Tag Archives: natural air

Bedrooms without Windows


Bedrooms without Windows

Sleeping Closets a Symptom of Public Health Failures


  • Codes applicable in the City of Seattlehave reversed one hundred years of public health, zoning and building code practice by allowing sleeping closets (bedrooms with no windows). “The codes no longer require natural light and ventilation.”[1]
  • Washington State code authority supersedes City of Seattle code authority.  The state has denied Seattle the authority to amend its code to require natural light in some low-rise residential buildings.[2]
  • State committees that review codes are dominated by industry representatives, technocrats and politicians with little or no representation from public health and medical professions that helped drive early code development.
  • Sleeping closets result in fewer windows and deeper unitsyielding apartments that are inherently less healthy for inhabitants and less safe for first responders.
  • Sleeping closets have enabled bulky apartment buildings with large flat facades so boring they helped spur a design review bureaucracy.
  • Sleeping closets and other inhabited spaces that do not utilize natural light and air are inherently incompatible with City of Seattle environmental goals.[3]
  • The diminished livability of apartment units over recent decades is in stark contrast to the dramatic improvements in the livability of apartments from roughly 1900 to 1950.
  • Sleeping closets serve no public purpose, existing only to increase developer profits.  High density and bright, naturally ventilated apartments are not incompatible.

Policy Recommendations[4]

  • Review residential buildings only for passive performance standards: heating, cooling, natural lighting and cross ventilation.
  • Rather than predicting performance of mechanical systems, reward or punish actual performance with higher or lower utility rates and/or utility taxes.
  • Require low-rise residential buildings to be habitable when energy utilities are out of service[5] to the same extent that most single family homes are habitable.

 Quietly, over several decades, building and zoning codes have reversed one hundred years of public health, zoning and building code practice by allowing bedrooms without windows. In the 19th century, such rooms were called sleeping closets. Sleeping closets helped drive reforms that swept cities in the 19th and early 20th century and led to the spacious, airy, light-filled apartments of the 1920’s to 1940’s many people find preferable to the apartments constructed today. Sleeping closets are inherently dangerous to the health of inhabitants and first-responders, then and now.  Today’s sleeping closet floor plans are similar to the tenement plans that led to sweeping changes in building and zoning codes a century ago.

The return of sleeping closets has contributed to unfortunate changes in urban form and diminished the livability and sustainability of new apartments. And sleeping closets are just one symptom that public health has taken a backseat to development and manufacturing interests in the built environment.  Other examples include:

  • High ceilings have long had an association with good health due to the greater air volume they provide. The city has effectively zoned low ceiling heights by closely matching zoning envelopes to the number of stories required to fill each envelope with a ceiling height of eight feet, a historic low for middle-class housing in the U.S.  In order to provide higher ceilings, developers have to buy more land and pass on the cost. All but the most luxurious apartments now have roughly eight foot ceiling heights.
  • The city ignores serious health issues related to the widespread use of wall-to-wall carpeting. Wall-to-wall carpeting is common, poorly maintained and infrequently replaced in low-cost rental housing and may be a contributor to health disparities between groups.[6] The carpet industry promotes the idea that carpeting contributes to green buildings when hard-surface floors are more sustainable and healthy in virtually all cases.[7]

Sleeping closets and sleeping areas result in fewer windows, deeper units and less cross-ventilation; low ceiling heights mean that the reduced light available does not penetrate far into the units; and wall-to-wall carpeting increases the possibility of dirty, unhealthy air.  Fewer windows and low ceilings mean that air volume is low and natural circulation is minimal. When measured against historic standards of natural light, air, and cross-ventilation, the quality of our housing stock is deteriorating.

