Architecture and the Senses: Light
"Natural light is one of the most profound resources designers have to hand, and it’s free."
It’s enlightening how many meanings the word ‘light’ has in the English language. The obvious definition in the context of this article is the physical one: radiation that illumates, enabling things to be seen. The broader use of the word is much more interesting. There is the other noun ‘light’, a device that creates the thing with same name, and then a bunch of adjectives, all helping to demonstrate how widely the idea of light infiltrates our culture. Something light is not heavy, not serious, pale, or there is not much it (a light meal for example). Then there is the verb ‘to light’, say a candle or fire. So, one lights a light to light things up. What a great language we have.
An endless subject when it comes to human experience, light, for now, means the stuff that illuminates. Still, there is sun light, moon light, day light and artificial light. In the design world, this can be simplified to just two sources of light, natural or artificial. For now I’ll focus on the natural, saving the artificial for another time.
Light is a wonderful thing and its benefit to our wellbeing is being understood more and more thanks to ongoing research. Other than just making it possible for us to see things, it has a profound effect on how we feel. Then take the religious interpretations, ‘seeing the light’, ‘illumination’, plus there’s the ‘light bulb moment’, a description of inspiration or the instant an idea is created. This tells us that light is both real and imagined. Real because without it without we cannot see, and imagined because it can seem to appear inside our own heads.
Natural light is one of the most profound resources designers have to hand, and it’s free. It’s unfortunate that in mainstream house building that it is so poorly utilised. It is fair to say, however, that in the past few decades, as aspirations and building technology have moved on, letting light in has become more of a priority, and even large scale house builders are starting to see this. Much of this is to do with advances in the quality of insulation and the improved thermal performance of doors and windows. Take traditional rural buildings as an example. Thick stone walls, straw roofs and small windows. Completely the opposite of what we expect today. Now it’s about bringing light in and not keeping it out in case the heat escapes.
Working with natural light requires an understanding of many factors. The path of the sun is one, but then light is not just about sun. The sky as a whole provides a range of different types of light, depending on which part of it you look at. Sunless north light is favoured by galleries and artists’ studios. It is even in intensity and neutral in colour.
In 1891 on Talgarth Road in London, a row of terraced houses was completed, designed as home and studios for artists. St Paul’s Studios have large north facing arched windows and roof glazing, quite daring for London at the time, and uber-high tech. They are delightful inside and out, it’s just a shame that Talgarth Road is also the A4, six lanes of traffic pouring in and out of the city.
South facing living areas are favoured by home occupiers; direct sun inside the house is hard to beat, especially in the winter. An earlier article ‘Winter Sun and Why South West is Best’ explains why a south west facing wall or courtyard will capture the sun set in every month of the year.
Roof windows are being used more and more and for good reason. There is a huge range on the market and they offer good value for money. It may be obvious, but roof windows provide much more light per square metre than normal windows. Extensions to houses can make the original rooms in the house darker and roof windows help to overcome this. There are also light tubes or sun pipes. These work by bringing light from a lens in the roof through a silvered tube to a diffuser in the ceiling. It’s a bit like fibre optics, pretty much what goes in one end comes out the other. These are perfect for bringing daylight into deep rooms furthest from any windows. They reduce the need for turning lights on during the day so save a lot of energy.
The open plan living area in the top photograph is one of our designs for Trinity Properties Ltd. The wide expanse of low level windows takes in the view, and the high level clerestory windows allow natural light to wash down the ceiling, deep into the room.
Whichever way you look at it, day light and sunlight in our homes, when properly controlled has a big effect on our wellbeing and should be at the top of the wish list.