Continuing on the topic of the well-balanced architectural diet and exploring the parallels between food and design (“In Defense of Design“), I come back to the notion of variety. Because of our very energy-intensive lifestyles, we can virtually have it all. Peaches in the winter, cheap beef year-round, and 72 degrees, 50% relative humidity, and 50 footcandles uniformly distributed throughout every interior space.
It wasn’t that long ago when people actually enjoyed truly seasonal fruits and vegetables, only ate beef and pork in the late fall and winter and chicken in the summer, and went to school in un-air-conditioned buildings. As far as food goes, more people are now turning back to organic or locally grown produce and meats. It’s much more sustainable to buy food that’s grown close to where it is consumed. It takes a lot of energy to fly and truck in peaches from Chile to Boston in January – and they’re really not that tasty… The same goes for our architectural environments.
Architecture started depending more on energy, and less on structure, to solve its environmental issues. It’s become so “processed”, cooled, heated, lighted, that we’ve lost some of the simple drama arising from varying temperatures and light levels.
Wearing a sweater indoors in the wintertime in order to lower the thermostat worked for Jimmy Carter. Better yet, having families gather around the inglenook to keep warm not only saved energy but promoted family conversation. Placing more demanding visual tasks near windows kept valuable illuminants from being exhausted during the hottest times of the day. As far as residential architecture goes, many of these variations are not impractical today. They say the passive solar homeowner is a very tolerant creature. Commercial spaces are somewhat more demanding of environmental power, but certainly not to the intensity common in most buildings today.
Bringing it back to lighting, what’s wrong with a little variation in illuminance levels? When we walk around outdoors, we experience moonlight which is about one one-hundredth of a footcandle, while bright sunshine could be as high as 10,000 footcandles – a difference of a million to one. Walking through dappled patterns of sun and shade can vary in luminance ratios greater than a thousand to one.
And yet, when we design electric lighting for interiors, we must have a certain prescribed level, a “zone”, or people get upset. Darker areas are misconstrued as mistakes: “not enough light”. Not only is it good to vary light levels within an interior environment based on activity, but it’s also good to have various illuminance levels throughout the day. It puts us in touch with our environment and defines a sort of time-space continuum.
When we daylight buildings, we have the opportunity to not only save energy, but to make them wonderful and enlivened. The changing patterns of light and color throughout the day add a dynamic quality. And yet we read technical articles about daylit architecture and how it’s “bad” to have direct sunlight inside the building. It may be less desirable to have it stream across your keyboard, but who doesn’t like a view of sunlight? Doesn’t it seem strange that the daylighting point in LEED is in the Environment and Atmosphere section, a purely qualitative metric, yet we have to reach 25 footcandles in order to get the point, a quantitative measurement? It’s a peach, right? Who cares what it tastes like?
There are clever products on the market that help introduce daylight into spaces that may not normally have it, but sometimes they’re used as crutches, in lieu of good design. “Light-tubes” vs. light wells for instance. When daylight comes out of the other end of a “light-tube” it is completely unrecognizable as daylight. A great dinner combines a range of different and complementary ingredients, enjoyed throughout the duration of the meal. Those ingredients could easily be put into a blender and would yield the same nutritional value. The thought isn’t too appealing unless it’s a smoothie we crave. If we let codes and standards dictate the way daylight is introduced into architecture by some formula or prescription, all of the nuances and beauty of daylight could be lost in the name of saving energy.
California has requirements now that any interior space directly below a roof must be skylit. Generally this is a good idea. However, it also states that the skylight glazing must be translucent – crazy. Therefore we are benefitting only from the light energy it provides, and little else. A beautifully executed clerestory or redirected sunlight would not qualify. Where have we gone wrong?
When it comes to a quality meal, should we evaluate it based on calories per dollar? This may be the very idea behind an all-you-can-eat buffet. Should daylight simply be evaluated on number of footcandles at certain times of the year? If you only drink your wine from a box, don’t answer this last question.