Do Not Open—No User Serviceable Parts Inside

Why do so many of us have to work where the windows don't open? Engineers, architects, and lawyers have their reasons, but must workplaces be less humane than homes?

May 22 nd 2012

My office has a feature that I'll bet yours doesn't: windows that can be opened from the inside, without the use of tools. That means if it's stuffy in our space, I can open the window. Are you envious yet?

Sadly, the vast majority of workers in North America, from assembly line workers to CEOs, lack access to a pre-industrial technology that is about the most humane thing a building can be asked to do: open a window. I can only open mine because I work in a hundred-year-old building whose construction predates air conditioning. It has cooling now, but it also has great big double-hung windows I can open, which is even cooler.

It's curious, isn't it, that a pre-industrial technology like operable windows can be envy-inducing in a post-industrial, wired, 24/7 global economy. Why is that? After all, we may enjoy the odd carriage ride once in a while, but nobody (at least nobody I know) actually wants to commute in a horse-drawn buggy every day. But we do crave windows that open. How come?

The thing about post-industrial technology is that you and I can't touch it. From the hermetically sealed products Apple makes to your VCR that's now a doorstop, the mantra is: Do Not Open—No User Serviceable Parts Inside. Most of us, having little desire to hack our iPhones, are happy to oblige. But can't we at least open the window in our workplace? Well, no, you can't. But why not?

Same reason: no user serviceable parts inside. The main reason your workplace window won't open is because by doing so you would create problems for the engineer who designed the building's heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. All those windows opening at random times and locations makes designing a simple HVAC system impossibly complicated—too many uncontrolled variables.

That's what you are to an engineer: an uncontrolled variable. He (yes, 80 percent are still hes) can calculate your heat output, your CO2 output, the humidity you add to the air, even estimate how much ventilation is required to compensate for your lunch of garlic hummus, but opening the window is more than his pocket calculator can bear. It introduces too much variability into the system. So you can't open the window. Sorry.

There are a couple of exceptions to this iron law: One is if you, like me, work in an old building, built before the advent of central air conditioning. When all you had was a radiator for heat, opening the window was still an option. The radiator didn't care, because the heat it made was radiated, not blown. But when air systems (with ducts and fans) became the dominant model for heating and cooling, your freedom to moderate your work environment manually—by opening the window—basically ended.

The other exception is newer: the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, a widely accepted North American standard for sustainable ("green") design, awards points for operable windows. So they are slowly worming their way back into the consciousness of architects and engineers, and thus into the modern workplace, through the back door that LEED has opened just a crack. But even in LEED-certified buildings, operable windows still give engineers fits, which means they still get omitted more often than they are included. That building designers are willing to forgo the LEED points to avoid the complexity they create is a sad commentary on the design professions, mine included.

There are other arguments against operable windows, but they are even less compelling. Building owners don't like operable windows because things—or people—can fall out, be thrown out, or jump out—all of which add risk to building ownership. Architects don't like operable windows because they are more complicated, and thus add thickness to the pencil-thin window frames we like to employ. Worse yet, operable windows might lead to—gasp—curtains! Oh, the horror.

If these arguments seem weak, it's because they are. There really isn't a good reason not to give workers the same kind of windows any sane person would insist on in their home—windows you can slide, raise, or crank open. The fallback reason is the one discussed above—no user serviceable parts inside. But what works for the iPhone really doesn't work for the workplace.

Perhaps the real reason so many of us have to work where the windows don't open (I have another entire rant about windowless offices, which I'll save for another time) is that the workplace is viewed as a fundamentally different, and less humane, environment than the home. This is traceable to the early Industrial Revolution¸ before which the idea of a "workplace" separate from the home would not have been widely understood. But when people began to trudge off to the "dark satanic mills" (in William Blake's words), the workplace was born, and with it the idea that it was someplace to work, not someplace to live. That distinction may seem obvious, but it carried a lot of freight, one piece of which was permission for your employer to let you look out a window but not be able to open it.

Again, not to pine for the return of the horse and carriage, but I believe we would be a lot better off if there was more confusion between our home spaces and our workplaces, not less. Live-work lofts are a contemporary, downtown kind of version of this. Many live-work lofts have operable windows, either because they have been created in renovated older buildings, or just because, well, people live there. After all, you don't stop living when you go to work, do you? Maybe it just feels like it sometimes.

Pocket calculators got us into this mess, but it may be desktop supercomputers that get us out of it. As computing power has gotten exponentially cheaper, engineers have become more interested in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a line of inquiry that used to require a supercomputer to accurately model thermal flows through a space or volume. CFD might actually allow your HVAC designer to model your space with and without the window open in a way that would allow him to keep everyone else's space near the desired temperature. So in a roundabout way, maybe technology can solve a hundred-year-old problem that another technology created.

But a word of warning: if you do get your operable window at work, don't start measuring for curtains. Some things are just not done.


David Greusel has worked as an architect for more than thirty years with several Midwestern firms of varying sizes. He is founding principal of Convergence Design, a Kansas City-based practice specializing in places where people gather. While with another firm, he was lead designer for two major league ballparks: Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2009, David was named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.