When Windows Used to Open

By Scott Sidler June 11, 2018

when windows used to openI’ve been writing about windows all month since my newest book Old Windows In-Depth has just come out for preservation month and so my brain has definitely been in window mode. Just yesterday I drove past a new commercial development that looked like an homage to an old style train depot. I was struck by all the windows on the project being fixed and inoperable picture windows.

That got me thinking about how many buildings today have that same lack of operability built into their design. And then when I sat back down at the desk in my shop, I realized even those windows are fixed pieces of glass. Have windows changed so much during the 20th-Century that we need to change their name?

I decided to head over to old man Webster and see what his thoughts were on the topic. Here’s what he had to say on the definition of a window:

(n) An opening, especially in the wall of a building, for admission of light and air that is usually closed by casements or sashes containing transparent material (such as glass) and capable of being opened and shut.

That sounds pretty much like what I was thinking. Something “capable of being opened and shut.” Why have we forgotten about that aspect of the window in modern society? As I mused on this, a few reasons came to my mind.

Machines vs Nature

Nature was queen for a long time. She controlled when we woke and when we slept. Se told us when and where certain foods were in season, told us even where we could live comfortably without being too brutally hot or cold.

But we have slowly wrenched her restrictions on our schedule out of her hands and taken them upon ourselves. If that’s to our benefit or detriment is up to who you ask. First, was electricity brightening the night and extending day, then all the things that electricity begot like air conditioning, powerful manufacturing machines, the internet and technology.

Now, we don’t have to live in a temperate climate or worry about the weather. We can simply turn the AC up and pretend the outside doesn’t exist as we walk from our air conditioned office to our air conditioned car to drive to our air conditioned home. Our ingenious machines have stripped her of her power over us.

Most people don’t even think about it anymore. We are just so accustomed to making the temperature whatever we want it to be. I would hazard a guess that too much of anything is no good and we have definitely swung too far in the direction where we view nature as a detached relic through the sterile safety of triple-paned glass and no longer truly experience like our grandparents did.

A Litigious World

100 years ago if someone fell out of a window and injured or killed themselves, people would be appalled and aghast at the spectacle. They would grieve they would seek to fix the problem so others were made safe, but they wouldn’t file a class action lawsuit against the builder of the building, the property manager, the window manufacturer, the janitor who left the window unlocked, and on and on.

The world we live in seems to be so awash in lawsuits that everyone is in CYA mode trying to protect us all from our own stupidity. Just like the plastic bags from my dry cleaner have to have “suffocation hazard” printed all over them we label anything and everything that could be even remotely dangerous if used in some obscure way just to make sure that we don’t get sued.

My company tried to hire a new sales rep recently but they were unable to get a liability insurance policy written by a few companies because they were afraid of the liability of her being sued in the case that a child fell out of one of the windows that she sold a client! Catch that, they were afraid the SALES REP would be sued PERSONALLY for a window she sold, but had nothing to do with designing, building, or installing!

In a world like that, it’s no wonder why building owners of historic and new buildings alike don’t want to even take  chance on the liability that an operable window presents. Lock them shut, and seal ’em up!

Where There’s Hope?

I do see a silver lining to this huge thundercloud, though. I see the restoration trades growing and spreading like wildfire these days. I see people acknowledging that maybe they should put down their iPads and take in a little sun. I see signs of the pendulum swing back towards sanity and nature a bit.

It’s not much at this point. Just a glimmer of light at the crack of dawn, but a glimmer, nonetheless. I can only hope that that glimmer is more like a dawn than a dusk. It takes smart people like each of us to step forward and make a small change in our world that historic preservation is a piece of.

Time will tell, but as for me and my family, we like our windows to open and there is no changing that. What do you like?

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8 thoughts on “When Windows Used to Open”

  1. I just purchased a home that was built in 1914. Several of the windows are original and have had storm windows installed on the outside. I found that none of the original windows open (hinges are on the vertical edges). Do these types of windows have some method of opening / closing other than just pulling on the handles? I tried cleaning around one window with a putty knife / razor knife but had no luck even budging the window slightly. I want to be able to open them without causing damage. Suggestions?

  2. Scott — you hit this issue on the nail! I can’t stand to live in a place without enough windows, light, and the ability to bring in fresh air! I’ve gone to the trouble to add sash springs to our 6 over 6 paned windows. A lot of people don’t get why I haven’t wanted to replace our windows. They are more aesthetic than the aluminum double paned windows, and well insulated in the winter when I close our storm windows. Heck — in our bathroom, when I re-glazed the window I used colored glass to add interest and some privacy.

