No more double windows! That was the title of an article I read in the Chicago Evening Post. The year was 1911 and the page was yellowed with age. The unnamed author gushed, “The ancient double windows have almost disappeared from Chicago! Every city residence a quarter-century ago was built with a set of heavy outer windows. Their object was to protect the interior of the building from cold and drafts. It may be that they really were necessary before the city was closely built up or the modern systems of heating were invented. Anyhow, the double windows began to disappear as the new steam systems were put in. It lingers still in the suburbs, but is practically unknown in the urban apartment houses, which, we should say, is a very good thing. With double windows, the only air that crept into the house came through those little mousetrap openings in the bottoms of the frames. No matter how fine the day, or how warm, there was no way from October to May in which the life-giving oxygen could be gotten from outdoors into the upstairs rooms."
I smiled as I read that because the mousetrap opening at the bottom of the frame the author mentions made me thing of fortachkas. Those are the small windows within big windows (usually at the top) that Russians have enjoyed for years. The little window opens independently of the big window to let in fresh air, while also keeping the heat in and the street noise out.
And silly me. I always thought the single-pane window came first in America. Who knew it was the double window? I also smiled to think that it was steam heating that allowed for the change. Put a big steam radiator under each drafty window and you can get rid of that extra pane of glass and heat all the fresh air that’s streaming in between the loose sashes.
And when I considered that, it dawned on me that this is why the radiators are under the windows in most old buildings. It’s all about heating the fresh air. But if you think about it, a radiator can be anywhere in the room as long as it matches the room’s heat loss. I’ve visited steam-heated buildings where the radiators are mounted on interior walls just because the piping was easier to do that way. I’ve also seen many steam radiators mounted high up on the wall, and even on the ceiling. That was mostly to get them above the steam-boiler’s waterline.
I read some more and learned that another reason why they wanted those single-pane windows back in the day was because of two airborne, highly contagious diseases that were decimating cities: influenza and tuberculosis. In 1900, these were the number-one and number-two causes of death in America. That’s not to say that drafty windows and steam radiators sent those diseases scurrying, but they each did help in their own way.
So let’s hear it for fresh air.
When we moved into our house in 1977, we thought some of the windows were cute. They were original to the house, small, high on the bedroom walls, wood-framed, and hinged at the top. The previous owner showed me how to bang on the bottom of the window with the side of my fist so it would screech and extend out like an awning. “That keeps out the rain,” he said and smiled. It didn’t actually work out that way, but the guy did want to sell the house and I was ready to believe anyone who was older than me back then.
He also showed me the storm windows, which were outside in an ancient metal shed that looked at me, shrugged, and burped like old Uncle Fred. Its roof was destined to cave in the following year, but at the time, we thought both the storm windows and Uncle Fred were, well, cute.
When the first fall arrived, I placed the storm windows into the slots on the bottom of the hinged window, just like the previous owner had explained I should do. It immediately fell out.
“What keeps them in place?” The Lovely Marianne asked.
I stared at the storm window, lost for an answer.
“What?” she repeated. I was supposed to be born with this knowledge. I wasn’t.
I went to the hardware store in search of wisdom. The clerk, who looked like Gabby Hayes, handed me a box of rolled, grey putty and showed me how to peel out these long strings of the stuff. “Just press it around the edges with your fingers,” he said and nodded. “It’s easy.” I stared at him. “Easy,” he repeated and went on to do other things.
I returned home and shared my new knowledge with TLM. She watched me press putty for a while and then said, “We didn’t have to do that at our house when I was growing up?”
“Me either,” I said.
“My parents had real windows,” TLM said.
“Yes,” I said.
“We should get real windows,” TLM said.
“Do you want to spend the money?”
“Okay,” I said.
“That looks sloppy,” TLM said. “I don’t like the way you’re doing it.”
“We’ll close the shades,” I said.
“I hate it,” she said.
And yet, we’re still married. Go figure.
But the good news is that the putty did allow in enough fresh air to keep us reasonably healthy.
I think of those old windows as I read the news nowadays. These new, high-efficiency windows are incredibly good at keeping out the cold and also the harmful solar energy that might overheat your house. I saw that as a great thing, remembering this house in Colorado I had once visited. The owner had a gorgeous, south-facing view though what seemed like an acre of glass. It was lovely, but you could also bake bread in his great-room, which didn’t have an oven. The crazy-rich owner asked if I had any suggestions about the overheating. This was well before the high-efficiency windows showed up.
Oh, and the guy also had hydronic radiant tubing inside his concrete floors that was whining to me about all that unwanted sunlight.
“What do you think?” he said.
“It’s all very nice,” I said. “The view, I mean.”
“But it’s too hot,” he said. “Much too hot.”
“Yes,” I said.
So about those high-efficiency windows. The sun is going to keep burning until further notice and all that heat has to go somewhere if it’s not going to go into the modern home. But where will it go? Hmm.
Turns out it’s bouncing off those windows like solar basketballs and onto the neighbor’s vinyl siding, which then melts like ants under a kid’s magnifying glass. Or onto the plastic parts of the nearby cars, which also melt. Or worse, onto the lawn and the bushes right near the house. They don’t melt. They skip that phase and go directly to flame. And at a predictable time each day. Just ask the firefighters.
The window manufacturers say this is quite unusual, but it’s popping up in the news often enough to make it sound not so unusual. And that makes me think about how a problem can lead to a solution, which can then lead to a different problem, and a different solution, and so on.
The Romans were the first to use glass for windows. Did you know that? I read about that in a book. Most of their windows faced away from the streets. That was for security. But it didn’t help them in the long run. You can learn a lot from the Romans.
Oh, and they also used radiant-heating systems to warm their baths and the floors in their houses, just like the rich guy in Colorado. From what I read, though, nothing overheated the Romans’ houses, probably because they didn’t overdo it with acres of glass. And none of their windows set their bushes on fire. They had Mount Vesuvius for that. Let’s hear it for progress.
The TWA Hotel recently opened at JFK International Airport. They saved the gorgeous old TWA terminal and incorporated it into the design. You can stay in comfort at this hotel, even though it’s just a few feet from some of the busiest runways in the world because the engineer designed the sleeping room windows to have seven layers of glass. Yes, seven. He did this not to keep out the cold air, but to keep out the noise. He told me that a plane could crash right outside one of those sleeping rooms and no one would hear it.
They made other provisions for fresh air.
And isn’t that comforting?