Pandemics and Economics #8

Open Windows in Winter: Bug or Feature?

Pandemics and History Episode #8: “Open Windows in Winter: Bug or Feature?”

The last installment focused on legacies of infection that remain in our architecture, including designs emphasizing light and air flow, once required to contain and treat tuberculosis and slow the spread of influenza. We heard a contemporary plea for the building industry to reconsider some renovation, including enhanced ventilation, as public health measures. This week, we return to air flow.

For decades, over-heating with radiators was treated as a problem to be overcome, both for the comfort of those living and working in those spaces and for energy conservation. Urban Green Council’s 2018 “Open Window Study,” for example, asked New Yorkers to help them to help “understand the magnitude of the problem,” by submitting data regarding open windows when it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit or colder.

Then Covid-19 hit, prompting renewed focus on air exchange. Some remembered earlier generations’ habit of leaving windows open in heated spaces, while historians pointed out public campaigns from early in the 20th Century, advising: “Keep your bedroom windows open! Prevent influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.”

Many news items of 2020 referenced engineer Dan Holohan’s studies of steam heat, indicating that installing radiators directly under windows, far from a haphazard choice, was a deliberate building practice to promote air flow for health purposes (see, e.g., NPR’s story).

Over the years, however, changes in building materials helped reduce heat loss in new construction, and many older buildings replaced single pane glass with more insulated windows.

As artificial air conditioning became more affordable, building features promoting natural ventilation became less necessary. Ideas about what was necessary for health also changed.

Efficient and Flexible

Describing hospital design in the mid-20th Century, architectural historian Jeanne Kisacky writes:

Catchwords changed from “light” and “air” to “efficiency” and “flexibility.”…By the 1950s, with the advent of antibiotics and improved aseptic practices, the medical establishment also believed that patient healthiness could be maintained regardless of room design. Some doctors even preferred the total environmental control offered by air conditioning, central heating, and electric lighting.” The result, Kisacky adds, was “efficient, inhuman, and monotonous buildings, …a tool to facilitate medicine rather than a therapy in itself.
— “When Fresh Air Went Out of Fashion”

The result, Kisacky adds, was “efficient, inhuman, and monotonous buildings, …a tool to facilitate medicine rather than a therapy in itself.”

Similarly, “efficient” and “flexible” became key words for residential and commercial spaces and for designs like open-plan schools. As the influenza pandemic of receded into memory, radiators designed to overheat as part of an air-exchange system became relics, while opening windows during the winter was eventually seen as a quaint old habit or a symptom of energy loss to be rectified.

With the current pandemic, previous assumptions about ventilation and what is required for healthy buildings are being re-evaluated.

Infection and White Supremacy (Chicago 1917-1921)

Meanwhile, the shift from “light and air” to “efficiency and flexibility” as favored conditions for disease avoidance has been intertwined with the workings of white supremacist policies in this country.

As it happened, Black areas of Chicago and some other cities experienced notably lower infection rates during the 1918 flu outbreak than did white neighborhoods. Still, white papers, like the Chicago Tribune, spoke of Black migration from the South with “words like swarm, explosion, rush, and invasion.” Tribune articles suggested that “contact would expose whites to communicable disease and contamination by African Americans’ supposed dirtiness, laziness and illiteracy,” writes historian Elizabeth Shlabach in a 2019 study of Black and white newspapers in the period between 1917 and 1921.

She continues:

The articles also positioned African Americans as a political threat. It left the door open for aggressive public health campaigns to upend all urban spaces at precisely the moment when blacks were asserting their right to public and political spaces of all kinds. Leisure spaces such as beaches…became hotly contested space.”
— The Influenza Epidemic…,” p.39

Chicago witnessed housing covenants and other segregationist plans, followed by more overt violence., all through the pandemic period, Shlabach writes:

From July 1917 to March 1921, precisely during the influenza epidemic and the race riot of 1919, fifty-eight bombs were hurled at black homes and those of white and black real-estate men who sold homes or rented property to newcomers.

Ultimately, “Chicago’s Black Belt, a very narrow strip of land near Lake Michigan and south of the downtown Loop,” experienced the epidemic differently than other areas of the city, Shlabach concludes, adding:

What differed most dramatically for black Chicago were the consequent spatial and racialized effects of public health ordinances, restrictive racial housing covenants, and the resultant state-sanctioned mob violence.

Like buildings with radiators located directly underneath windows, the real estate landscape in cities with substantial Black populations may look haphazard from one vantage point. But the history of pandemics and economics reminds us that much of what we see was carefully engineered for a purpose that made sense to people in power at the time. Attempting to make historical purposes more visible today can help us to figure out which aspects of our current architecture and zoning laws, both formal and informal, are ones we can use to promote health for all, and which need major overhauls.


Kisacky, Jeanne. “When Fresh Air Went Out of Fashion.” Smithsonian Magazine, June 14, 2017.

Shlabach, Elizabeth. “The Influenza Epidemic and Jim Crow Public Health Policies and Practices in Chicago, 1917–1921.” The Journal of African American History (Winter 2019).

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