Windows on the Soul: Let the Light Shine In


Lets talk about windows.  Let’s talk about light.


Christopher Alexander explored building design by looking for patterns in existing building styles, and he stresses the importance of natural light – eastern light – in the house, and particularly in bedrooms.  Pattern 138 in his A Pattern Language is “Sleeping to the East.”  Having access to the sunrise allows us to wake more naturally and increases the likelihood that we can wake up in the right part of the sleep cycle.  Also sleeping where you can see the outside allows you to condition your sense of the day.

A human scale (and beautiful) window in the Purcell Cutts house, Minneapolis, MN

A human scale (and beautiful) window in the Purcell Cutts house, Minneapolis, MN, 1913. The opposite of plate glass.

“A good morning window looks out on some kind of constant object or growing thing, which reflects the changes of season and the weather, and allows a person to establish the mood of the day as soon as he wakes up.”

Windows connect us to the natural world while we are inside (where we spend most of every day unless we lead very unusual lives).  In the living memory of our parents and grandparents, every room had natural light and operable windows.  Before electricity was common and cheap, building design demanded that windows illuminate every space.  Wooden and brick buildings needed tall, narrow windows at regular intervals so buildings could structurally transfer the load of the upper stories to the ground.  The result was uniform … but it worked.  Older buildings connect powerfully with our humanity but we don’t build this way anymore. Here’s why.


In the last 70 years, new technology in building materials – steel and glass – has done away with many of these conventions.  We are able to design horizontal glass bands which play with our sense of reality; we can make buildings appear to hover off the ground.

Cheap electric lights and powerful forced air ventilation systems allow us to create larger and larger buildings with rooms that have no access to daylight.  We have developed curtain wall systems – entire buildings covered in glass – but  no actual windows.  In residential design every house must include its great room with walls of glass.  But instead of bringing us closer to the world outside — such walls make us  feel both hermetically sealed and over exposed.


A window is more than a transparent part of the wall.  We need operable windows to connect with all five senses.  Sure you can see out a sheet of plate glass.  But when you fling open a casement window and lean out of it — you can feel the wind on your face, smell the air, hear what’s happening outside and taste a hint of what the neighbors are planning for dinner.


Build up a large view using several smaller windows rather than one large one.  This is my desk at our Whole Trees office.

Build up a large view using several smaller windows rather than one large one. Christopher Alexander states that small panes allow us to connect more intensely with the view out the window. This is my desk at our Whole Trees office.

In Home from Nowhere, James Kunstler points out that humans like to anthropomorphize the objects of everyday life.  The classic house shape, with central door and symmetrical, upright windows (as depicted in every four-year-old’s drawing of “house”) looks cheerful and face like.  Also, “vertical windows frame the standing human figure.  They represent the idea of people standing erect inside the house.”

Horizontal windows on the other hand, suggest the idea that “the inhabitants are either sleeping, having sex, or dead.”  This is hardly an appealing way to visualize one’s neighbors.  We’ve forgotten the importance of how window size, shape and placement affects the way our homes contribute to the social fabric outside the front door.


I am fortunate to have a work space set up in front of a bank of windows which allows me to stay in touch with the weather and the world outside.  I may have a “desk job” but I don’t have to be separated from nature while I do it.

Likewise, although I live on the third floor of an apartment building in a city, and my eastern window fronts an alley, I’ve arranged my bed such that I  can see a maple tree a few blocks away over the intervening rooftops.  Watching the outline of that tree, which I can see even without my glasses, gives me a sense of peace every morning when I wake up and each night when I turn in.  And a few nights each month I get to fall asleep by moonlight.

Of course windows let in and out a lot more than light.  I’ll talk about the thermal properties of windows in a future post.

a view with a tree

My maple tree view - and the full moon shining in.

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