Another (tragic) case against replacement windows

I can’t even imagine the horror experienced by the two UNC-CH students as they felt the window give way after they ran into it, reportedly while horsing around, in the hallway of their dorm. Now a beloved (N&R) Smith H.S. grad is dead and another student from Asheville is in critical, but improving, condition.

Perhaps it is because I am more attuned to it than most people due to my vocation, but as soon as I learned that the window the two boys fell through was not an original 1938 window, but a replacement unit installed during a 1995 renovation, the window’s failure didn’t surprise me as much as it might your everyday window consumer.

The Daily Tarheel reports, “the window is 2 1/2 feet above the dormitory floor and was covered with double-paned security glass“, as if those two facts were supposed to explain how unlikely such a tragic failure of a modern replacement window unit could be. One look at the broken window and a little common sense will tell you otherwise…01fallen_unc1.jpg (News14 – Video here)

The style of windows the architect chose to place at the end of the long hallways in Stacy Hall are known as “dead lights”, meaning they are non-opening, 81″x63” (UNC website) expanses of glass with no meeting rails (the members of wood that make up the top of the bottom sash and the bottom of the upper), and no ‘mullions’ (the cross members separating the glass in multi-paned sashes). However, for the replacement windows in Stacy Hall’s dorm rooms, the architect chose more substantial, functioning double hung windows with meeting rails as shown on the right in this photo.01_24-stacy2.jpg Although I’m sure installing ‘dead lights’ was OK under the NC Building Code, they should never have been specified in such a precarious and vulnerable location.

The architect’s decision, and UNC’s subsequent agreement to install such cheap windows at the ends of the hallways, probably doomed 20 year-old Keith Smith.

The Daily Tar Heel reported that the failed deadlight contained “double paned security glass“, but that wasn’t going to save Smith. All that term means is that the window was constructed of two 1/8″ sheets of tempered glass separated by 1/2″ of insulating airspace for a total thickness of only on quarter of an inch of glass. The only protection ‘tempering’ accomplished was to keep the glass from shattering into dangerous shards when broken. (Heat tempered glass simply breaks into little pieces, like your car’s windshield). Temper treated glass isn’t much less prone to breakage than non-tempered glass.

This tragedy is currently under investigation and I suspect no finding other than accidental death will be issued because the window installation was up to code, but that wouldn’t release either the architect or the University from culpability in my book. Replacing the original hallway windows with flimsy ‘picture windows’ was a bad architectural and/or financial decision which produced this tragic, but predictable, result.

Update: Daily Tar Heel assistant photo editor “Ricky” was on the scene before the window was boarded up. He has photo on his blog that better illustrates the type of window the two boys fell through.

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  1. Posted February 26, 2006 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    How tragic, especially if it were preventable. I fear/hope this post will get you called as an expert witness, Hogg. There’s always a lawsuit. How terribly, terribly sad.

  2. darkmoon
    Posted February 27, 2006 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Hogg, just FYI. Your feed doesn’t work in bloglines. I’ve checked it a couple times.

  3. Posted February 27, 2006 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    It does work in bloglines, although it reports an error, bloglines deals with it. YOu can use an atom feed for it.

    I think this will do:

  4. Phred
    Posted February 27, 2006 at 12:06 pm | Permalink


    Your microsopic fonts are giving me a

  5. Mike K.
    Posted February 27, 2006 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    As a UNC Alum such student deaths are especially hard to hear. My undergraduate graduation occurred the day of the big fraternity fire in 1996 that prompted the push for sprinklers and other fire suppression/prevention measures in dorms and similar buildings throughout the State. Sounds like something similar may occur with these windows you discuss in your post. Going with the cheapest solutions (to spend less tax dollars or bond money) doesn’t always seem to be the best strategy, now does it….

  6. Posted March 2, 2006 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Not to make light of what happened as it was indeed tragic, but two things I saw today made me think of you.

    1. Is that your Scout parked at the garage downtown?

    2. I saw a house just around the corner from the Mayor’s house today, large two story brick, attached garage, and I think a basement with NEW replacement inserts in every window of the house. Not only did the sashes obstruct much of the original window openings, but EVERY window in the house had the sashes installed backwards with the weatherstrip (the felt kind) turned to face the outside.

  7. Chris
    Posted March 3, 2006 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I, too, am saddened to hear of the death of the student at UNC, but I must
    point out that the failure of that window is not a problem inherent of
    replacement windows, but in their application. There are many different
    products and methods with which one might improve the fenestration of
    a building, each of them acceptable for a given condition. but to
    imply that this accident could have been prevented had they not used
    a replacement window is silly at best. They may have used the WRONG
    replacement window, but the correct replacement window would not have

    David, as someone who appreciates old architecture, I relate to what you
    do for a living, and I appreciate the business you bring to me.
    I even send you customers I could otherwise encourage to
    buy new windows. But refurbishing old windows is NOT always the best
    thing to do. In a time when we must concern ourselves with energy
    consumption and global warming, the benefits of energy conserving
    technologies provided by modern windows is difficult to pass up. I believe
    the idea is to properly evaluate the conditions of a given building and
    the desires of the building owners and create a solution based on those

    Your friend and colleague

  8. dhoggard
    Posted March 4, 2006 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    My headlined belied my intent, I’m afraid.

