windows are often large or heavy, there are safety issues involved. "Plan your steps, and make sure all the details line up," he says. "If something's as much as a quarter inch off, you're going to see it." He frames the window first and then has the rep come out and measure it. "That ensures that everything lines up. Unfortunately, it also delays scheduling, because you've got everything framed, and you want to put the windows in, but you can't."
Mark Pennington, secretary-treasurer of Gardner/Fox, a design/build remodeler in Bryn Mawr, Pa., advises that orders be placed as early as possible. Lead time at his company for custom windows is 10 to 12 weeks, vs. standard windows, which arrive in four to six weeks. He also suggests that experienced carpenters handle them. "A multipiece window is a complicated product. So when it comes time to put it in, you want to have your better people installing it."