City allows windowless apartment units to be built

John Sewell –

The best place to do something bone-headed and stupid is in  a very public place so members of the public think it must be right given it is so visible.

And if you do it over and over and over, everyone will come to think this is the way things are done.

That’s the story behind the windowless bedroom. Condo developers have dreamed up this marvelous invention of a room you can sleep in that does not have a window, no njohn1atural light or air, no access to the outside world.

This is the same kind of bedroom which infested tenement buildings in London, New York and Paris in the 19th century. They were such dismal unhealthy spaces that public-health workers put on much pressure to create rules to prevent such air-locked spaces from being built and lived in. By the end of the 19th century windowless bedrooms were a thing of the past.

But now, more than 100 years later, as we enter a new century, they’re back. In spades. Virtually every new condo development contains a good share of windowless units, mostly in the one bedrooms. Go to your local condo sales office and look for yourself.

Pay close attention to the floor plans for the units. Often the bedroom is separated by a wall that reaches up half a metre from the ceiling—not even a fully contained room—to allow for whatever limited air circulation might occur.

I asked a prominent Toronto architect about such units and whether they could be stopped. “There are thousands and thousands of them,” he said, and he looked askance at my thought that there is any chance of preventing more of them from being built.

A friend told me of a new 9-storey building on College Street just approved by the Toronto East York Community Council, with retail at grade and residential above.

There would be a total of 77 units, of which 49 one bedroom units are without windows—units that are all long thin boxes three metres wide and 14 metres deep. “It’s like living in a big shipping container,” she said.

Windowless units are authorized by a section of the Ontario Building Code (9.32.2) which says that if there are systems in place for reasonable air circulation, then windows are not required in bedrooms or dens. It says nothing about human need for natural light or air—issues that are guaranteed in European building codes. In Germany, there are requirements that office space must be designed to have reasonable access to natural light since people need natural light—including access to sunlight—to stay healthy.  Living in spaces devoid of natural light is unhealthy.

And when there’s a power failure, which seems to be at least once a year, there’s no workable ventilation system (let alone elevator) to bring whatever fresh air might be offered to these spaces.  And no natural light.

But there’s a good market for windowless units, which is why the developers build them. They are cheaper to build and therefore more affordable, even if they are not good for health. Permitting unhealthy units to be built and sold is much the same as allowing spoiled, tainted meat to be sold. It is cheaper and thus affordable to people who can’t afford the healthy stuff. We don’t allow such meat in the market, but we do allow such windowless units to be built and sold.

The absurdity is that in the suburbs we allow houses to be built at such low densities that transit doesn’t work efficiently and there are not enough people to support corner stores close enough to be accessed on foot. Then in our Downtown we think it’s so important to crowd in more housing that we allow a tsunami of big towers with bedrooms having no access to the open air.

Time for change, I say. Toronto needs its own William Blake who can write about these dismal spaces as Blake did about London in his poem Holy Thursday:

And their sun does never shine

And their fields are bleak & bare

And their ways are filled with thorns

It is eternal winter there

johnNeither city council nor city staff have addressed this issue by challenging the permissions which are implied in the Ontario Building Code as it now stands. That’s the first step needed to build a healthy city.

John Sewell is a former Mayor of Toronto

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One comment

  1. Having just read your article, I would like to comment on your assertion that, in reference to bedrooms, “Windowless units are authorized by a section of the Ontario Building Code (9.32.2)………” While it is true that mechanical ventilation may replace an exterior window, there is also an OBC requirement that bedrooms are required to have natural light (OBC – 9.7.2.3. “Minimum Window Areas”). This natural light can be sourced from a window in the exterior wall of the bedroom, but may be borrowed from other spaces, under specific circumstances referenced in OBC 9.5.1.4. – “Combination Rooms”, and as further described by Appendix “A” in Volume 2 of the OBC.

    From your review of a number of condo developments you have noted that “Often the bedroom is separated by a wall that reaches up half a metre from the ceiling…..” These could be instances of bedrooms being part of a combined space, utilizing the exterior window(s) in the adjacent space to obtain the required natural light.

    Gord Vis C.E.T., M.A.A.T.O., CBCO
    Building Plan Examiner

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