The Dark Side of Density: The Tragic Emergence of Windowless Rooms in the United States

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The Dark Side of Density: The Tragic Emergence of Windowless Rooms in the United States

Juan Miró, co-founder of Miró Rivera Architects, reflects in an opinion piece on the student housing situation in the United States. The architect explores different dormitory conditions across the country and wonders if these large public universities “enthusiastically endorses the idea of ​​putting thousands of its students in windowless rooms in the name of density and efficiency“.

Floor plan of the Munger Room.  Image courtesy of Juan MiróFloor plan of the West Campus building.  Image courtesy of Juan MiróWest Campus.  Image courtesy of Juan MiróWest campus windowless room.  Image courtesy of Juan Miró+ 7

For the past 22 years, I have given my students at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture a mission called “My Window”. This is a very quick exercise that requires students to hand draw a detailed section of the head and window sill of their bedroom. I always assumed that all of my students had windows in their bedrooms. It is a fundamental expectation among American architects that in order for a room to be a legal bedroom, it must have a window. I also repeated this as a mantra in my architecture and urban design studios.

West Campus.  Image courtesy of Juan Miró
West Campus. Image courtesy of Juan Miró

Well, I’m afraid I have to stop repeating it. Last fall I learned that I had students whose rooms did not have windows. I couldn’t believe it when they first told me, thinking maybe some shady landlords were illegally renting them large closets as bedrooms. But this is not the case. Many UT students are renting perfectly legal windowless rooms in brand new residential buildings that are mushrooming west of the UT campus. The transformation of this neighborhood in recent years has been hailed as a poster of success by supporters of higher density in cities across the country. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost to the health and well-being of many students.


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A student showed me the marketing plan for her building, which clearly says “NO WINDOW” in the two windowless rooms of her apartment. Unfortunately, his bedroom is one of them. I then looked at the websites of several other buildings on the West Campus and found that while the majority of the rooms had windows, there were many windowless spaces that were rented out as bedrooms. This realization left me worried about these students and alarmed at the potential consequences. While it is legal to build a bedroom without a window, it is also legal to build several.

West campus windowless room.  Image courtesy of Juan Miró
West campus windowless room. Image courtesy of Juan Miró

That fear materialized quickly later in the semester when the University of California unveiled plans for Munger Hall, a huge dormitory on its Santa Barbara campus. The hyper-dense building will accommodate 4,500 students over 1.68 million square feet. There is a shocking fact about this building: 94% of students will be confined to rooms without windows.

The university has tried to justify Munger Hall as an effective solution to its student housing deficit. He also defended the building’s dystopian density, arguing that it would encourage collaboration between students through its common spaces. Chancellor Henry Yang praised Munger Hall, calling its design “inspired and revolutionary”. Many at UCSB disagree, and thousands of people have signed petitions launched by students and faculty to stop the project.

Floor plan of the Munger room.  Image courtesy of Juan Miró
Floor plan of the Munger Room. Image courtesy of Juan Miró

Whatever the ultimate fate of Munger Hall, one wonders: whether the leading public university in America’s most progressive state enthusiastically endorses the idea of ​​putting thousands of its students in windowless rooms, which will then lose windows in the name of density and efficiency? Other students? Prisoners? Refugees? Low-income and homeless populations relocated? Elders? Immigrants?

Floor plan of the Munger Room.  Image courtesy of Juan Miró
Floor plan of the Munger Room. Image courtesy of Juan Miró

Munger Hall gained media attention for its suffocating density and the building’s aggressive defense by Charlie Munger, the 97-year-old donor behind its design and name. However, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg, a sign of what is already happening under the radar elsewhere, as I just found out in my own backyard.

Austin, one of the most progressive cities in the country, approved the zoning change that made the transformation of the West Campus neighborhood possible. The objectives were to “promote high density redevelopment” by replacing primarily single and double story buildings with towers up to 220 feet high, and “to provide a mechanism for the creation of a densely populated but habitable environment and pedestrian friendly ”.

Floor plan of the West Campus building.  Image courtesy of Juan Miró
Floor plan of the West Campus building. Image courtesy of Juan Miró

In pursuit of this vision, the city authorized the construction of apartment buildings by private developers where many students rent rooms without windows. Does the city see it as an acceptable “living environment”? The benefits of natural light for the general well-being of people and for depression are well documented, although students may not be fully aware of them when signing their lease. Sadly, Covid confined them to their bedrooms for hours on end for distance learning lessons amid a steady rise in mental health issues and suicides at U.S. colleges before the pandemic. Under these conditions, how can we justify depriving pupils of natural light?

A window in a bedroom has traditionally provided the emergency escape and back-up opening required by codes. This is the main reason why architects like me have taken it for granted that rooms should have windows. However, the International Building Code includes exceptions to this requirement, especially when buildings are fully protected by sprinklers. Like the designers of Munger Hall, the developers of Austin, while wielding the advantages of density, only had to prove that their buildings met emergency evacuation requirements, similar to those expected. in an office building.

Floor plan of the West Campus building.  Image courtesy of Juan Miró
Floor plan of the West Campus building. Image courtesy of Juan Miró

To be clear, I support when a “landscape city” like Austin strategically implements a “compact city” model to increase its density. But I do not support the idea of ​​increasing density at all costs. After many decades of slow improvement in living conditions in buildings in the United States, it is disheartening to witness this decline. If the layout of an apartment includes a room without a window, it should be illegal for developers and owners to market or rent it out as a bedroom.

Unless windows are required by law in all rooms for their health benefits – natural light, ventilation, and visual connection to the outdoors – there will always be people trying to justify windowless rooms. We cannot let this happen. The loopholes in building codes must be closed to ensure that my students, and everyone else, have a window of their own.

Juan Miró is the Dick Clark Chair in Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and co-founder of Miró Rivera Architects.

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