Different Windows

The interesting thing about culture is that it encompasses everything, even those little things that you never even considered would be different or that it would be important that they are different. Take windows for example.

German Windows

Germans always open their windows and it’s no wonder that when I did a GIS on “German windows,” most of the images showed open windows. The windows are opened because Germans need their fresh air. Upon waking up in the morning, no matter what time of the year, a bedroom window will be tilted open. When I’m in Germany, I do the same. I opened the window while the kids and I got dressed and then shut them when we went down for breakfast. This wasn’t enough. My host father came in and threw the window open and told me, “Open the windows in the morning and leave them open a while! The children can’t sleep in stale air!” Even in the winter, the air must be fresh. You turn off the heating elements beforehand so you don’t waste heat and it pretty much stays off unless you’re going to spend time in the room that day. Pretty much every room in German housing has a window that opens, including the bathroom. They are extremely liberal in opening their windows to get that precious frische Luft. When I was a foreign exchange student in Germany, the first thing students would do during breaktime was open the classroom windows so we could all freeze to death. Naturally the heat would still be going full blast. Later on, the school passed out leaflets advertising a meeting to discuss how the school could reduce its energy consumption. My first thought? STOP OPENING THE WINDOWS WITH THE HEAT ON. I don’t know if anyone suggested it. If so, they’d have to phrase the question differently because most Germans would stop listening as soon as you suggested something as absured as not opening a window. The only exception to this rule is when a party is going on, in which cause fresh air, open doors and windows could be deadly. Anytime you open a door or window at a party, you’ll hear loud and clear, “Es zieht!” (there’s a draft!”) and the windows and doors will be shut so everyone can continue getting sloshed in stale, alcohol infused air.


Finnish Windows

Finns like their windows BIG, but they aren’t huge fans of opening them. When we added dormers to our house, my husband picked out HUGE glass windows, similar to the ones you see in the picture above, only they can’t be opened at all. I would have preferred smaller, openable ones, preferably like the German ones above.

Finns don’t believe in windows in the bathroom. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a Finnish residence that had a bathroom in the window. Even in my in-laws’ house they seem to go out of their way to avoid putting their bathrooms in a place in the house where they would have a window. As a result, their bathrooms always smell funny. Not necessarily like human waste, sometimes just like perfume or deoderant or cleanser. But they don’t smell fresh.

These are of course very modern Finnish windows. Older Finnish windows tend to look like this:

You can’t see it very well in this picture, but traditional Finnish windows are actually two layers of windows, the inner layer and the outer layer, both of which you have to open. This is because winter in Finland is really cold. My in-laws’ house still have these windows.

Now both types of Finnish windows can be opened, but Finns don’t think that’s a very good idea. My husband learned in health class in school that you should really only open windows when no one is in the room. I, on the other hand, have firmly converted to the German idea of fresh air. Staying in Finland is murder for me. When we visited in the summer, I kept our bedroom window open at night in order to get a cool breeze. Even though Finnish summers aren’t particularly hot, their houses are designed to retain heat. With the near constant sunshine, things can get pretty warm inside. My in-laws were not happy with this. For one thing, they were worried someone could climb the ladder on the side of the house to get into the room (All Finnish houses have ladders on the side of them in case of fire, I think). “Does this happen frequently?” I asked my husband. “Well, no.” I kept opening the window.

This time we came in the window. Since my in-laws are old, they keep their house at 78, which might as well be a tropical temperature when you’re coming from Germany. In the US, we keep our house at 70 in the day and 62 at night. But my in-laws keep their house at 78 day and night. Heat is subsidized there, so my in-laws take full advantage of that. With our entire family sleeping in one room and my husband acting as a human radiator, it got steamy hot in the bedroom, so I started opening the inner window to cool things down a bit. In the morning when we got up, I would open the outer window to get rid of the stench of sleeping humans. My in-laws were aghast. It’s almost like I wanted my family to DIE. So my father in-law turned the heat down in our room. It still got too hot and I kept opening the windows. So he turned it off. This coincided with a cold snap where the highs and lows were right about 0F. It got cold in our room. I actually wanted another blanket, but since they keep their house so warm in the winter, they don’t double up on blankets like Germans do in the winter. They use the same thin duvet they use in the summer. My in-laws won, I kept the window shut. But also kept my eyes peeled to try and see if I could see any houses with open windows that I weren’t on fire. I think I saw one. My husband thinks they were foreign.

