Updating Some Exterior Doors? Will French Doors Or Bi-Fold Doors Work Best?

Construction & Contractors Articles

If you're in the market for a new set of exterior doors, you might be torn between investing in the French or bi-fold options. Both are designed to allow lots of light into your home. Modern door makers have effectively combined the two designs into one. The following is a description of both types of doors and suggestions for their use.

French Doors

French doors came about during the Renaissance period, at a time when rooms were dimly lit by oil lamps, candles and residual light from cooking fires. The idea of creating doors made of glass to bring natural light into a home soon caught on. The original French doors were floor to ceiling windows that opened into small balconies. Eventually they became full-fledged doors, opening into front yards and backyards and helping to divide interior spaces while still providing light.

Renaissance architecture was very symmetrical, which led to the double-door design. Originally these doors used wooden frames, with wrought iron added for decoration. Wood is still popular today, as are frames made of low-maintenance composite materials. The number of glass panels ranges from two large pieces of glass, one on each side, to rows of smaller panes. Though single French doors are available, the double-door design is still more common. The latter makes lovely patio doors because there is no center post. The doors open outward, providing a panoramic view of the outdoor greenery.

Bi-Fold Doors

Bi-fold doors date back to Roman times. Evidence of their use has been found in the volcano-ravaged city of Pompeii. Bi-fold doors, like French doors, are symmetrical, made of evenly shaped panels. But, unlike French doors, bi-fold doors open and then neatly fold away on both sides of the door opening.  They are sometimes referred to as accordion doors. Originally, these doors were made of solid wood.

Combining the Designs

By combining the glass panels of the French doors with the opening style of the bi-fold doors, designers have come up with the perfect solution for combining indoor and outdoor spaces. Bi-fold doors aren't limited to two panels, so they work well for larger openings, such as a family room connecting to a large pool and patio deck. All the panels fold out of the way, leaving one large entertainment space.

What Works Best for You?

How do you figure out whether to go with the traditional French door or the equally light-friendly bi-fold version? You might consider the following.

Size of Door Opening

This is one case where size does matter. A single or double-wide doorway from a small kitchen to a modest patio may be better suited to a simple French door. You'd still have all the light advantages, but since the exterior French doors open out into the patio, they don't take up any kitchen space.

If you are replacing a large sliding glass door, perhaps leading from a family room or larger kitchen, either door type would work. One idea is to install a pair of French doors in the middle with matching glass panels on either end. The other option is to go with the bi-fold doors and open up the entire wall to the backyard.  Adding sheer curtains to either scenario provides more privacy but still allows light in, a plus in neighborhoods where houses are built close together.

Intended Use of Space

Consider how you want to use the space. Both French doors and bi-fold doors work well in the following scenarios.

  • If you have an office that opens up into your garden, changing from a sliding glass door to bi-fold doors is usually an easy fix. It opens up the entire wall to "bring the outdoors in." You can even put an outside work area on the patio, effectively increasing your office space.  
  • If your unused garage backs up onto your backyard, you might consider converting it into a craft room, art studio or other personal space. Depending on the layout, you could replace the garage door with wall to wall bi-fold doors. Or, if there is another entry into the backyard, such as a side door, that doorway could be widened and a pair of French doors installed. If you really want to brighten up the space, do both.

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