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We're in an NYC pre-war apartment building. Under every window, there's a built in radiator:

Radiators

Each has a knob that supposedly shuts the radiator off but it doesn't always work. Meaning you can tighten it down and the radiator still gets hot.

I saw a nearby real estate listing where someone had built a cabinet below their windows, creating a bench and some storage. I'm interested in trying the same thing, but I'm worried that storage over and around the hot radiators would be a mistake.

Storage

Does anyone have suggestions on insulating the radiators so that we won't be melting crayons? Or for turning them off? Anyone tried this?

Note: these photos are both from real estate listings. The first isn't our actual unit, but does show how the radiators are flush against the wall.

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You want to turn off/cover up the radiators? Won't your room get really cold? –  Tester101 Jan 11 '13 at 14:19
    
Not really. The building is hot. We're on a middle floor, the heat is far too high throughout the building. I had a neighbor complain about the very bad winter many years back when people had to wear sweaters! Indoors! So we'll be plenty warm. –  Amanda Jan 11 '13 at 14:22
    
I've lived in a few apartments that seemed to need no heat input to stay warm. In one case, all it took was a different tenant below me for me to suddenly need heat. Don't permanently block off your ability to heat. It should still be possible to have cabinets added without totally blocking the ability to heat. –  bcworkz Jan 11 '13 at 22:44
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2 Answers

If the radiators are still hot you'll have to get the shut offs repaired first. The heat and the resulting drying action will raise havoc with the wood. The issue isn't so much a fire hazard as a drying hazard. The wood is going to shrink in the winter and expand in the summer. The seams and joints will split. I would also make the design so that you have access to the radiator in the event of a leak.

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Right, that makes sense. –  Amanda Jan 11 '13 at 15:05
    
I've got to second getting the shutoffs fixed. I was shocked on a visit to manhattan that people actually have to open windows in the winter. What a waste! –  Edwin Jan 13 '13 at 11:44
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I recently toured the Dana-Thomas house (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and it had cabinets like you describe, though the radiator was not inside the wall like you have. The "easiest" solution would be to turn off the radiators, but this may leave you without heat (if you don't have an alternate heat source?). If you keep the radiators, you need to make sure that the cabinet has vents so that air can get into and out of the radiator. Have an intake grill near the floor that connects to the lower intake on the wall, and have an outlet grill on the top of the cabinet that is connected to the upper vent of the radiator.

These grills should be at least as large as the existing ones (in terms of area), if not larger. Do you how hot the metal on the wall gets? You may not have to worry at all if you are using wood for the cabinet, but to be on the safe side, I'd allow an inch or so of clearance. Also, providing the proper air flow through the radiator will help keep the cabinet cool.

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