Nov 18, 2021
Fake windows are an architectural placebo. An enormous windowless dorm relying on fake windows in every bedroom, proposed for 4,600 students at UC Santa Barbara, designed and funded billionaire Charlie Munger, created a national furor this past November. Flat screen TVs mounted high above each bed are used to create an illusion that there might be sunlight flowing through a window.
However, these fake windows are not really there as a placebo for the student residents. Rather they are a placebo for the campus administrators and the UC Regents, helping them ‘feel better’ about the untested design, without providing any actual benefits. Indeed, fake windows may be worse than a placebo, in that they could cause actual harm, as discussed below.
There are many deeply disturbing elements to the design of this massive building; for example, its complete reliance on mechanical ventilation even after the recent pandemic showed the value of naturally ventilated buildings, or its long, soul-sucking hallways leading to identical clusters of prefabricated rooms. However, underlying all those other problems is the assertion that fake windows are a sufficient substitute for the real thing. It is this faith in an unproven technology which enabled campus administrators to green-light the project last month. This is because once a need for windows in a building is eliminated, exterior walls can be minimized, and hundreds of individual rooms can be packed together like sardines into a giant square building, resulting in dubious cost efficiencies per square foot. As Munger explained to Bloomberg News: “It’s a game of tradeoffs…If you build a big square building, everything is conveniently near to everybody in the building. If you maximize the [day]light, you get fewer people in the building.” We can see why financial minds might find this appealing.
Others might argue: “Students are supposed to sleep in their dorm rooms, so shouldn’t it be dark there anyway? Why waste money on windows?” Yes, darkness at night does help us to sleep better. Instead, please consider all that other time students spend in their dorm rooms—studying, socializing, and especially during those gentle transition times into and out of sleep—when windows provide their essential benefits.
It is important to recognize that windows don’t have only one simple function. Rather, it is the complexity of their functions that makes them so essential. By offering reliable daylight illumination and views to the outdoors, windows provide the primary cues for our biological clocks, helping us stay healthy and in sync with the planet and other people around us. In addition, a well-designed window may also provide some welcome beams of sunlight and a place to grow plants on a window sill. Recent research shows that rooms with sunlight and/or living plants are likely to have healthier indoor air and fewer pathogens. Likewise natural ventilation from an open window can reduce the unhealthy microbes in a room. And windows provide easy communication with the world outside, letting in the reassuring sounds of birds and human activity outside, and simultaneously enabling students to express themselves outwardly, such as posting decorations or celebratory signs for others to see. How sad it would be to live in a dorm with none of those options.
If, however, you believe that the sole purpose of a window is to provide daylight illumination, it may seem plausible that a simple light box mounted on your bedroom wall might be an acceptable substitute for a real window. Most of us now understand that when our biological clock, a.k.a. our circadian system, gets out of whack, such as with jet travel or shift work, we can experience the common symptoms of jet lag: fatigue and hunger at odd times, sluggish mental and physical response. Indeed, ‘Light box therapy’ proliferated in the 1980s and 90s, after it was shown that seasonal depression, called SAD or seasonal affective disorder, could be successfully treated with exposure to ‘bright light’ at the right time of the day.
Circadian Science is Rapidly Evolving
However, in the past 40 years we have learned much more about circadian biology. Now, with the advent of DNA sequencing and genomics, scientists are learning vastly more about how the light of day and the darkness of night interact with our health. Studies have shown that routine circadian disruption can result long term health effects. Molecular clocks, which exist in every cell in our body, regulate basic metabolic and hormonal functions. So far, over 30 chronic diseases have been associated with circadian disruption, caused by repeated exposure to unnatural patterns of light and dark. While most people are now learning about the perils of exposure to blue light at night, new wavelengths are also coming under investigation. Beyond the rods and cones of our visual system, many other types of light sensors (protein molecules called opsins) have been found within our eyes, brain, skin and other tissues. The many communication pathways and interactions are just beginning to be unraveled. Hold onto your hats: it’s going to be a wild ride while we learn more.
Thus, it is presumptuous for anyone at this point to prescribe the ideal technological replacement for natural patterns of daylight and darkness. The field is simply evolving too rapidly. It is even more presumptuous to assume that adolescent college students would know how to correctly administer light therapy for themselves; or comply with any recommended healthy practices.
After the national furor over his dorm design erupted, Charlie Munger’s logic for the fake windows was explained in an interview published in Architectural Record: “Once he decided that every student would have a single room, he realized, ‘We had a window shortage. So we just copied what Disney Cruises did. The way Disney does it, the window is really a television set. Those work beautifully on the ships. But I wanted to have a spectrum of sunlight, so with a curtain hanging over it you couldn’t tell if it was artificial or real. I figured out how to do that. Programming the lights to copy the sun was too expensive. So we will give the students knobs, and they can have whatever light they want. Real windows don’t do that.’”