The sleeping closet story begins over a century ago.  In the mid-to-late 1800’s, U.S. states and cities began mandating access to light and air in and around buildings in response to overcrowding and dark, stale, unhealthy interiors.[8] New York City and State were pioneers in the enactment of early codes due to the exceptionally crowded conditions there.[9] New York State enacted or updated Tenement House Acts in 1867, 1887 & 1901. New York City enacted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1916. The 1867 act states that every room shall have a window. Subsequent modifications removed dangerous exceptions such as small air shafts.

The current Seattlezoning code for low-rise residential buildings appears to require operable windows[10] but the building and mechanical codes provide wholesale exceptions.[11] The Seattle Residential Code and the Seattle Mechanical Code allow artificial light and mechanical ventilation to substitute for windows. Fire protection systems are allowed to substitute for proximity to an exit window or door. The state code on ventilation and indoor air quality does not even contain the word “window”.[12]  Occupancy limitations, safety detection systems, electric lighting and mechanical ventilation are used to justify the change to deeper, darker units – but are no substitute for natural light, cross ventilation and immediate access to an exit window or door from public health or sustainability perspectives. To the extent possible, apartments should be safe to inhabit and as comfortable as possible when energy utilities are out of service.[13]

The return of sleeping closets is an example of how changes in codes have degraded housing quality. For most of the twentieth century, studio apartments could have no interior walls[14], reflecting the consensus that all rooms should have access to light and air. In the early 1980’s partial walls were allowed in studio apartments to define sleeping areas, typically behind the kitchen. At first, these walls could not go to the ceiling.  Later, walls could go to the ceiling but were limited in area.[15] Now you can have a door when electric light and continuous mechanical ventilation is provided, perfecting the return of the sleeping closet.[16] Increasing the allowable enclosure around the sleeping area allowed studios to feel more-and-more like one-bedroom apartments.  Studios with sleeping areas or closets, marketed as ‘urban one-bedrooms’, are becoming more common and have replaced many one-bedroom apartments in the ‘marketing mix’.[17]

Giving artificial systems equal rank with direct natural lighting and ventilation has resulted in dramatic changes to the floor plans and appearance of residential buildings.[18]  To satisfy new codes, early-mid 20th century designers utilized courtyards and wings in larger buildings to provide natural light and air to every room. The deeper, darker apartments we see today are possible because cities first allowed bathrooms to be ventilated mechanically or from shafts, allowing them to be located in the interior of the building and, later, because sleeping areas were allowed in locations remote from windows in studio apartments.[19] These changes enabled larger floor plates.  Larger floor plates have typically meant far fewer corner apartments that tend to be bright, airy, better ventilated and much more desirable than the one-exposure, one-window units that are becoming a new low standard. As a city, we spend much time making sure each building gets natural light and air but show little concern for how much of that light and air residents experience in their own apartments.

Beyond health and livability, sleeping closets are not sustainable.  First, to be legal for occupancy, portions of sleeping closets require forced ventilation and electric light even at noon on a bright summer day. This is not a policy befitting a city striving for a small ecological footprint.  Second, buildings with sleeping closets will be obsolete when the market returns to sanity and provides apartments with more direct access to light and air.  Thus buildings with sleeping closets are the potential tenements of the future just as those with light-wells were in the past.  Those built to minimum standards in less desirable neighborhoods are likely to deteriorate quickly. Some of Seattle’s most prestigious developers are featuring sleeping closets in the marketing mix of luxury residential buildings. However, many features used to attract tenants to these buildings have the shelf life of a new car.[20]  That is, many buildings are marketed on bling, not bones.

The move away from natural light and air has had exterior aesthetic consequences too.  Since architects are no longer required to articulate buildings to capture natural light and air, mechanically ventilated apartment buildings can have flat facades on all sides.[21]  Exempting apartments from responding to the natural environment contributes to the bland, boxy buildings that drive deep public dissatisfaction with our urban landscape.  This dissatisfaction has in turn resulted in unwieldy codes, regulations and bureaucracies to remedy massing problems that do not exist when natural light and air is required for all rooms. The city would do well to focus on the experience of residents in the apartments, not just building exteriors.  High density and bright, naturally ventilated units are not incompatible.

