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Light in the Century of Sustainability

By Melissa Wreyford

During my last trip to New York City, I found myself, like I normally do, staring upward at the giant skyscrapers imagining what may be happening inside their concrete, metal and glazed walls.  As I continued to walk around, I was intrigued with the number of windows I saw with the shades drawn.  This made me wonder why wouldn’t people be taking advantage of the natural daylight?  As a junior designer, questions started to form and a few particularly stuck with me:

  • Shades create an altering aesthetic to the façade of a building with endless combinations.  Did the designer intend or even anticipate that the façade of the building would be in a perpetual state of change?
  • What are we doing now to fix inadequate lighting?
  • As designers, have we done an injustice to the inhabitants of our buildings if they need their shades drawn for most of the day?

As Americans, we spend an average of 90% of our time indoors.  Between home, work and home again, much of our time is spent bouncing from building to building.  With a majority of our time spent indoors it has become increasingly important to design spaces that welcome the beneficial aspects of being outside while we are within our spaces.

An obvious reason for taking advantage of natural light, when designing a building, is for energy savings.  However, an even more vital part to increasing natural light within the work environment are for psychological reasons as studies have shown that workers are happier and more productive when they are in natural light.

Low, dim lighting can cause eye strain, tiring the eyes of the occupants’ poorly lit space.  The opposite takes hold when a space is over lit with harsh, bright lights which can cause headaches and migraines due to the overexposure the eye is receiving.  A designer should aim for a balance of varied lighting techniques for a sustainable, brighter and happier working environment.  Appropriate natural and artificial lighting can be easily designed into a new project.  The challenge begins when introducing new lighting design into an existing building with an existing unsuitable lighting situation.

A quick solution would be to go into a building and begin to add windows into walls that don’t already have them but the typical project doesn’t normally have a large or unlimited budget.  However, replacing existing windows with an updated glazing design (low thermal emissivity) will assist in preventing the spaces around the windows from overheating in the warmer months while still allowing sunlight into the space.  Another possible solution would be to add light shelves and a brise-soleil.  A brise-soleil translates from French as “sun-breaker” or a permanent structure that acts as a shade.  Brise-soleils can become beautiful additions to the building envelope while still allowing natural light to filter through their angled and carefully designed apertures depending on the season.

Though technology has made large strides in lighting design, as designers, I believe we need to understand the fundamental aspects of why people prefer sunlight over artificial fluorescent lights.  As we move forward into the next part of the 21st century everyone should be considering the benefits of more natural light in our daily lives.