Developers have built thousands of windowless bedrooms in Austin. Now, the city may outlaw them.

University students, along with professors, have advocated for this change, arguing that living in bedrooms without windows is unhealthy.

By Audrey McGlinchy, KUT NewsApril 17, 2024 10:30 am, ,

From KUT News:

For two decades, UT Austin professor Juan Miró has given his undergraduate architecture students an assignment: Draw the window in your bedroom. The task for a class called “Architectural Detailing and Materials,” Miró says, is to get students thinking about the details of a room. The dimensions. The window. The windowsill.

When Miró gave this assignment in January 2022, several students raised their hands. They told him they couldn’t complete it. They didn’t have a bedroom window to draw.

“I said, ‘What do you mean? That’s impossible. That’s illegal,’” Miró recalls.

It’s not illegal. Not in Austin. Building codes adopted by the city do not require natural light in apartment bedrooms, and developers have been designing and constructing windowless bedrooms since at least 2002. The majority of these rooms appear to be in student housing, tucked into buildings throughout West Campus, the neighborhood immediately west of the university.

“Windows should be a human right,” Miró says, arguing that the health benefits of natural light should outweigh the need for more student housing. “A lot of students went through the pandemic in those windowless rooms. … They were telling me, ‘It’s horrible.’”

Now after years of advocacy by students and professors, including Miró, elected officials in Austin are set to prohibit bedrooms without windows in new developments.

The beginning of windowless bedrooms

The path that led developers to windowless bedrooms begins with fire and ends with light. In order to regulate health and safety in buildings, cities across the country adopted the International Building Code which governs, in part, the design of apartments.

One of the main concerns of the IBC guidelines is to protect people from dying in building fires. For a long time, developers had to build windows in bedrooms to ensure someone could use it as a point of exit; you could open your window and escape a fire, for example. But once developers started building sprinkler systems in tall buildings, they were no longer required to include windows as a means of exit.

Renee Dominguez / KUT News

Juan Miró, an architecture professor at UT Austin, advocated for the city to prohibit bedrooms without windows.

Which brings us to light. The building code requires that rooms where people sleep have some form of natural or artificial light. The word “or” provides an out. Developers don’t always need to provide natural light. Municipalities can tweak these rules when they adopt the code, tailoring it to the needs of their city — but Austin has left this section alone. Other cities, like New York and Chicago, have their own laws or codes requiring windows and natural light in bedrooms.

At least two decades ago, developers working in Austin realized they weren’t required to install windows in apartment bedrooms. If bedrooms don’t require windows, they don’t need exterior walls. That meant developers could build more bedrooms and build them more cheaply. KUT reached out to half a dozen developers that have built windowless bedrooms in Austin, but did not hear back.

In West Campus, property managers charge per bedroom instead of per apartment. Building more bedrooms means more money. Suddenly, with so many windowless bedrooms, windows became an amenity; it’s common in student housing for management companies to charge more for a bedroom with a window.

In the building where Julia Mahavier lives, students pay a $15 monthly fee to have a window. But when the senior journalism major from San Antonio looked into renting a room there, she was told no bedrooms with windows were available. (Her room does include a narrow window that looks out on a hallway.)

“I did not know that windowless bedrooms were a thing [before coming to UT],” Mahavier said. “It never crossed my mind.”

Mahavier first lived in a windowless bedroom her sophomore year. She found the lack of natural light depressing and vowed to not do it again. But this year Mahavier, who qualifies for cheaper housing because she receives need-based financial aid, was told the only bedroom available to her was one without a window. She pays nearly $1,100 a month, plus fees, for the room.

Renee Dominguez / KUT News

Mahavier's bedroom in West Campus does have a small window, but it looks out onto a hallway and provides little natural light.

Mahavier says she often feels disconnected from the outside world when she’s in her room.

“Looking over at the clock I can tell what time it is but I can’t see what time it is,” she said. “I don’t know what the weather is. I don’t know what it looks like outside.”

It’s unclear how many bedrooms without windows there are in Austin. In 2022, Miró employed a student to help him calculate this number, and they identified nearly 1,200 windowless bedrooms at six apartment buildings in West Campus. But their list is far from complete. For one, it doesn’t include Mahavier’s buildingMiró estimates the true number of windowless bedrooms is closer to 6,000.

Renee Dominguez / KUT News

Villas on Rio is one of the buildings that includes windowless bedrooms, according to an analysis by Miró and a student.

The health impacts of windowless bedrooms

In 2021, the University of California at Santa Barbara announced it would be building a new dorm designed by an ultra-wealthy donor. Nearly all the bedrooms would be windowless. Almost immediately, there was public outcry.

Austin City Council Member Zo Qadri, whose district includes UT Austin, remembers hearing this story and recoiling at the idea of living in a windowless bedroom. His younger sisters, he said, had lived in windowless bedrooms while students at UT Austin. One of them still does. Qadri says she sometimes asks to stay at his apartment.

“Just so she can have a place with a window,” he said. “I think it really does affect the mental being and mental stress of being a student.”

Numerous studies prove the benefits of living in a room with a window to the outside. Natural light helps people feel more alert and less depressed, and regulates circadian rhythm.

“My body had no idea what time it was. I was always tired. I was very irritable,” said Roosh Bhosale, a former UT Austin student who lived in a windowless bedroom during the pandemic.

Bhosale attributes these depressive symptoms to being stuck inside his room for hours a day. He decided to devote his senior year to studying the mental health impacts of windowless bedrooms on students. As he worked on his thesis, UC Santa Barbara announced it would not move forward with building the windowless dorm.

In September, Qadri and his colleagues passed a resolution asking staff to look at outlawing windowless bedrooms, with at least one major exception. The change does not require that windows face the outdoors and lets developers use what’s called “borrowed light”. Borrowed light refers to natural light from another room. Developers would be able to build a bedroom window that looks out onto a living room or hallway with natural light, therefore “borrowing” that light from elsewhere.

This does not sit well with Bhosale.

“The term ‘borrowed light’ feels exploitative. Why can’t we just have light? Why can’t we just have natural light in bedrooms?” he said.

Renee Dominguez / KUT News

Mahavier has started sleeping in her former roommate's bedroom, since it has a window.

During her final weeks in college, Mahavier has found a way to access a bedroom window. A couple weeks ago, a roommate moved out. While normally a property manager would have locked the bedroom door, Mahavier says, no one did. About a week ago, the journalism major grabbed her bedding and her alarm clock and moved into the room with a window.

On a sunny day last week, light poured into her adopted bedroom.

“It’s so nice,” Mahavier said, gesturing to the window from which she could see fellow students walking to and from class. “I love it so much.”

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