The trend toward less desirable living spaces is in stark contrast to previous eras that brought a continuous succession of important public health improvements to residents: increased access to natural light and air, clean water, hot water, and toilets.   More recently, circuit breakers; fire sprinklers; and detectors for smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide have contributed to safety.  But for five decades of mostly unparalleled prosperity, the physical qualities of the typical Seattle apartment such as area, volume, brightness, and cross-ventilation have continuously declined.  Unfortunately, Seattle is not an outlier.  The trend away from public health principles in buildings is national.

To some extent, public health has been a victim of its own success.  From the mid-19th century through World War II, public health officials in industrialized countries had a string of incredible successes in improving the health of the inhabitants of cities through improvements to their living environments.  In addition to natural light and air, clean water, hot water, and sewers mentioned earlier, the advent of garbage removal, electricity, electric lighting, streets, sidewalks, mechanical transportation (no animal waste), and antibiotics transformed cities from dangerous unhealthy dumps to relatively benign environments.  All these earlier improvements to cities resulted from society taking relentless advantage of new knowledge to improve residents’ lives.  The false sense that any difficulty could be overcome by scientists and engineers has become a part of the problem.  For instance, persistent toxins in the urban environment have proven difficult to eliminate.

In contrast to the glory days of public health, the trend today feels more like a race to the bottom.  Improvements as basic as sidewalks and public toilets are made to seem out-of-reach for our far wealthier society.  Sleeping closets, the standardization of low ceiling height, and wall-to-wall carpeting have a negative impact on living standards from a public health perspective that is barely acknowledged. Sleeping closets negatively impact quality of life, individual health, first responder safety, and building form while conferring no short or long-term benefits to their inhabitants or to the city.  Sleeping closets exist only to increase developer profits.  The lesson for policy makers is to view the experience of the inhabitants through individual experience and the public health lens.

The city’s strategic interest is in buildings that are long-lasting; easy to renovate; pleasant to look at; wonderful and healthy to live in; utilize few energy resources in construction; use few resources in operation; and are safe for first responders. Since Seattle’s moderate climate means that it is relatively easy to achieve comfortable interior temperatures much of the year using only passive heating and cooling technologies, requiring passive heating and cooling be maximized for residential buildings will advance public health and environmental interests.  Passive performance standards for apartments might include heating, cooling, natural lighting and cross ventilation.  These standards would positively impact important measures of apartment desirability from the occupant’s perspective: the number and size of windows, distance to a window, and higher ceilings.

Reviewing passive performance only, and not reviewing the performance of heating and cooling systems, would mean getting out of the way of the private sector in building technology, potentially unleashing innovation.  The city can review systems for safety and other issues without attempting to predict system performance.  Measuring actual energy use following occupancy is far more reliable than predicting the success of complex systems and far less susceptible to manipulation.  Developments can be rewarded or punished with higher or lower utility rates and/or utility tax rates based on their actual energy use.

Over the past thirty years and more, we have obliged developers with regulatory changes that increase short-term profits by increasing the number of units on any given piece of property.  The problem is that these changes have often been at the expense of the physical and mental health of inhabitants. Long-term, most developers primarily care that the market is predictable and that approval processes are quick, transparent and fair.[22] Developers are happy to compete in the marketplace whether it requires bright well-ventilated apartments or not. But short-term, virtually most developers are servant to investors and profits.[23] Once invested in a property, developers may cut corners and push for changes to codes and enforcement that allow more housing units and less expensive construction on any given piece of property. The city needs to focus relentlessly on its long-term strategic interests and ignore the short-sighted requests of developers to make their invested properties more valuable today.  Public health, not developer profits, is the appropriate lens through which the city should make its choices.[24]

The public health lens is a powerful tool for reinvigorating progressive policy. The return of sleeping closets is indicative of trends where individual experience is lost in the in the spreadsheets of corporations. Focusing on individual experience and public health basics in policy decisions will return important and unexpected benefits to the city. Reconciling public health and environmental policies is an essential precursor to a sustainable and healthy urban environment.

