The Same, Yet Different: The Key Differences in Window & Door Design from Europe to the United States

So much of our life in the United States is heavily influenced by and similar to Europe. However, one area that has some pretty significant differences is in the design and construction of windows and doors. When you look at how life in Europe evolved and has more mixed-use, urban influences to residential design, as well as some of the climate factors, it makes sense that the focus around window and door design would vary some. 

Window Differences: How European Windows and American Windows Vary

Materials in Windows

While materials are often the same (e.g. wood, vinyl, aluminum, fiberglass, and, of course, glass), the construction of the windows and doors are often different. One of the main differences between European and American windows is thermal breaks and insulation used within the construction. In Europe, windows are typically made from wood, aluminum, or uPVC; these materials are generally more durable and energy-efficient, and they allow for a variety of design options. The “u” in uPVC stands for “unplasticized” which means that the PVC doesn’t expand and contract as much. 

Also, Europeans, and increasingly here in the US, design lots of chambers within the profile that increase structural integrity while reducing conductivity and convection currents with the assembly. The structural stability increases and the sizes can be larger. In European Aluminum windows, the thermal breaks tend to be more substantial and more effective at reducing conduction through the assembly. In contrast, American windows are often made from standard PVC or fiberglass, have less or no insulation, and have smaller, less effective thermal breaks in the aluminum systems. In addition, the spacers are often different. In Europe, they often use a composite spacer between the glass which has lower conductivity whereas in the US, highly conductive metals like aluminum or galvanized steel are often used. While materials might be less costly, many US products are not as energy efficient or as versatile in terms of design.

Installation of Windows

Another key difference between European and American windows is the way they are installed. In Europe, windows are typically installed from the inside of the building with anchor brackets vs. nail fins (preferably called screw fins). This allows for a more secure and energy-efficient installation, as the window can be sealed tightly against the frame. This also allows the windows to “sit” in the middle of the insulation layer boosting the overall wall performance to a small degree. In America, on the other hand, windows are typically installed from the outside of the building. This allows for easier installation, but it can result in gaps around the edges of the window and allows for wind-washing which cools the window and impacts energy efficiency.

Going In or Out

Another difference between European and American windows is their opening and closing. In Europe, windows are often designed to be opened in a variety of ways, including hinged and casement. European casement-style windows often tilt/turn inward with a dual action. See the video below by Todd demonstrating this window operation. This allows for greater flexibility and ventilation. In the United States, on the other hand, windows are typically designed to be opened by sliding or tilting. This is a simpler and more cost-effective design, but it can limit ventilation options. When US casement windows are designed, they typically open outward with a crank handle. 

Focus on Efficiency

Finally, the energy efficiency of European and American windows can vary greatly. In Europe, windows often have a higher focus on energy efficiency, with typically 3 panes of glass and advanced air sealing technology – multipoint locking. This helps to keep heat in during the winter and out during the summer, reducing energy costs and improving the building’s overall energy efficiency. In America, on the other hand, windows are more cost-effective and simple in their design. Sustainability and energy efficiency is growing in popularity but is still working hard to catch up to the efforts that have been standard in much of Europe. 

Come and Knock on My Door

Door design also has a few striking differences between US design and construction compared to European design. 

Sash Clearance: US entry doors have a higher sash clearance at the threshold, whereas European doors have a much smaller sash clearance. Designers should keep the clearances in mind if homeowners want  ¾” wood floors, and then throw rugs. In these cases, the door will need to be installed higher so the door will open.  

Frame/Jambs: US door frames/jambs typically use a 1X for the jambs. Compare this with the European style, which can be bulkier and have a clear opening that is much smaller than US doors. 

Balcony Doors: These style doors are much more common in European design. They typically do not have a low threshold that you might find with an entry door, and, instead have a window frame at the threshold. It’s a more cost-effective way to create a larger opening and allows a large window to act like a door. It’s not ideal in high-traffic areas, but with more compact city living in Europe, you’ll see them on balconies and low-traffic areas. 

Sliding Doors: European sliding doors include a lift slide design, where the handle of the door is actually a lever that lifts the entire sliding portion of the door off of the threshold while pushing rollers down to lift the door. European-style sliding doors also come in a style that includes a tilt/slide but has a high threshold similar to balcony doors. Also, similar to balcony doors, these don’t work well in high-traffic areas. 

We’re starting to see more lines blurred between US and European design. Many of the European features are starting to cross over and impact designs here in the United States. As a result, we’re seeing greater efficiency and performance, lower barriers to entry in cost and availability of designs, and greater ease to build a house with Passivhaus principles! 

At AE Building Systems, we’re devoted to providing the highest quality products, especially when it comes to windows and doors. We’re seeing the trends as they’re changing, and know the differences to help contractors and homeowners make the right decisions when it comes to their product selection. Got questions? We’re always happy to help! 

3 thoughts on “The Same, Yet Different: The Key Differences in Window & Door Design from Europe to the United States”

  1. I immigrated from Germany to the Boston area in the 1990s and couldn’t believe that poor double hung window designs from the 19th century (impossible to seal, insecure, very poor insulation) were still everywhere. Now we’re in the 21st century and superior designs like tilt & turn are very slowly making their way into the US housing market. Unless code dictates high standards builders will not specify them, and architects have a hard time convincing their clients on window tech that they are not familiar with.

  2. As always, well done Todd! This is a great introduction to some of the key features of European style windows. And featuring our local company Alpen means you don’t have to go all the way to Europe to get them.

  3. Great article! One item to note is that the window coverings in Europe are on the exterior with the means of moving the exterior shade being located on the interior. This exterior covering is more of a black-out shade that also helps to protect the window from weather / UV. For light filtering, they typically use a type of window drape on the interior.

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