Residential Architecture 101: Shutters

March 24, 2011 — 106 Comments

A few weeks ago I started a new series called Residential Architecture 101 and the first item we reviewed was material transitions in exterior applications, and yes, it was mind-blowing!! (read it here)  Today, however, I would like to take a look at exterior shutters, which are very common and frequently the target of DIY’ers and weekend warriors.

Technically a shutter is either a solid or slanted window cover. It is believed that the first shutters originated from Greece and that they were originally designed for light control, ventilation and protection from the elements in a tropical environment. Pretty standard stuff really and I think we are all familiar with how they look but I don’t think people are familiar with how they work. I say this because most current shutters don’t perform any of these tasks – they don’t even to pretend to do any of those things. One of the very basic premises that all shutters should have is that they look like they could actually protect your windows. That means that if they could be closed, they would cover the window. Many houses are designed with windows that were never intended to have shutters but people will stick them on there anyway.


Now I don’t want anybody calling me a snob based on the first set of pictures I am going to show you. Just because these are all amazingly beautiful and well-designed houses does not mean you have to live in a mansion to have proper shutters. AHEM … If anything, this is a testament to working with an architect because we think about this sort of thing. (climbing down off soapbox).  We are going to start off by looking at shutters that were designed properly. They are all operable, they have been sized appropriately, and they look like they are supposed to be there. I also drive past these houses on my way home from work and I don’t have time to be running all over the place looking for examples to photograph…


Neoclassical style house

Neoclassical style house – a fine example with the windows on the 2nd level adorned with shutters that are both operable, appropriately sized. I have enlarged an image of the shutter to the right.


Tudor style house

Tudor style house – in this example, the shutters are solid but still sized so the shutter could cover the window when closed. I appreciated the fact that this style of shutter seemed a better fit than a louvered style.


Italian Renaissance House 12 combo

Italian Renaissance-style residence – in the enlarged portion I can’t find any real evidence that these shutters actually close but the fact that they sized to fit above the window sill and below the cornice trim – along with the catch to the side – give the appearance that they could close. Good enough for me.


Greek Revival style house

Greek Revival style house – just one more example of shutters that are appropriately sized and operable.


Now let’s take a look at what I like to call “shudders“:

Bad shutters on a house

What!? Is that??! Why is it so far…??!?!

What is going on in this picture flies in the face of all that is decent while breaking all sorts of common sense rules – including material transitions that we covered earlier. All that really needs to be said is – that’s nasty.

Bad shutters on a house

This is a terrible photo (collected under cover as I was driving by at 20 MPH). This is a good-looking house with some crazy sized shudders. Looks like they were sized to allow two to fit between the adjacent windows … yikes!


Bad shutters on a house from Preston C

This photo was sent in by loyal reader Preston who took this with his camera phone while walking his dog. Yes, you are seeing shudders on a bay window. rtjdhruhhkjva-08yah akl;oah;o … sorry, my head just hit my keyboard.


Bad shutters on a building

This picture make my face hurt – but in an entirely different manner than some of the others. Despite the half-moon window (almost always a no-no) the shudders on the window on the left are actually sized properly and could actually function as real shutters. They even cut into the stucco feature above the window to allow these shutters to close. So what happen to the shudder on right? Since there isn’t any hardware shown attached to the wall (that should be visible when the shudders are closed) I am feeling confident in saying these are impostors. I don’t always hate fake but let’s see some consistency.


Bad shutters on a house

Here is an example of shudders to either side of a recessed set of doors. I assume they are supposed to be shudders although it really looks like pieces of fencing leaned up against the house. It was quite unnecessary for these to be added and I would argue that things would have been better if they had simply been left off the building.

What I hope you have learned from this post is that shutters weren’t always  about adornment and decoration – that they served a purpose. It is that purpose that should guide you when deciding to add shutters to your own home so that they look like they are supposed to be there. Sizing them correctly so that they look like they could actually do the job is all I am asking for – it’s not so much to ask, is it? Yes, this does mean that those plastic beauties on aisle 12 of your local BuyMore big box home improvement center should stay on aisle 12.

Bob-AIA scale figure


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  • Scott Hazlett

    Preachin’ to the choir bro. This drives me crazy too.

  • hilinda

    Thanks for this. It is good knowing we are not alone in being puzzled by “shudders.” Just yesterday, I saw a house that had them on the garage doors! Say what?!?

  • Lynda

    What would you do here? We just removed bushes that overpowered the house after decades of neglect. We plan new low plantings but wanted shutters. The windows closest to the corners only have 12″ to the corner. We have discussed changing the front to stucco or brick painted white. My husband would prefer a more modern look.

  • The Greek revival style house is the nice one. Yep, building a dream home is not depending on how much money you have. it depends on your passion and ability to choose the right one.

  • Delaney

    Is this a situation where they’d become “shudders” due to the size differences and minimal space next to door? My porch (which faces a main road) is so underwhelming I’m embarrassed!

  • Pingback: Dressing Up Your New Zen Windows: Shutters And Blinds | Zen Windows Austin TX()

  • exitleft

    Bob…can shutters be placed on a traditional, but somewhat modern home? I wanted to put shutters on two small windows that sit side by side…shutters are called Bermuda and anchor out somewhat like a canopy. My husband says they aren’t appropriate for our house.

    • What if I said … “maybe”? The description of a traditional, but somewhat modern home is ambiguous enough that I can’t provide direction that is any more specific.

  • Bonnie1964

    I purchased a lake cottage and I’m in the process of removing the vinyl siding to reveal the original cedar Dutch lap. The photo is inside a enclosed sunroom but, this is what I’m dealing with on the entire exterior. As you can see in the photo the original trim was removed and vinyl replacement windows were installed. I have replaced the window trim and here is where my problem is. I want to install functioning shutters however, the way the window is designed with built in screen. The window is extended past the trim a good inch if not more. What can I do to remedy this problem?

    • is there a local contractor that can take a look a this for you? There are some dimensional control challenges that I can resolve looking at the picture but I can’t imagine the solution is too difficult to someone who knows their way around wood siding.

  • blondie1966

    I live in a small ranch style home in the country. I’ve always wanted rustic style shutters but I would hate to go to all that expense and they look horrible on my small home. The windows on the front of my home are all differently sized. In your opinion, would it be better to just paint the trim around the windows or should I go for shutters?

    • hard to say with such limited information – the point of this article wasn’t that shutters are bad, it was that fake shutters that aren’t sized properly are bad.

  • Sandra Hartz

    How can I make the front of this duplex house I bought last week look presentable? The shutters were this way when the previous owner bought the house 10 years ago. I guess the small window on the lower level on the left side is the problem. Should I just remove the one shutter from that window and replace the missing shutters on the rest of the windows? The house was built in 1900 and is in southern Maine close to the beach.

    • Sandra Hartz

      Here are pictures of the house

  • Colleen

    Our 1860 farm home has a combo of louvre and panel shutters. While I understand the functional role of this difference, I do not know why the panels on the first floor are painted white and the louvres on the second floor are black. Many home around me (Chester County, Pa) have the same but I cannot seem to find a reason why. We are bringing this house back to life and want to keep in historical tradition. If there is an historical reason, can anyone share?

    • Steve

      Can not answer as to why different colors, but the reason for the different styles are back when shutters served a purpose, the panel would add security on the first floor and the second floor louvers would provide better ventilation

      • Lee

        Hey this is obviously a little late, but the white shutters were used to reflect candlelight on the first floor of the house at night when the shutters were closed.

  • sally

    hmmm trying to upload again….