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Light and Architecture

Why natural light matters? The importance of sunlight in the built environment.

The dynamic nature of daylight is an important part of the design process of the modern built environment. With each century, more and better methods were used to manipulate light by exploring its very physical nature and biological necessity.

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History

Sunlight can be described as a law. One of many in our ecosystem. It affects our habits, physiological cycles, how we respond to situations and our orientation in time and space. Without light, the entire universe around us would disappear in an instant. The way we interpret the surroundings, the space itself, is based on the dynamic change of light and shadows.

When the ancestors of modern day plants started using sunlight as a stable source of energy. This event tore down the archaic food chains and sparked the entire evolution of Earth's species. Their distribution in the environment and even habits such as nesting, hunting and annual migrations. Day and night. Shadows and light. Everyone either seeks or hides from it.

Architecture exists as an outcome, a continuation of our 451 million years long development path. Our ability to respond to dynamic conditions, the way we shape the space around us exist only thanks to our ability to perceive light.

For thousands of years we have built upon the available space, further and further developing this skill. However, shaping light was one of the biggest leaps forward. With the development of the first known civilisations around 2600 BC in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, working with the devastating sunlight became a matter of life or death.

Ancient Greeks adapted and improved upon millenary expertise left over from Egyptian and Mesopotamian construction engineers. During the cultural rise of Greece, around 900 BC, Hellenic architecture acquired its highly distinguishable structure and purpose.

Greek architecture was defined by the local geography and climate. It made excellent use of the filled with extremely bright sunlight rocky landscapes. The use of limestone then gave the needed precision and speed in the construction of columns that shaped not only the space around, but light itself.

The very simplicity and proportion of the Doric order provided a way to control the volume of daylight and reflect just what is needed. If the columns subtract any unwanted luminosity, the space in-between becomes a source of light. By masterfully tuning the rhythm of light and shadows, Hellenic temples and public spaces embodied the essence of their civic lifestyle.

Archs and Domes

As centuries passed, the Greek heritage of the classical orders was masterfully expanded by the Romans. Not only did they manage to manipulate sunlight in everyday life, but their realisation of domes and arches set the fundamentals in build environment for centuries ahead.

Even after the Fall of Rome, western Europe maintained their native Mediterranean approach to interaction with light. The devastating sun and heat there were handled by means of thick walls and a directed portion of daylight. And although the Romanesque style formed the church aesthetics, its spread to the Northern regions was a huge challenge for Medieval builders.

With cloudy days prevailing and often mild temperatures, western european architects developed a way to efficiently illuminate the indoors, while expanding the height of the buildings. A distinct style on the basis of carefully positioned large arched windows allowing the needed light inside.

Daylight

Today we can use the experience of the past on a global scale. We can analyse the site, day and night cycles, landscape and climate. Taking these factors into account will give enough answers to start up a concept.

Urban planning is one of the most underrated and influential stages for sustainable lighting. District heights, for example, define the average amount of shade on street level. The process requires analysis of the surrounding buildings and landscape to make better recommendations per project.

Since light conditions in most climates and regions inhabited by humans become relatively repetitive over time the dynamic nature of daylight plays an important part in the design process. By carefully studying these dynamics we can define a simple model to work with.

For example, if someone wants to build near a tall skyscraper, there is a high chance the amount of sunlight reaching the lower building might be limited or completely blocked. On the contrary, excess of sunlight can make living unpleasant.

After the local conditions are known, numerous real-time experiments must be completed to determine the best possible orientation of the new construction. Of course, these experiments don’t need to involve real-sized buildings, but rather a minified version of the situation or model it digitally. No matter the method of simulation, the goal is to define the amplitude of available sunlight a building is exposed to during the day and night cycles.

To even hope of controlling the amount of available sunlight towards any construction, the above planning must be perfected. First the surrounding conditions must be defined and only then can we manipulate them accurately. Sources of light, however, are not the only common tools used by architects. Light reflectance, absorbance and transmittance of the chosen materials need to be utilized as much as possible, as well.

Lighting in architecture can be observed from three perspectives. Form, or how an object appears in our brain after light rays are reflected from it and enter our eyes. Feeling, from the color and intensity of the available light. It would be difficult for a school room to have dim lighting, as if a bar. Function, or how well the available light serves its function in different situations. The above, of course, is a very brief discussion of these three rich and complex terms.

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