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… (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. 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.