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Green Building News

A Room With a View — But Who Cares?

New York buildings with all-glass facades aren't very efficient — and the spectacular views are mostly obscured by blinds

Glass curtain walls mean great views, but a limited study of New York buildings finds more than half the windows of buildings with all-glass facades remain covered by blinds or curtains.
Image Credit: Christopher Chappelear

Apartment and condo dwellers in New York City pay extra for great views, with rents typically rising just as quickly as the elevator. But a study by the Urban Green Council in New York reveals that most of this high-price glass is usually covered up.

Night and day, residential or commercial building, and regardless of the window’s orientation, well over half the total window area is obscured.

“While the environmental downside of all-glass buildings is well documented in the green building community, we set out to answer a different question: what is the behavior of tenants in NYC who live and work in the all-glass residences and offices with those breathtaking views?” says the council’s report. “We looked at dozens of all-glass buildings and found that on average, blinds or shades covered about 59% of the window area. Tenants are moving into these rooms with a view, but more often than not, can’t see out the windows.”

Patterns did not follow assumptions

Researchers photographed 55 buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens over a three-month period in 2012. The properties included 18 commercial and 37 residential buildings. With more than 100 photos in hand, researchers then measured the fraction of each window covered by blinds or shades.

Here are some of their findings:

  • More than three-quarters of the buildings had more than half of their window area covered by blinds or shades.
  • Tenants don’t seem to use blinds and shades to block strong morning and afternoon sun. That is, in the morning, slightly more window area on the western side of the buildings was covered, and in the afternoon, slightly more east-facing windows were covered — exactly the opposite of what might be expected.
  • Patterns seemed roughly the same no matter which direction the windows faced, and there was “no appreciable difference” between commercial and residential buildings.
  • The use of blinds and shades didn’t seem to increase at night.

“This suggests glare may not be the reason blinds are widely in use,” the council says. “Perhaps it’s privacy, the inconvenience of raising them once they are lowered, or some other cause.”

Environmental price tag is very high

If the only downside was the amount of money tenants waste by not taking advantage of the views they pay for, there might not be much to squawk about. It is, after all, their money.

But walls of glass are extremely poor thermal insulators, leading to a variety of ill effects on society as a whole, the Urban Green Council says. Among them: higher energy costs, increased power requirements, more carbon pollution that contributes to global climate change, and more air pollution. Because windows last 50 years or more, those problems are extremely long lasting.

“Tenants also experience drawbacks from large windows,” the report concludes, “including less privacy, more noise, and an increased risk of dangerous indoor temperatures during a blackout.”

The Council made two suggestions. First, professional who design buildings should collaborate on ways to maintain great views while solving energy and comfort issues. Using fiberglass frames, for example, rather than more conductive aluminum would save energy. Insulating the lower two or three feet of outside walls would still provide plenty of natural light but also cut down on energy losses.

Second, the council said brokers should make sure that tenants understand the “full implications” of living in a building with lots of glass. “That way,” the council says, “prospective tenants can make decisions with a clear understanding of what’s in store before they move in.”


  1. user-741168 | | #1

    maximum glazing area?
    I'm surprised to see no mention of 2012 IECC C402.3.1 which limits vertical fenestration to 30% of the gross above-grade wall area. I understand that many curtain walls went in before IECC, but it seems many new buildings are full curtain wall. What gives? I also understand that an architect will bend over backwards to specify a commercial system--that way the vendor owns any future problems and the architect is off the hook for the wall assembly performance.

  2. jackofalltrades777 | | #2

    Triple Pane Glazing
    Another option that would help tremendously with cutting down on utility costs and overall green house emissions to heat and cool these all-glass high-rise facades is the use of energy efficient triple pane windows. Intus Windows is used in many residential applications but they are also used in commercial applications. A typical double pane window has an R-Value of R-3 but with a triple pane window one can achieve an R-7. They also have glazing options with a low SHGC of <0.26 so overheating the floor areas would not be a problem. The residential windows Intus manufacturers have a DP50-70 rating that would work for a commercial application. Plus they just came out with a Blast Proof - Class 2 - GSA certification for the Intus uPVC triple pane window. This would allow the window to be used in government and commercial buildings that require that certification.

    There is only so much energy efficiency that they can get out of a double pane window so I believe going to a well-built and highly energy efficient triple pane window would be a great option for these types of buildings. This option still allows one to have the views but doesn't sacrifice on the energy standpoint.

  3. user-1075337 | | #3

    modernist zombies
    Thanks for posting this. I am a "non-traditional" (read: old) graduate student in architecture with a background in high performance residential design. In the academic context, whenever I bring up the idea of reducing glazing percentages for any design project, the "people want views" argument is immediate and presented with a tone of finality. There is never any documentation given as to which people and why it takes a fully glazed curtain wall to create a if there were no good views from buildings before 1950. In fact the rejoinder is so fast and so verbatim the same that I have come to label this the "modernist zombie" response.

  4. jackiew | | #4

    not just in new york city
    workiing on the 37th floor of a building in Melbourne a lot of people would leave their blinds down. the view was absolutely fabulous but the layout of the offiices meant that accessing the cords for the blinds often required one to crawl under the desk and then not look down as one stood pressed up against the glass. we found that the heat through the windows would melt chocolate left in metal under desk filing cabinets.

    just for practicality i don't see the benefit in having floor to ceiling windows as it severely limits furniture placement.

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