I’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?
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.