Mary Beth Klatt is a freelance writer with a passion for architecture and home design.
The Evolution of Awnings
Awnings can offer style, historic significance, and energy savings. But they’re not all created equal. Learn when they help your listing, and when they can hurt your chances of finding a buyer.
March 3, 2015
There’s a certain romantic appeal to residential awnings, whether they’re conventional striped canvas shades on a historic Queen Anne mansion or the metal shed version on a modern home. Beyond aesthetics, awnings protect furnishings inside from sun damage and regulate interior temperatures by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. What’s more, they add curb appeal — they’re like jewelry on a house.
|Two examples of how awning style, material, and engineering vary according to the time period and architectural choices. National Real Estate Journal, 1925 (top) and 1954 (bottom); images courtesy of the National Association of REALTORS®|
Awnings recall a simpler time when canopies were king and ceiling fans held court. The practice of shading space in this way dates back to antiquity, when Egyptians and Syrians slung woven mats over shop stalls and homes to keep the sun at bay. They eventually gained an ornamental appeal, which became especially apparent in this country when Americans turned to striped canvas canopies during the 1890s to dress up their Victorian homes. Awnings remained popular during the Arts & Crafts era (1880–1910), as home owners embellished windows on their bungalows, Tudors, Dutch Colonials, and Mediterranean-style villas with all manner of canvas coverings. Retractable canopies that shopkeepers could quickly collapse ahead of a sudden storm were first seen on 19th century storefronts and eventually moved into the residential market. Fabric shades were eventually replaced by aluminum ones in the 1940s. But with the widespread adoption of home air conditioning, they began to disappear altogether by the 1950s.
Environmental concerns have ushered in a renewed interest in awnings, according to Chicago architect Mary Brush, who specializes in historic preservation. “Once mechanical HVAC systems became popular, awnings were removed because air conditioning would cool the interiors,” she says. “Now with a resurgence of sustainable design, people are remembering awning concepts and designing the horizontal sun shades and louvers that do the work of awnings, just with a different name.”
Four fabric types are typically used to make awnings. Cotton canvas — available with acrylic painted surfaces in various colors and stripes — is the least expensive, although it only lasts about five years. Vinyl-coated canvas sports a harder, shinier finish than the cotton version. It costs more than plain canvas, but will last twice as long, is washable, and doesn’t fade as easily as cotton canvas. Polyester fabric is mildew-resistant and stronger than cotton. Finally, the highly fade-resistant option of acrylic fabric resembles cotton canvas and comes with a matte finish. This fabric is best known by its trademarked name, “Sunbrella.”
Real estate professional Wendy Ryder of Sotheby’s International in Holland, Mich., has sold homes on Lake Michigan with new awnings. She finds home owners prefer electric retractable awnings because they’re easier to operate.
“Awnings allow our clients to experience the outdoors at any time, even during bad weather. I recall a client inviting me over to see some updates they had done to their home. While there, a hailstorm came from nowhere,” Ryder says. “It was a sight to see and hear as the hail was hitting the awning. It was as if a marching band of drummers were playing their drums as hard as they could. … Luckily, this client had an electric awning and was able to retract it from the inside.”
“I sold one house where the awning was retracted at the showings, but at the home inspection when we opened the awning, there were holes and rips all over it,” says Sheldon Neal of RE/MAX Real Estate Limited in Oradell, N.J. “This clearly defeated the purpose of having a nice weather cover. We did get a credit and the buyers replaced the cover and still love the awning to this day, but be sure to tell your buyers to see the fully extended awning before they close.”
California home owners are encouraged to add awnings to their residences because they add points to the home’s GreenPoint Rated label, bestowed by a state green-home certification program called Build It Green. The program’s research shows such coverings can improve property values by up to 10 percent at the time of sale.
In historic downtown districts such as Beaufort, S.C. and Savannah, Ga., historical accuracy is placed at a premium. In these areas, awnings are widely used to retain the feel of the towns as they may have looked earlier in history. “Home design trends in some areas, including ours, are returning to historical architectural ideas from small town life,” says real estate professional Michael Gonzalez of ERA Evergreen Real Estate Co. in Hilton Head, S.C. Consequently, home construction plans include awnings as part of the character of the home.
Not all awnings add historical value. Buyers of old bungalows in Chicago tend to remove awnings that were added after the homes were built. “Most of the awnings on Chicago bungalows tend to be pieces added on in the 1960s or ’70s made out of aluminum or fiberglass, not the original materials that would add restorative value per the Chicago historic bungalow program,” says Nick Libert, a real estate professional at Exit Strategy Realty/Nick Libert Properties Inc. in Chicago. “My clients overall prefer the clean aesthetic of the original bungalow look without the awnings.”
Craig McCullough, a real estate professional with the Denny & Leyla Team at Evers & Co. Real Estate Inc. in Washington, D.C., concurs. He has also sold and shown countless homes with awnings and says most clients remove them. “These are usually the individual awnings on porches and windows found on urban row homes,” he says. “I find that in our market, buyers are more concerned with light; they would rather install energy-efficient windows and remove the awnings than have the sunlight blocked.”
Understanding the place of awnings in your community’s past, present, and future is key to being a well-rounded residential real estate professional. Far from being simply sentimental ornamentation or a remembrance of days past, when done correctly they can boost energy savings, increase creature comforts, and invest in historical character.