High-latitude Challenges: Designing for daylight

Daylighting strategies are defeated by blinds, which are pulled down to block the heat and glare.
Photo © BigStockPhoto.com

Views and health
The desirability of natural light in buildings and homes is rooted in an intrinsic physiological human need. Daylight affects one’s endocrine, nervous system, and circadian rhythms. Exposure to daylight affects biological clocks, signalling when to sleep or wake during a 24-hour period. When people get enough daylight, they feel and sleep better, focus more easily, and are less anxious or stressed. Inadequate daylight can cause productivity and health issues.

Windows and views have often been status symbols in the workplace. Corner offices with windows on two sides conveyed the hierarchical importance of their occupants. While these spaces are slowly becoming obsolete in favour of more open, equitable, and collaborative workplaces, the demand for natural light for all occupants has grown. This is, perhaps, in response to the numerous studies suggesting the significant health benefits of daylight exposure in offices.

In 2013, researchers in the neuroscience program at Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.) concluded workers in offices with windows sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night compared to those in windowless areas. A year later, researchers at Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.) published a study that said nurses who had access to natural light were healthier and happier, and did a better job of serving patients. Other studies have shown faster recovery time for patients in rooms with a view, and reduced need for pain medication for patients in sunnier spaces. Studies looking to correlate performance, wellness, and productivity are continuing around the world, and the findings seem to suggest a positive correlation between natural light and improved health.

Humans have evolved to become mostly indoor-dwelling. Per research by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), people spend 90 per cent of their time indoors. Prior to the advent of electric lighting, a primary objective of architecture was to provide access to natural light in every space of a building. When electric lighting became inexpensive, buildings shifted to maximize usable floor space and away from incorporating daylight as a primary source of illumination. In the last two decades, the industry has begun to understand the effect buildings without natural light have on the health of occupants and changed the approach to design. The architecture of the future can provide every occupant with the ability to look outside, biologically sense the time of day by looking at the sun’s fluctuating brightness, and reconnect with nature.

Technologies allowing us to incorporate ample natural light while minimizing the impact on solar gains are now available. Smart-tinting glass, for example, can dynamically respond to changing light conditions, blocking up to 99.9 per cent of visible light to reduce glare and block solar heat. Automated shades are another option for minimizing glare; some can also be programmed. Implementing the best of these options can have a profound effect on the quality of the indoor environment.

Daylight is proportional to the amount of glass being employed in a structure. However, unwanted glare and heat can render a spare unusable. Smart-tinting glass enables one to control individual windows.
Photos courtesy Kinestral Technologies

Andy McNeil is an engineer at Kinestral Technologies, working on the company’s next-generation smart-tinting technologies. He has extensive experience in daylighting and fenestration technologies to reduce the amount of energy consumed for lighting and HVAC in buildings. McNeil holds degrees from Penn State University, as well as an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached via e-mail at amcneil@kinestral.com.

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