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[1] Maureen Traxler, Department of Planning and Development, City ofSeattle, in a 2011-11-09 memo to David Schraer (Traxler Memo).

[2] Traxler Memo. “Seattle retained an amendment requiring natural light in R occupancies but that amendment was disapproved by the State Building Code Council pursuant to RCW 19.27.060.”

[3] Ultimately, in residential uses, closed environment mechanical systems may be incompatible withSeattle’s environmental goals.

[4] These recommendations may require amending or challenging state law or the national and international codes on which state law is based.

[5] “Habitable with no delivered energy inputs” could be part of a definition of sustainable design in residential construction.

[6] Dirt, mold and small insects harbored in wall-to-wall carpeting aggravate asthma.  http://www.lungusa.org/healthy-air/home/resources/carpets.html   http://www.webmd.com/asthma/guide/do-you-need-an-air-filter

Seattle-King County Public Health does not mention wall-to-wall carpeting as a direct contributor to health issues on its list of “possible sources of poor indoor air quality” despite making this point elsewhere: http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/ehs/toxic/IndoorAir.aspx#renters

[8] For a description of living conditions in dense cities in the 19th century that prompted public health improvements, see the first chapters of The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 2006.

[9] New York City, Department of City Planning web site, About Zoning/History http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/zone/zonehis.shtml.

[10] Seattle Municipal Code 22.206.130.J.1:  “Every room below the fourth story that was constructedfor, converted to or establishedfor sleeping purposes after August 10, 1972, shall have at least one (1)operable window orexterior door approved for emergency escape or rescue.”

[11] Traxler Memo. “The codes no longer require natural light and ventilation.  SRC (Seattle Residential Code) section R303 and SBC (Seattle Bldg Code) section 1205.1 allow artificial light as an alternative to natural.  SRC section 1508 and SMC (Seattle Mechanical Code) section 403.8 require mechanical ventilation and allows outdoor to be delivered to habitable spaces through ducts and other means.

[12] Washington State Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality Code (2006 Edition) effectiveJuly 1, 2007.

[13] Not an argument against beneficial technologies but to guard against the tail wagging the dog.

[14] Except around bathrooms or closets, utility rooms, and other rooms not intended to be inhabited.

[15]Seattle Residential Code R303.2: “Adjoining rooms. For the purpose of determining light requirements, any room shall be considered as a portion of an adjoining room when at least one half of the area of the common wall is open and unobstructed and provides an opening of not less than one-tenth of the floor area of the room but not less than 25 square feet.”

[16] A full history of codes and interpretations that has lead to elimination of requirements for direct access to natural light and air for residential units is not yet written. The Traxler Memo provides some answers.  This document will be updated as new information becomes available.

[17]Cultural changes have also contributed to an increased number of studios.  Prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, studios had a reputation for encouraging promiscuity due to the visible bed.

[18] Commercial floor plans have experienced even greater changes.  The issues are more varied and complex and beyond the scope of this essay.

[19] The issues created by interior bathrooms are excluded from this discussion.  Interior bathrooms do not create health and safety issues equivalent to those of interior bedrooms.

[20] The shelf life of the buildings themselves is often also in question.  Another subject entirely  . . .

[21] Historically, flat-fronted buildings often had highly articulated backs and sides – typically not the case today.

[22] Manufacturers may be another story.

[23] This is not a criticism. Developers take admirable risks to create housing and most new housing is created by local investors.  The belief is that developers always make money but recent history has proved this viewpoint as false as the bubble in which it was constructed. Few of us risk anything in order to provide another person with a home.

[24] Policy shifts should preserve the value of current investments to mitigate developer and property owner opposition.  Mitigation could mean delaying implementation or providing off-setting incentives.