Out of View 

Windowless apartments are cropping up across the city. Are they bad for you?

click to enlarge CHRIS MASON
  • Chris Mason

He had to act quickly. A 23-year-old English major from Chesapeake, Matt McCabe had been accepted to Virginia Commonwealth University late and there wasn't much time to find an apartment.

"We didn't really have any options written down," McCabe says of his first visit to Richmond, last summer with his mother. "There was a flyer for Coliseum Lofts. Free 32-inch flat screen TV if you apply on your first visit. I think it was $695 a month. That was rent, all utilities, cable that came with HBO. If you wanted to use the parking garage — that was extra."

But there was a catch: no windows. It didn't seem like that big of a deal at the time, McCabe recalls, and the apartment manager informed him that there were only a couple of units left. "We just kind of panicked. Not a lot questions were asked," McCabe says. "They gave us such a great deal."

Looking back, he didn't realize how much he needed windows. His apartment provided no natural light — no skylight, porthole, anything. "When the lights went out it was completely pitch black," says McCabe, who woke up for classes disoriented, unsure if it was morning or night. "Your whole sense of time was warped."

While he isn't sure whether it was the apartment or his personality — he's admittedly something of an introvert, a bit shy — but that first year he didn't make many friends and felt the other students in the complex weren't very friendly. After classes on Fridays, he routinely had his car packed and ready to head home for the weekend. He had to escape the darkness.

"I can kind of be neurotic and whatnot," he says. "There was no other choice but to be introspective and think about everything that's crossing through the mind. I felt a little dark sometimes."

In Richmond, hundreds of apartments have been built during the last few years without traditional windows. City planning officials don't keep track, so it's difficult to know for sure how many. But since 2007, the city's office of planning and community development has reviewed six apartment projects with windowless units that required special use permits. In those six projects, 232 apartments didn't include external windows.

The issue came to a head in late February, when the city's Planning Commission faced something it hadn't grappled with before. In a proposed development in Scott's Addition, on West Clay Street, just 42 of the 139 apartments, or 30 percent, included windows with external views. Two-thirds had no windows, which the planning office defines as penetrating "an exterior wall of the building." Against the planning staff's recommendation, the commission voted 7-1 to approve the project, which City Council ultimately passed. But it generated considerable consternation in the architectural community.

David Johannas, a well-known architect who was appointed to the Planning Commission this summer, had seen enough warehouses converted into windowless apartments that he reached out to other architects across the country for guidance. He posted a question on an online design forum run by the American Institute of Architects: "Do others agree with my perception that windowless, cookie cutter apartments are a form of substandard housing?"

The response was overwhelmingly yes. "In my opinion, other than prison cells, a windowless living unit is a totally unacceptable standard in this day and age," wrote Bob Mitchell, an architect in Anchorage, Alaska. Others concurred.

Good architectural design has always adhered to the idea that residential housing must meld with the outside world, Johannas says. "The topic of light and windows and views has always been a primary discussion in architectural design," he says. "There were some basic design precepts that we were taught: Connection to the outdoors is really important, that connectivity and transparency."

It isn't just about connecting with the outdoors. Natural light is also critical to human physiology, says Samer Hattar, an associate professor of biology in the department of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. Sunlight is critical to setting the internal body clock, and insufficient exposure to natural light has been linked to depression and memory loss, among other disorders. So much so that new prison construction — such as the city's new jail — are incorporating windows in cells because studies show they have a calming effect, and help with controlling behavior.

"I think it's essential to keep the windows because it keeps you adjusted to the natural solar day, which we depend on for our well-being," Hattar says. "Lower light input can cause SAD [seasonal affective disorder], depression; can lead to learning deficits. Clearly, light is very important."

Yet defining windows is tricky. Many of the so-called windowless projects the Planning Commission has approved include some form of natural light through skylights and atriums. Depending on the size of the skylights, they can provide as much or more natural light into an apartment as a traditional window.

Developer Tom Wilkinson, owner of the West Clay Street project, says he's been building apartments without external windows for years. His go-to architect, Walter Parks, incorporates a litany of skylights throughout the building. Glass-roofed hallways funnel light into the apartments with internal windows, creating what he refers to as an "internal streetscape."

On a recent tour of an apartment project off Commerce Road, the Hopper Paper Lofts, Wilkinson and Parks contend that the units without external windows let in more natural light through large skylights, atriums and glass roofing. One apartment without external windows includes a skylight that measures about 25 feet by 9 feet. Even on an overcast morning, light floods the unit.

"The cool thing is you create kind of dynamic spaces that you don't ordinarily get," Parks says. "We make better spaces that are better to live in, internally, than a lot of the ones with a traditional window."

While they lack views to the outside, Parks says it makes little difference in an industrial area such as Manchester. "You don't have that if you have a window to the outside," he says. "I'm looking out across the street to another building."

What about the inability to open a window for fresh air? Parks says the windowless apartments are well-ventilated, and people don't open windows like they used to. "I don't ever open a window in my house," Parks says. Wilkinson echoes him: "We have two houses … and we don't ever open the windows."

But some people are concerned about long-term marketability. The city's apartment boom of the last few years is well-documented. With the growth of VCU — 32,000 students and counting — and the housing collapse of 2008, the demand for rental property in the Richmond area is as strong as it's ever been. With the lure of state and federal historic tax credits, which often are sold to help finance the projects, developers have been converting industrial buildings into loft apartments in places such as Manchester, Scott's Addition and Shockoe Bottom to meet the demand.

The real issue, says landscape architect Doug Cole, the lone member of the Planning Commission who voted against the Clay Street project, is what happens when the market turns. When renters have a choice, will they chose windowless apartments?

"Either we are going to be the most trendy, hippest city in the country, or we are creating a disaster," Cole says. "One of the two will happen, but I don't know which."

Mark Olinger, director of planning and development review for the city, also is concerned about the long-term sustainability of neighborhoods with a proliferation of windowless apartments. "How deep and how broad is the market for a windowless unit?" he asks. "It's not about the first occupant of that space, but the third, fourth or fifth occupant of that space. The questions is, When you're lease is up, do you renew?"

For McCabe, the VCU student, the answer is a resounding no. After his lease was up at Coliseum Lofts, he opted for something different. He found an apartment off West Franklin Street, and this one has five windows.

"Just the apartment building alone: The people just seem to be more friendly and open. I can wake up and I'm not completely disoriented. Morning and evening mean something to me now," he says. "I can't begin to describe how much happier I am." S

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