Building Construction, Renovation & Maintenance

French Door Problems

Common Leakage Problems With Windows and Doors

It is very common for windows and doors to leak during heavy or driving rain. Often these problems are caused by poor design or incorrect materials. French doors are particularly susceptible to rain water being driven underneath and across floors. It is important to check the design of buildings to make sure that rain will not come in.


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Faults in Building Design

It is surprising how small design faults can cause large problems. We all know of houses that just aren't designed to live in, I saw an apartment recently where when you walk in the front door you can see someone if they are sitting on the toilet. That can be rather annoying. It is one of those architectural blindspots.

Unfortunately design problems in buildings can start during the early design stage and may only manifest themselves months after project maturity and in times of meteorological challenge.

Keeping out the elements out of a building is nothing new. It can, at times, be a life and death issue and has been around since time began.

We may work hard at getting the layout right but inevitably there are things we never thought of. How many people design a house so that maintenance is easy? Recently a leaking hot water pipe under a bathroom floor resulted in one tile having to be replaced. Those particular tiles were no longer available and so a very nice bathroom now has one none matching tile right in the middle of the floor. If the hot water pipe had been installed in the wall and accessible from the none tiled, bedroom side of the wall - no problem. It is also a very good idea to keep a stock of all the tiles used in your house for maintenance purposes.

A frequent problem and one particularly prevalent since the move to modern “minimalist” design is in the design of windows and french doors. Very often they are simply not designed to be weatherproof.

If your house is in a position that is exposed to sea breezes and rain has a tendency to fall horizontally rather than vertically you will probably know what I mean. Hilly areas may be particularly exposed to the weather and unfortunately these are areas where many houses may be poor in terms of practical design. Many people find water coming in under french doors – this is the result of bad design and can be difficult to remedy.

All over the world windows and doors have been made for generations now. Over time people learned through bitter experiences and shear necessity meant that eventually they got things right. But it is surprising how often window and door design and construction just doesn't seem to work very well these days. Perhaps the construction experts of today either think they know better or don't even realise there is a problem or the pursuit of minimalist design may also have something to do with it.

Whatever the reason it appears that there has been a widespread tendency to eliminate the design features or vital components that historically have been used to make doors and windows work properly.

By far the majority of new houses and apartments across the world have French doors and windows. Most have wooden frames with one or more glass panes. It is surprising just how many of doors and windows suffer problems.

Design problems with french doors

Here are examples, perhaps you can find some of your own.

1. Doors and sliding windows that are not weatherproof along the bottom.

Rain driven by wind blows under french doors. A very common problem and not easy to solve. As a corrective measure some people use weather strips along the bottom of the doors (the rubber weather strips are better than the bristle ones). This may result in marks on the floor, doors being harder to open and the ends of the doors cannot be sealed. This is only a stopgap measure for a problem which is the result of poor design. Good design may include a step between the inside and outside floor levels, a threshold (wooden strip across the floor) or bottom tracks which incorporate some sort of sealing and draining capability in their design (I sense a cringe from our designers). Good design cleverly hides the sealing method in the underside of the door.

2. Doors and windows that are not weatherproof along the vertical edges.

Very similar, easy to solve but often avoided. The established method is to either have a step in the leading edge of the door or a vertical weather strip fastened on the outer surface of the leading edge of one door so that when the doors close the weatherstrip covers the gap. There are some very well designed doors that have a groove in one door and a vertical strip of wood set into the leading edge of the other. The strip seats into the groove creating a "labyrinth" seal.

3. Glass panes that cannot be replaced if they get broken.

Ever wondered how the glass will be replaced if it gets broken? Many builders make doors with the glass built in - you can't replace it without taking the door or window apart. In some countries glass is fixed into frames using linseed oil putty or, more often these days, wooden "beading". If a pane gets broken the putty or beading can be removed to replace the glass.

4. Horizontal surfaces in the wooden frame under glass window panes.

The edge of the wooden frame immediately below glass panes is very often made horizontal these days. When rain hits the glass and runs down the window or door, it lies on the wood against the pane and can seep through between the glass and the frame. This is particularly bad when there is no sealant around the glass and especially when a wind is blowing. This is a very common problem but stupidly simple to avoid by a) slightly bevelling the lower surface of the wood so the water drains off outwards and b) making sure the sealant is in place.

5. Glass panes that are not sealed into the wooden frames

Very many builders either use too little sealant or no sealant at all when installing glass into door and window frames. You can tell if there is little or no sealant by tapping the glass - it will rattle. Get the builder to do it properly before it rains. In the past linseed oil putty would have been used, it is still the best material but unfortunately is not available in Indonesia. Instead silicone sealant is used these days. Acid free silicone is best for this job.

6. Use of bingkirai wood that expands and contracts with moisture.

For many builders bingkirai is the timber of choice for doors and window frames these days. Bingkirai is a good wood however it has a fundamental problem in that it expands when wet and contracts when it dries out. This can cause a number of problems when used for doors and windows, concrete walls can be seriously cracked by door and window frames that have expanded in the wall.

7. Hangings that are not strong enough or look like they came from an industrial building.

Folding french doors need particular care when designing how they will hang. The problem is due to the weight of the doors hanging on hinges. To take the weight of the doors tracks are often placed both above and below the doors. There are some excellent tracks available but these tend to be expensive. Increasingly low cost fittings are being used, you can spot these easily - they look like something off a first world war battleship. They may look bad enough when they are new but wait until they start to rust……

8. Locks that don't lock properly.

French doors are notorious for locks that are difficult to lock. Problems arise from the doors not lining up properly (a particular problem if the doors are warped), the locks and faceplates being inaccurately positioned or use of poorly selected lock types. The locks that tend to work best

9. Warped doors and windows

Warping of doors and windows is usually the result of using wood that is not fully seasoned (dried out). These days there is such a demand for timber that it is often cut, sold and used far too quickly. As it dries out the wood tends to shrink, crack and twist often following the grain in the wood. You will find warped doors will need to be pulled flat to get them to latch.

Traditional practice is to cut wood then stack it so that air can circulate around it and leave it for many months before use. Guitar manufacturers may keep their precious timber for many years before use.

If wood has to be used quickly it can be kiln dried to speed up the seasoning process.

French doors do tend to have a number of other problems such as handles that hit frames and track stops that are not properly set. I saw one expensive house where you could close and lock the french doors and an intruder could simply push the doors from the outside which, without guides at the bottom, swung inwards on the top track. You might as well leave them open.

I was recently visiting some good friends who are completing a rather stunning house. Early into the project they found that their supposedly well respected architect was delivering a standard half hearted design using standard half hearted materials and finishes. They sacked him and took the project over themselves but then managed to find a very capable creative architect who suggested some imaginative changes. The result has been outstanding. There are some geniuses out there, the trick is to find them. They are the ones not living in caves.

Copyright © Phil Wilson December 2009
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