Common Spaces

Windows: Can You See Outside?

City vew from office building

Sometimes the best information comes from off-topic sources. When I was painting, I read the New York Review of Books more often than Art Forum. The principles of artistic work are the same across the arts, but also different. Enough the same to transfer and enough off-topic to give a sideways view that was intriguing. I came across an article today in Fast Company that raised an alert about windows in buildings.

Taking Huge Risks and Information

The study was done by CBRE, the largest full-service commercial real estate company in the world.  It was a major study done at a great cost by world-class experts to advise investors on what makes multi-billion-dollar office buildings profitable. Successful office buildings are those occupied by successful businesses. Successful businesses are dependent on happy employees, ones that stick around long-term. Thus a key question is “What keeps employees around?”

Financing a large building is a big deal. (I got lost in the zeros trying to calculate the risk.) The largest office buildings in the world are over 300,000 square feet of floor space. Even less ambitious buildings are approaching 100,000 square feet. Construction costs vary widely depending on location, quality, and detail but easily range from $225 – $1,000 per square foot. (Eighteen million of anything is automatically a Big Risk.)

First, you have to invest all your capital or all the capital you can borrow—or both. And find a large number of other investors who will do the same thing. Then everyone holds their breath to see if anyone will buy or rent space, or enough space. Once the employers have signed leases, the employees have to stay around long enough for the business to be profitable before investors will be compensated or they will lose everything. 

While measured in billions rather than tens of thousands, the risk to those investors is not unlike the risks that small groups of individuals face when developing a cohousing community or resuscitating a neighborhood. What makes a home desirable? What do we fix first? What attracts and keeps neighbors long term? Since space, cost per square foot, is the largest expense, how can we reduce it and still have desirable homes? Is the cost of construction comfortably inside the ability of potential owners to accumulate sufficient savings or to pay the mortgage rather than face foreclosure?

A comparable study is unlikely to be conducted on the much less lucrative market of homes and common spaces but the results of this one are informative. One measure of intelligence is the capacity to apply acquired knowledge and skills to new situations. We have to take it where we find it.  And test it. What can we learn from the study results?

What do I want while working?

When asked about the most important features of a workplace, the employees asked, “Can you see outside?” 

Fifty-five percent of employees rated windows, the ability to see outside as the most important feature of a workplace.* Since employees are responding to having to spend the whole day in the office, it isn’t a big stretch to assume that this applies to living spaces, too. And the pandemic has resulted in people spending more time in their homes since before the 1970s.** Although there may be less socializing out of fear of infection, the home, the neighborhood, and other shared common spaces are suddenly central to daily life.

What would make our homes more desirable? More livable. More loved.

Tiny house with one small window

One window in a tiny house may not be the most satisfying living experience.

In my cohousing community of 43 households, at least 80% are occupied by adults working at home for most of the day, most days of the week. Others are occupied by children and childcare workers. The presence of common spaces that have provided space for home-schooling, outdoor play, and backup office space has been crucial to their (almost) seamless functioning. 

When you realize that many jurisdictions require windows and the ability to see outside is something most homeowners take for granted. They might rank big windows highest, wall-sized windows, but the fact of windows would be assumed. In offices, windows are not assumed.

How Windows Affect Happy Home Design

An interesting example of the effect of windows in homes comes from a documentary on the small apartment sizes in Scandinavia. One featured a bedroom for two boys that was only slightly larger than their bunk beds. There was just enough space between the beds and a narrow window seat across from them to walk into the room. Sounds like a closet, right?

It wasn’t because the entire wall above the narrow seat across from the beds was a window. The room was bright and airy. The experience was that of a room as large as the view. The unusually large windows transformed a closet into a what felt like a spacious room. 

Interior windows can have the same effect. In Japan, the kitchen is often separate from the rest of the house to contain the steam that results from cooking rice and vegetables. When the separation is formed with glass—a window, a door, or even a wall—the space feels twice the size.

Interior windows also provide light and views.

What is the most important?

With limited resources, particularly if you are deliberately choosing to live as simply as possible, the most satisfying design will most probably include the spaciousness provided by windows.

 


* The next most desired options were onsite food sources, 44%, and a nice kitchen, 37%. And this was office space.

** In the 1950s it was a sign of prestige to have a wife at home and to have more than two children. Daycare for preschool-aged children was unavailable and schoolchildren even came home for lunch. Neighborhoods were likely to be active all day. Beginning in the 1970s, countries began dropping the laws requiring women to have their husband’s permission to work outside the home. By the late 19th century and the early 21st century, ~75-80% of all adults between the ages of 25 and 55 were working outside the home. After-care and daycare were more widely available. Neighborhoods were often empty all day.

Reference: “The one thing employees really want in a workspace” by Even Nicole Brown in Fast Company, January 2020.

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