Yes, he’s right. Real windows don’t do that. Instead, the brightness and color spectrum of illumination provided by real windows closely tracks that of the sun as it progresses from dawn through mid-day to dusk. And our circadian system is carefully tuned to track that progression. Even while we are asleep, with our eyelids closed, extremely sensitive receptors in our eyes note subtle changes in the light levels and color quality. These sensors then send a message to the control centers in the brain that help prepare the rest of our metabolism for daytime activities. This is a process, not a switch. And thus, it takes some time. Timing is everything for circadian health.
Can you imagine giving student’s ‘knobs’, so they can tune the brightness of their artificial windows however they want? Such individual control would defeat any circadian benefit to be expected. There would be no natural rhythm. First you need to wake up, then remember to turn on your artificial sunlight. A knowledgeable and conscientious student might try to imitate sunlight’s progression, but it would be easy to forget, and hard to tune it just so. Other teenagers, sleeping in until noon and studying or socializing late into the night, might turn their fake windows on, or off, at any time of the day or night, using them just like any other popular stimulant—such as coffee, RedBull or Ritalin.
Fake windows may indeed create an illusion of daylight. It is fairly easy to trick our visual system, as we know from the study of optical illusions. Our brains are quick to interpret new information according to the simplest default assumptions, such as “bright glowing curtains are usually in front of windows.” But, as explained by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow, quickly perceived illusions eventually lose their hold as more logical brain functions start to understand the illogical implications.
Thus, it is unlikely that fake windows hidden behind a gauzy curtain will be used correctly, or that they will retain much long-term appeal for undergraduates. But, of course, we don’t know, because no one has studied how teenagers would actually use such a technology. Neither has any one has studied the long-term effects of living in a windowless bedroom with a fake window. Should thousands of UCSB students be the experimental subjects for such a long-term study?
Illusions, but No Benefits, with ‘Technological Nature’
Short term exposure to artificial windows was studied in a famous series of experiments by Peter Kahn, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, as detailed in his book Technological Nature. In one study, he compared seven people’s response to working in their regular windowless office to working the same room fitted out with a large plasma TV screen that could function as an artificial window, connected to a webcam mounted outside the building. Participants could turn it on or off at will. (Please do note, the artificial windows in this study were not just a source of light, but also provided a meaningful live image.) After 6 weeks, the TV screens were removed. All seven participants subsequently reported they liked the screens and missed them, and that they would certainly recommend one if a co-worker was assigned to work in a windowless office. So clearly, they preferred a webcam fake window to no window at all.
In another study, Kahn recruited 90 undergraduates and had them do standard office work for an hour and a half in a test room, and also take a series of cognitive and physiological tests. The test room had a real window looking out onto the campus grounds, but only 1/3 of the group got to experience it. For 1/3 of the group, the window wall was completely covered with an opaque curtain, and for the other 1/3, the window was covered over by the same type of TV screen as the previous study, showing a live webcam image of real window’s exterior view. Kahn found that the real window was effective in improving performance and reducing physiological stress indicators, but the fake window was no better than the blank wall.
Kahn’s conclusion from these studies, and from many others that he has done examining our relationship to technological substitutes for nature (such as robotic pet dogs), is that given the choice between nothing and something, people will always prefer something over nothing. But when comparing the difference between our interactions with real nature and ‘technological nature’, real nature provides measurably more physiological, psychological and cognitive benefits. For example, Kahn and team found that the students’ heart rate decreased most rapidly while looking at the real view, indicating a reduction in stress levels. In addition, they also found that the students spent 27% more time looking out the real window, compared to watching the webcam. Thus, the real window provided both a greater magnitude of benefits and for a longer duration.
As a precautionary principal when considering technological substitutions for nature, Peter Kahn quotes Jerad Diamond from Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: “New technologies, whether they succeed in solving the problem that they were designed to solve, regularly create unanticipated new problems.”
While it may be easy to fool our visual system with cheap illusions, it is not so easy, or wise, to fool our circadian system. We do know that humans, and all life forms, are supremely well adapted to living under the natural regime of daylight and darkness. These adaptations can be found in the genetic mechanisms throughout every cell in our body. We have ample and growing evidence of windows’ benefits, in health care, education, homes and offices. We should be seeking every opportunity to increase people’s access to windows in their daily lives, not designing buildings that will deny such access for decades to come.
Alternatively, maybe 97-year-old Charlie Munger is simply way ahead of his time? In a post discussing the Munger Hall proposal, Ian Ashdown, inventor and recipient of the 2017 IES Medal, the highest honor of the Illuminating Engineering Society, quipped: “Perhaps Charlie Munger is forward-thinking, believing that by the time the building is completed, every student will be wearing Meta VR (virtual reality) goggles 24/7 and not even realize that there is a physical world to be experienced.” In which case, why would they need to be in Santa Barbara? Maybe designing campus housing for the real world, the planet we live on, is just so passé, so 20th century?
Let’s hope the UC Regents eventually see the light, per the university’s motto Fiat Lux, and listen to their own biologists instead of their billionaire donors.
Nov 18, 2021