Windows: The Benefits Are Clear

The University of Utah inherited a conundrum when it folded the former Fort Douglas military base into its campus holdings. On one hand, the designated historical site contributes visually pleasing architecture: 40 buildings, many of them sandstone construction with high-pitched, decorative eaves, nostalgic double-hung windows – and a few with stately Gone With the Wind verandahs.

On the other hand, the site is also slated to serve as a section of the 2002 Winter Olympics athletes’ village, so university officials are scrambling not only to restore the historical portion but to build 800,000 square feet of new housing to match. According to Pete van der Have, director of plant operations, they’re using a transparent element to meet this challenge: windows.

"This has been a learning curve for us," van der Have admits. "We now look at windows as a part of the entire system: the statement the architect is trying to achieve on the outside and inside, coupled with the building’s occupants’ needs. Naturally, we have to retain some flexibility as we review recommended systems, but we’re looking at it holistically rather than just from our own selfish perspectives. That’s where historically we have been too conservative." In fact, with this new attitude, van der Have labels some of the existing campus buildings as "unattractive shoeboxes with a few windows" - a monument to how much a campus stands to gain when architects, designers, builders and maintainers work together.

Architects across the country agree, pointing out that, once again, windows are a dominant force in design. "We’re seeing a lot more sensitive and thoughtful use of windows to provide a connection between a building’s interior and exterior. We’re not afraid to allow them an expression," notes Joel Sims, senior vice president at Quad III in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. In fact, a simple pane of glass and frame has the power to energize your campus in at least four ways.

1. The presence of windows is psychologically uplifting. When Stephen Carter, president of the architectural division of Lorenz & Williams Associates in Dayton, Ohio, was invited to join 17 other consultants in designing Sinclair Community College’s Center for Interactive Learning, he immediately faced a challenge. Because the building would house high-tech classes, some argued for it to be windowless in order to prevent CRT glare. "I went to the mat against it," he says. "It would have created a space people wouldn’t want to be in for any length of time."

Carter solved the problem by raising the windowsill height above the computer screens and selecting dark-tinted glass panes. This avoids the problem of users staring into a reflected light, yet still provides a panoramic ribbon of nature and sky when they take a break. For a true contrast, the CIL building’s lounges feature glass to the floors for a more expanded outdoor view.

"The trend today is to recognize that natural light is not only an inexpensive source of light, it’s also necessary in order to create a stable mental environment," says Carter.

2. Glass accentuates excitement. When Sims designed well-lit full-glass stairways and elevator towers in buildings at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., it was easy to see the added security measure for students roaming the halls at night. He knows he punched up the building’s excitement level several notches in the bargain. "It’s energizing to drive by a lit building at night and see activity going on in there. Now you’re dealing with a vibrant, breathing concept rather than a mysterious barrier," he says.

Likewise, Jeff DuBro, a project designer for BLDD Architects in Decatur, Ill., relied on curtain walls during the first phase of construction for the new Heartland Community College in Bloomington-Normal, Ill. "With a traditional window opening, you have a framed view from inside the building, almost like a frame around a piece of artwork," he explains. "But, when you have a wall of glass, it becomes that thin, fragile threshold between the activities inside and outside. It literally explodes that framed view and creates a heartbeat."

3. Shapes signal stability. As van der Have discovered, there’s nothing like a double-hung window to recreate yesterday’s charm. Sims likens it to a crisp red tie laid against a white shirt to top off a dark blue suit: The entire package screams classic in any decade. And who among traditionalists can resist the elegance and spacious generosity of a bay or box window?

Ditto the romance of a circle, or half-round and quarter-round accents above and beside vertical windows. In fact, an extended quarter-round is often applied to the popular quarter-round casement combination for an even lighter and more graceful appearance. Meanwhile, the extended half-round always begs to be the center of attention in popular Palladian style.

"Today’s trend is to incorporate geometric shapes into the building designs as an inexpensive way to get away from the overall cube perception without expensive curved walls," says Raj Goyal, director of business development for TRACO Windows in Pennsylvania.

4. Windows convey confidence in the present. "There’s nothing wrong with period architecture saying, ‘I’m a building of the ’90s or the millennium,’" Sims assures. Today’s versions feature more detailing on the vertical and horizontal mullions than previous decades - a bold statement that refuses to retreat or apologize for its existence.

Color tinting and films - most often seen radiating blue, greens, bronzes or grays - make this decade’s most distinguishing statement as they not-so-subtly reflect their role in the natural exterior surroundings. Meanwhile, this trend provides a practical darkening effect for the interiors, too. High-tech buildings that need to be computer-friendly in particular sport this look, Carter says, because the approach cuts glare without encouraging the gloomy moods a windowless environment does.

"An architect is responsible for cost and maintenance of a project, but he’s really the guardian of the design," Sims comments. "You can create an ugly building and still spend a lot of money. So, although it sounds trite, how we treat windows in general has pendulum swung through the years. The ’60s gave us storefront styles, the ’70s small punched openings to conserve energy. Now we’ve developed a nice balance by understanding that one extreme or the other is not healthy."

For proof, count the number of six-pane double-hung windows in Fort Douglas set off by six- to eight-foot-wide windows with arched tops elsewhere on the University of Utah’s finished campus in 2002.

Julie Sturgeon is a Greenwood, Ind.-based freelance writer with experience in higher education issues.

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