    My point is that it was a bad decision to place a ‘deadlight’ in such a vulnerable position. Almost any replacement window with meeing rails (check rails) would have averted this tragedy in my estimation.


  9. Rob
    Posted April 2, 2006 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Being in the building industry for over 30 years, and in the window and door industry for over 25 years,
    I have the following comments:

    1. The plural of sash is sash…not sashes. If you don’t know that, you haven’t been around very long.

    2. Tempered glass is at least 4 times more impact resistant that regular annealed glass.
    Your statement is simply uninformed and wrong.

    3. Mullions do not separate panes of glass, muntins do. A mullion is what connect two window units together.
    If you don’t know that…

    4. A one-piece direct-set unit is much, much stronger than any double hung with a check rail. My company
    performs “impact tests”, shooting a 2×4 out of an air canon against windows to test their strength.
    It is much more difficult to pass the impact test with check rail type windows.

    5. Tempered glass is not used in the windshield of any car. Laminated glass is used.

    6. The force it would take for those young men to break BOTH panes of tempered glass has to be
    quite high.

    7. Even though tragic, it seems to me that the responsibility rests with the young men.

    In my estimation you are misinforming the public. Please do more research so you don’t publish
    information that is blatantly incorrect.

  10. Posted November 16, 2006 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    The thing that really scares me the most about this tragedy is the great possibility of an “accidental death” finding. If the window installation is up to code, what would convince the authorities to do the right thing here? I agree that the University and/or the architect should clear this whole matter up.

  11. Posted November 17, 2006 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    While I cannot dispute the tchnical points made by Rob, it often takes a tragic event as happened in this case to prompt a reassessment of design features in buildings. I have to agree with Fredrick that the University and/or the architect should clear this whole matter up.

  12. Posted February 20, 2007 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    This is so sad. That is why as a professional in this industry, it is important to make sure that the proper window, framing etc is used and installed with care. With my company Creative Exteriors in Denver Colorado we specialize in vinyl and other main window installtion configurations. Unfortunatley there are many in this field that think they can just pick it up and do it with no experience. Your article is very interesting to me. Thank you

    Creative Exteriors Denver -

  13. Posted August 26, 2007 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    This is a very tragic story, but its hardly unusual for teenagers horsing around to run into windows.

    I would like to know if the building dictates about how thick and how strong the glass has to be to resist impact from the inside.

    The building code definetely talks about required strength for wind load

    I am assuming that the code specifies tempered glass for this location but I cant get the pictures to load to verify this.

    If it was tempered glass then how thick ? One thing about old windows is that the glass used in a lot of installations was often thicker than that used nowadays.

    I know that from frequently having to replace glass on thirty year old patio doors.

    It sounds like the glass was not thick enough to withstand someone walking into it.

    Also the building code should specify handrails if the window is so close to the floor, especially in a hallway.

    Adrian D

  14. Posted August 24, 2008 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    oh gosh!!

  15. Posted December 20, 2008 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    That is terrible!

  16. Posted January 28, 2009 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    Should be careful, no horsing around near the windows.
    The older window usually do not have the flexibility as the newer.

  17. Posted August 18, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    I have to say while this story is older, the lesson remains the same: Safety measures + Safe practices = less probability of a fatality. I would be curious to see what the final outcome of the investigation was to determine the “fault” of the window in this case. Many commercial buildings are designed with very specific requirements for every aspect of the building from flooring to windows. In a dorm setting where safety is paramount, the requirements for the windows would be equally detailed. As a window installation professional in San Antonio I understand the importance of proper windows and proper installation.

    As a person who also was 18 and living in a dorm once, I understand the desire to horse around. When the level of horsing exceeds the level of safety measures, a problem can occur. While no result of the investigation will bring a life back, it helps to understand the limits of the window and do what is necessary to prevent future accidents. Thank you for bringing this story to light, I hope it helps others prevent future issues.

    (PS – I would also have to support the post regarding the details of the windows, your story is compelling, but there are a lot of facts in that post that should be considered)

One Trackback

  1. By Hogg’s Blog » Checking in on March 3, 2006 at 8:09 am

    [...] As Billy noted, my old Scout has been sitting at a shop downtown for over a week.  My bravado about it being such a simple machine to fix didn’t mention that parts for the thing are getting harder and harder to come by.  I’m buying a Chevy pickup truck today to take the pressure off of my antique SUV. [...]