    About a year ago I visited someone’s house and she explained to me why she never opens the windows, and several were designed to not even open. I don’t get it. Something burned in the kitchen. Open the window! Dog farted too much. Open the windows! Painted something inside — open the windows! I don’t get how people can stand all the chemical odors, fumes, farts, etc. Someone got sick and vomited. Open the windows. Why wouldn’t you want to open the window, unless your nose is completely dull or not working? And let’s not forget that natural gas appliances have gas byproducts, including nitrous oxide. Ideally gas furnaces should be in a separate space from the house to not pollute the indoor air. Gas stoves aren’t real healthy for asthmatics. Again — open the windows and get fresh air! Even in the winter!

    1. Hi Melinda,
      Haha thanks so much for writing! We love hearing why everyone feels the way they do and has the opinions and preferences they do.
      I’m a huge outdoors person, so I love having fresh air inside too.
      Thanks so much for adding to the dialogue on the blog. We’re thankful for every person that reads and writes!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  3. I think this is too true and the reason we are deeply discussing our architecture’s choice for glazing and not windows on the sawtooth roof. He insists they are windows, but it’s just framed glazing as they don’t add circulation to the building. He is not old enough to remember the school classrooms with high hopper windows that let hot air out as well as light in. Don’t know if they are still available, so I’ll be looking on the internet. In our area, we do run AC and Heat, rarely opening windows. In the Spring we have pollen that is so thick you can write in it. Our house was oriented incorrectly. It has a huge solar heater of a picture window facing West. To counteract the poor design, we keep the blinds down and the draperies shut until the sun sets. As a kid growing up with no air conditioning, we opened everything up about thirty minutes after the sun went down. Temperatures began to cool, usually a breeze that would drop the house twenty degrees. If no breeze, we put window fans in to draw the cooler night air in. With one on the other side of the house pushing hot air out. Whomever got up first was taxed to go through the house closing all the exterior doors and windows. The last person out had to close all the draperies in the house.

  4. We just purchased and moved into a home built in 1923. It has all of the original windows but they have clearly not been maintained or used for that matter. During the inspection, it was brought to our attention that the vast majority of the windows had been sealed shut from the inside with clear caulk. We hadn’t noticed because we had looked at the house during the winter. We were informed that this was how the owners we were purchasing from received the house and they just left it that way while living here. So at least two rounds of owners NEVER opened the windows and just left the glass storms in year round. I love having windows open for fresh air and we are lucky to have a whole house fan that can help us cool down the house in the evenings or early mornings if necessary. We are grateful that the original windows are intact but sorely wish others had cared enough to keep them well maintained so our rehab process would be less intensive.

  5. I agree with your insight. And I have an additional perspective on open windows that I have only realized in the last 2 years. Open windows connect us with not only nature, but our neighbors! I moved from Arkansas to Chicago about 2 years ago and in AR, you ran the a/c pretty much year-round. Maybe a brief pause in “winter”, but mostly the windows simply had to stay closed. Now, in Chicago, my old 1890’s house doesn’t even have central air and it was specifically designed and positioned to catch flowing breezes off the Lake and we have our windows open all the time! As a result, my neighbors (also much closer to my house here in the city as opposed to in AR) are within talking distance! We chat through the windows, hear instruments being played, babies crying, children laughing…it’s a completely different experience. One that draws us together with our neighbors rather than isolating us inside our sealed homes. I even have learned to appreciate the fluctuations in temperature and a greater awareness of life outside our house walls. Who knew life without central air could be enjoyable? 🙂

  6. Agree! Twice a year, I swap out “storms and screens” on some of my windows, but really appreciate having the opportunity for fresh air moving through my home when the weather allows. Meanwhile, my next door neighbor runs her HVAC year round. But more than that, I appreciate experiencing all 4 seasons in my geographic location and stepping outside, no matter the season, just to take in what is going on outdoors, be it wind blowing, sprinkles or snowflakes, sunshine, temps rising or falling, birds singing, plants growing or fading, leaves falling, etc. I am in my mid 50’s but I notice that many younger people don’t seem to appreciate nature to the same degree as those of us who are a bit older, perhaps because we were just immersed more in nature during our daily lives.

  7. Another great article, Scott. Thank you. I wanted to tell you I’m really liking the new book so far! I’ve been tearing through it but I haven’t torn into the windows just yet (save for the brief removal and re-installation of an awing window in the basement). I was happy to see a section on even THAT type of window. So you have in this new edition sections on all three types of windows (casement, steel and awing) that I need to work on. That was nice to see!
    How much, have you found, does the use of whiting speed up the skinning of Sarco Dual Glaze? I have a large container of that so I am committed to using it.

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