A glance at the New York City skyline tells an instant story: glass is in. More windows translate into higher rents for both commercial and residential buildings, say owners and brokers. But looking up at all-glass buildings, it often seems that a lot of the blinds are closed, blocking out the beautiful cityscape.
Seduced by the View observed how people who live and work in all-glass buildings use their windows after move-in day. With help from volunteers, we took pictures of dozens of buildings and found that on average, blinds or shades covered about 59 percent of the window area. And over 75 percent of buildings had more than half of their window area covered. As the study puts it, “Tenants are moving into these rooms with a view, but more often than not, can’t see out the window.” (Read coverage of the study in today’s Daily News.)
Our results were unambiguous, but the reasons for this widespread behavior are far less obvious. My first assumption would have been that shades are pulled to stop glare. To check this, we specifically compared how much blinds were pulled on windows facing east (towards the rising sun) in the morning, and facing west (toward the setting sun) in the afternoon.
I expected that more blinds would be shut in the side of the building facing the sun’s bright rays, but that wasn’t the case. Results didn’t change based on this factor. In fact, none of the factors we observed changed the results. Window coverage was about the same regardless of the time of day, direction the window faced, and whether the building was commercial or residential.
So glare can’t be the only reason blinds are pulled. Because the study observations are so consistent, I suspect that blinds aren’t getting moved up and down much at all. My guess is that that they get pulled due to glare, for privacy, or other factors, and then just left down most of the time.
But answering the why wouldn’t change reality: for whatever reason, New Yorkers are paying for more glass and then pulling down the shades. Of course, that’s their choice. But along with whatever loss of privacy, increased noise, and uncomfortable temperatures tenants experience, the city suffers too. Because they insulate poorly compared to walls, windows waste energy and cause carbon pollution. They have lower resiliency during power outages, since the glass doesn’t hold heat in winter or keep it out in summer. And it’s not easy to harden your heart against what glass buildings do to birds, killing 90,000 annually just in NYC.
All-glass facades are a long-term problem. Twenty, thirty, or even fifty years from now, when the equipment in the building is more efficient due to replacements, the same glass windows will be there, putting a hard limit on how much the building can improve its resiliency and sustainability. Tenants have to decide if it’s worth paying this price for the views. But if the shades are down, it just doesn’t seem worth it. With good design, buildings can have great views and save energy, too. We can, and should, do better.