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A Cure for Cabin Fever

Jan 01, 2018 02:09PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

One of the most significant factors in the design of a home—often overlooked—is window placement. Windows are placed for a variety of reasons: to establish symmetry on the front of a house, to ventilate bathrooms and to provide emergency egress out of bedrooms, but in my opinion, to let in natural light is the most important. And this time of year as cabin fever sets in, it is essential.

A recent study tracking eye movement across architectural buildings found that people fixate their eyes on windows more than any other feature on houses. This is partially because windows add variety of detail to a blank wall; something to look at. However, windows also draw our attention for another reason hardwired in our evolutionary history as social creatures—we look at them searching for people, curious about the activity going on inside.

This might explain why houses are often found with window coverings drawn closed ; we want our houses to have street appeal with lots of windows to look at, just not looking glasses to look through, invading our privacy. This also explains why the rooms on the front of our houses are no longer used, with all of the activity drawn to the back of the house where windows are more likely without coverings.

As an architect, this aspect of windows—how they affect the use of a space—drives my decisions on window placement when designing a home. Builders are less inclined to consider such things. Since windows are one of the more costly items in construction, they are typically kept to a minimum. Yet the lack of windows, choking out daylight, is really felt during winter months. Shut in to escape the cold, we become closed off from sunlight already in short supply.

With drapes and blinds drawn closed or worse, no windows at all in an interior room, all connection to the natural world is lost. It is no wonder so many feel down, sluggish, irritable. Being trapped in a room without natural light, fresh air or the sounds outdoors goes against our very fiber as living beings. Our body and mind depend on interaction for survival; we literally cannot live without it. And with our need for sunlight, our houses must maximize what little sunlight escapes overcast skies during the winter season.

Historically, the first windows to appear on the ancient houses of our ancestors were on the roof, not the walls. They were windows to the sky, where the sun is found. These openings also provided a place for smoke to escape from fires used for heat, light and cooking. These things have been lost on our homes today. Windows are more about a view out than letting sunlight in. And active fireplaces are nearly extinct.

What are the consequences of such changes? Did early humans have cabin fever or is this a modern-day affliction, developing when windows disappeared from the roof? Single-room log cabins on the frontier often had porthole-sized windows, and an abundance of light was scarce. Interiors were cramped and dimly lit by the flickers of firelight, shadows filling recesses of corners and minds.

It is no wonder the bay window came about, projecting out from the walls, invading the outside, offering panoramic views of the wide open landscape. Window seats placed within these nooks surrounded by windows on all sides were all the rage at the turn of the century. But by mid-century, the frugality of war years soon found bay windows pulled in, sides angled, views narrowed. Seats no longer fit; functionality was gone, relegated to nostalgia.

Imagine if bay windows were inverted... projecting inside the house, instead of out. A place for a bird to land, maybe even nest. Nature brought into our daily lives. What if our interior spaces became the panoramic view, our homes became the landscape. If the creatures outside got a glimpse of interior life, what changes might come? Would they understand us better, appreciate why we left them and retreated inside? Maybe a dialog would return.

If the shorter days of winter have got you down, consider pulling open the window blinds. Better yet—take them down altogether. If you catch a neighbor looking in, give them a smile and a wave; the old-school social interaction will be refreshing. Put a match to the logs in the fireplace, the natural scents and sounds will bring to life senses dormant far too long. Some time spent sitting next to an open window fireside warms the bones and spirit.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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