College students in Austin, Texas, have dwelled in windowless rooms for years − here’s why the city finally decided to ban them

Thousands of windowless rooms like this one have been built near the University of Texas at Austin. Juan Miro
Thousands of windowless rooms like this one have been built near the University of Texas at Austin. Juan Miro

In the past few years, the city of Austin, Texas, has approved the construction of thousands of windowless rooms in new apartment buildings next to The University of Texas at Austin.

Most of these rooms are being leased to UT students, resulting in a deterioration of their well-being.

In April 2024, the Austin City Council finally voted to ban the construction of windowless bedrooms.

As a professor at UT’s School of Architecture, I see this ban as a belated but welcomed development. For 25 years, I have given my students an assignment called “My Window,” where I ask them to draw a section of the window in their bedroom. In 2021, some students started to tell me that they did not have a window in their room.

I was shocked because, as a practicing architect, I had always assumed that windowless bedrooms were illegal. Some students started to share with me photographs of their rooms and what dozens of students have described as their terrible experiences living in them.

Adverse effects on mental health

A common complaint is “messed up circadian cycles” and the development of “depression and fatigue.” They try to avoid their rooms as much as possible. One student told me about experiencing “unbearable loneliness and claustrophobia caused by the four solid walls.” Another one lamented waking up “with anxiety every morning.”

As soon as I learned that windowless bedrooms were being built in Austin, I started advocating to ban them. I have asked the City Council to act, via letters and in op-eds. I have educated myself on the issue and shared my views with architects, professors and students in multiple venues.

Students have mobilized, too. In the spring of 2023, they ran a survey to compare students’ experiences living in rooms with and without windows. Students who lived in rooms without windows scored lower in all the categories on a well-known scale that measures well-being.

In a September 2023 [letter to Austin’s City Council], 762 students demanded a ban on windowless rooms. “Our city’s negligence to defend its citizens is being weaponized by developers as a means of profit,” they wrote. They also pointed out that windowless rooms are illegal in cities such as New York City and Madrid.

Not legal elsewhere

Indeed, in New York City – as in major cities around the world – windowless bedrooms are illegal. A percentage of the room’s floor area, set in each city’s building code, determines the minimum window size. In New York City, every bedroom must have a window area at least 10% the size of the room’s floor area; in Madrid, 12%; and in Mexico City, 15%.

In Austin, the number has been 0% until the recent ban.

Why? There is a simple reason: Austin, like most cities in the U.S., follows the International Building Code, and this code has a glaring loophole. Its lighting section states: “Every space intended for human occupancy shall be provided with natural light by means of exterior glazed openings in accordance with Section 1204.2 or shall be provided with artificial light in accordance with Section 1204.3.”

The code then goes into great detail on the specific requirements for each situation. But the word “or” leaves the door open for some developers to interpret the code to mean that natural light is optional.

To protect themselves against those developers, cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., have closed the loophole by simply replacing “or” with “and” in their adopted codes. Austin is finally doing precisely that. The recently approved code revision will ban windowless bedrooms when it takes effect on May 20, 2024.

Putting profits first

Unfortunately, developers have already exploited the loophole and built thousands of windowless bedrooms that soon will no longer be legal to build but will be legal to continue to be leased.

Windowless rooms have not resulted in lower rents for students in Austin. Moreover, during my two-year campaign to ban windowless rooms, no developer has spoken in their favor in front of the Austin City Council.

They have been quietly building them for as long as they have been able to because student housing is very profitable, and more so when windowless rooms are allowed.

How come? Because a bulky building, with interior rooms away from the facade, can capture more interior space with a smaller ratio of exterior walls, which are more expensive to build than interior walls.

A vulnerable population

Namratha Thrikutam, a UT architecture student, sums up the predicament of her peers living in windowless rooms: “Students are a population that developers know they can take advantage of.”

A University of Texas at Austin student’s windowless room. Juan Miro
A University of Texas at Austin student’s windowless room. Juan Miro

“We don’t have as much money. We don’t have as much standing in the world. We don’t have as much experience about things that we’ve been through, so it’s very easy to take advantage of us,” she told the Daily Texan, UT Austin’s official newspaper.

Lured by the proximity to campus, students in windowless rooms try to cope with abundant room decoration, circadian rhythm LED lighting, mental therapy or medication.

For example, an exchange student from Spain who had unknowingly leased a windowless room contacted me asking for help. She told me that, being illegal in her hometown of Barcelona, it never crossed her mind that the room she had leased before arriving in Austin could be windowless.

She described her anxiety and deteriorating mental health after just a few days in her unit. When I wrote on her behalf to her building manager requesting a room with a window, they responded: “We do not promise windows in any of our rooms. Like other buildings in the Austin area, windows are not promised.” Shockingly, their leases do not disclose the absence of windows either.

Much like immigrants in New York City’s tenement buildings in the 1850s, UT students have been left to fend for themselves. Austin has failed them by approving the construction of thousands of windowless units.

UT, a top-tier public university, has failed them by not providing enough university housing and by remaining silent during the campaign to ban windowless rooms. The university’s position is based on the fact that West Campus “falls under the city of Austin’s jurisdiction,” according to a statement obtained by The Conversation.

My position is: Yes, but these are your students asking for help.

And architects have failed students by willingly designing windowless rooms. In doing so, architects have ignored one of the core guidelines of the American Institute of Architects: “to consider the physical, mental, and emotional effects a building has on its occupants.”

Some UT students walk this hallway in a new building in West Campus to access their windowless rooms. Juan Miro
Some UT students walk this hallway in a new building in West Campus to access their windowless rooms. Juan Miro

Changes sought

The experiences of students living in windowless rooms in Austin should serve as a cautionary tale for authorities who control building codes. If windowless rooms are already illegal in your city, keep it that way. If they are not, ban them as soon as possible. If not, students and other vulnerable populations such as immigrants, seniors and low-income people would always be a potential target for developers.

In the meantime, and to protect these populations, I am working with other concerned architects across the U.S. in closing the loophole at the source, by directly modifying the International Building Code instead of assuming that each city will close it by amending their codes locally, as Austin just did.

It is a slow and bureaucratic process, but, ultimately, the message should be clear: Having natural light in buildings should be a human right, not a developer’s choice.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

It was written by: Juan Miró, The University of Texas at Austin.

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Juan Miró is affiliated with Miró Rivera Architects. I am an architect and I am a founding principal of Miró Rivera Architects, an architectural firm based in Austin, Texas.