American Windows

American windows are harder to pin down. Being that the they’re American, there’s a huge variation in how they look, the size, and whether or not they open.  A lot of this is regional variation. I would say that most Americans like their windows small, with a double casement so they only open halfway up. They also really love having a grid on the windows so that it looks like it’s made out of small squares of glass. Nowadays, most of these windows are fake. The glass is actually all one pane, but they have a plastic grid glued on them to give the windows that old-timey country feel most Americans like.

Many Americans don’t need to open their windows because they live in houses with central forced air heat and air conditioning along with a filter that keeps the air more or less fresh.

But not all Americans have air conditioning. We don’t and we save a bundle on electricity in the summer and we also open our windows all the time to keep things cool in the summer most people I know do the same. But it’s very common to walk into someone’s house and get a nice whiff of stale air.

Due to the airtightness of new windows, they’re actually recommending people open their windows for a little while after they get up in the morning to replenish the oxygen in their bedrooms and get rid of the carbon dioxide. One of my friends got into a panic after she read an article in which they recommended getting a HEPA filter to purify indoor air, but since she didn’t have a forced heating system in meant she’d have to get an air purifier for each room. “Do you know how expensive those are?” she complained

“Why don’t you just open the window?” I suggested.
“And waste all that heat in the winter?” She countered.

We want fresh air, but if it means opening the window in the winter to get it, we’re a little less willing to do so than the Germans. Once the temperatures in the summer hit whatever temperature is deemed too hot, the windows are shut once again and the A/C turned on. Naturally the windows must stay closed so you don’t let the cold air out.

Like most things,  Americans don’t have a set way they feel about opening windows or even what type of windows they prefer. There is no typical American of window, only ‘average’ ones.


3 thoughts on “Different Windows

  1. Love your commentary on German window opening. I work in a shared office in Berlin, and on winter days, I’ll occasionally get an irrational feeling that my feet are freezing, only to find that one of my German colleagues has quietly boosted a window fully open and gone off to have a coffee for 5 minutes. I understand the drive for doing this comes from when homes were heated with wood-fire ovens (yes, still in use in Berlin apartments in 2013) and from new hermetically-sealed building techniques, but the it’s nonetheless a quirky behavior bordering on sociopathic annoyance. 😉

    Another example of “unique” German window etiquette is on trains, specifically the Berlin U-Bahn. Again, in winter, a number of “heroes”, despite being sick (and in a very contagious way), insist on going to work by train. To suggest that opening a window might help evacuate the stale, disease-filled air, is out of the question, as it would cause a draft that _WILL_, with 100% certainty, cause illness.

    On the American setup, you’re spot on — it’s extremely difficult to align the hardware and behaviours in Boston, Detroit or Seattle with those in Miami, Phoenix or Los Angeles. The country spans too many degrees of latitude (24-deg-N to 49-deg-N) in a relatively temperate belt to have a homogenous style of building and reacting to weather. Air Conditioning is about the only universal, and like you said, opening windows when the heat is on or when the Air Conditioning is on is frowned upon from the practical, cost-savings standpoint.

    1. Interesting that wood fires are still used to heat German homes in Berlin in 2013! I didn’t know that. I would have thought that would be frowned upon as not being particularly efficient. My host family heats a lot with their “Kamin,” so they can minimize their use of oil, but it primarily heats the living room and entryway, not the whole house. Do they heat with that primarily?

      1. I was certainly surprised by this practice, too, but when you keep in mind the exorbitant energy prices in Germany, it has a certain charm.

        My first flat in Berlin (2007) had (and still has) a large tile-covered “oven”, 80x40x200cm, in one room; all the other rooms had no heating of any kind. We burned compressed wood chips (Holzpellet) to keep the place warm in the winter. It was very 19th century. The heat produced is an awful, headache-inducing, radiative heat with no design for air circulation within the apartment (and, bonus: your feet remain freezing because the window should be opened a good part of the day and night according to German housemates).

        Quite a few friends in Berlin still actively use oven heating for their main heat source in winter. They fill their cellars with 500kg of Holzpellet (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holzpellet) at the beginning of winter and hope not to run out.

        The best example I know takes it one step further – using a mini wood-fired-oven to heat bath water. My current landlord (in her 70’s) was very proud to show off how she has no hot water for a bath unless she throws a log on the fire. Berlin… so quaint.

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