Natural light is a very versatile material. Its variation in character, whether calm and soft or an overwhelming intensity never fails to inspire. Depending on if the light barely touches a surface or completely fills a space, there is a very different visual perception.
Within the architectural design process, daylight design is often looked at from either an aesthetic or an energy performance point of view. However, the topic offers a lot more depth. Exploring and interpreting the language of light unique to a site means to dive deep into local context and culture. This applies as much to natural as to artificial light, with the latter being a topic worth exploring by itself. However, for me designing for the light part of the day is the starting point of this article.
Daylight Expertise within the Design Process
A lot has been said and demonstrated about the beauty of natural light itself and its influence on spaces and perception. Yet a frequent observation when it comes to the daylight design process and planning is that it dispersed across disciplines, design phases and budgets. It appears the topic is as difficult to grasp as daylight itself, whether due to its dynamic range or due to its everchanging character. This can often be before an initial architectural idea is established. Briefings may be vague when it comes to natural light, often lacking specific objectives or functional requirements.
The initial tasks of a daylight consultant typically includes a type of detective work, filtering materials, coordinating with people and consolidating these findings to make a recommendation. This is usually not about categorising light like building elements but outlining what we want to do with it and what to avoid, then putting it into context with the architectural design ideas. Next is the more obvious, a fact-check for the project including geographic location, the immediate surroundings and locally prevailing (micro) climate, to name just the most obvious.
At this early stage of a project, the role of the architect and the client are crucial for daylight design as the architecture has such an immediate and permanent impact on the natural lighting conditions. The first few sketches, models and samples are critical and will significantly influence available opportunities later on. Therefore time should be allocated for interaction with a daylight consultant at the early stage of the project to ensure the use of natural light can be thoughtfully integrated into the overall design.
The new French International School in Hong Kong is a good example of successful collaboration by the entire project team where the design responds to the local climate and architecture.
Today the campus integrates several distinct teaching facilities into one new building including a kindergarten, a primary and a secondary school. The classroom areas are complemented with a library, an auditorium, a gym and cafeteria as well as generous open and covered exterior areas and landscaped decks. The requirements of this building are therefore quite diverse.
Daylight studies were included in the initial stages of and a key element in the architecture. The use of daylight was taken into consideration depending upon the room usage and teaching concept.
For example, the primary school rooms benefit from generous daylight income where sudden contrasts are reduced. The daylight provides a gradual variation of light across the floor, responding to the flexible allocation of spaces. This allows the school to make use of the entire depth of the floorspace supported by an integrated lighting concept.
Identity and Culture
Working with international design teams in different parts of the world require integrating the culture and history of a place and understanding the skills and customs which have been applied over centuries. Such an approach is not just a pragmatic concept but is a cultural expedition.
From the beginning of my lighting design education and career, I have been lucky to find myself in the middle of an international crowd. Lighting design took me on an interesting journey, working on projects in Europe, Asia and Australia, which has been an incredibly enriching experience. What I witnessed increased my curiosity rather than satisfying it and, some detours included, always added another piece to the puzzle. Therefore, this article also reflects a personal perspective on things which may be a very different story for some readers.
“Layering and changeability: This is the key, the combination that is worked into most of my buildings”– Glenn Murcutt
Take a structure and place it anywhere in the world, make it available to people to design and adjust it to their liking. The result will, of course, be very different, but that is not just in how it will be used or furnished, but in how light is being introduced to the space. This student assignment is an exercise I sometimes repeat in my mind today. Is it considered to be a place of retreat and shelter from harsh conditions, or should it invite and interact with daylight as much as possible?
Building design guidelines were already published in ancient Rome when Vitruvius elaborated which rooms would benefit from which orientation in his 10 Books on Architecture. Taking a huge leap forward into today, the concept of biophilic design explores how we can connect to and use our surrounding natural conditions.
One concept of lighting design — whether natural or artificial — is that of a language. Language is an element of culture, something that develops in the process. But it is also a system, there are combinations of terms with varying importance adding on to sequences, and an expectation starts building up from the beginning of a sentence to the end of an abstract.
For my approach to architectural lighting, this translates to sequences of spaces whether open or private, room for deliberate shadows, contrast and transitions layering up which eventually result in a set of visual conditions that are unique to the place. It is during the early design stages that I try to establish a common language for each project, which would allow the team to ‘talk light’ and understand each other.
In practice, the most noticeable difference between different daylight cultures is often the access to and appreciation of direct sunlight with its impact on the geometry of apertures and arrangement of buildings. Familiar lighting characteristics and pragmatic function are connected. Whether climate dictated protection from light or exposure to it, our culture influenced what we made out of the light available. Functionality, craft and resources determined more or less elaborate systems to control it. There is the deliberate, geometrically precise aperture to emphasise key moments and spaces. But beyond that, subtle details can be observed, the character of light, visual perception of the space and the importance (or irrelevance) of the surrounding conditions.
“Remarkable places are often praised for the special quality of light they offer, whether the Mediterranean or a high latitude destination. For me, I still remember my first trip to Australia, arriving on a warm, bright November day after embarking the plane in wintry Europe.”
Taking the example of a structure anywhere in the world further, and now imagine the design of a window. The number of variations is as manifold as their origins.
Being used to a mild climate with plenty of rain, the window would allow for a maximum of natural light, accepting some overheating during summer. (Though, this may have changed throughout the last decade with ‘record’ summers).
Now put yourself in India, and you would appreciate stone lattice works that help with ventilation in the heat. At the same time, they create an outlook without insight and cut down the intense brightness of a hot, hazy sky.
Travel south via Singapore and notice soft and modulated light, creating protected, semi-exterior interior spaces.
Moving further south to experience contemporary Australian design, you find wide roof overhangs and partially shaded, open spaces. It would probably also come with additional slatted or woven blinds for improved flexibility throughout the year.
The above examples could go into more detail concerning the purpose and regional variations, but nevertheless, they are meant to illustrate the unequivocal effects of the natural lighting conditions in our built environment. There is a kind of visual heritage in us which we only become aware of when being exposed to a change.
Awareness for these elements and seeing them in context to the individual design goals, allows us to create an identity for a project for both day and nighttime. Designs that respect the limited nature of physical resources do not need to cut back on ideas but can use light even more intelligently when considering the cultural richness of a place.
Perception and Response
As lighting designers, we are positioned in the field of creativity, technology and visual perception. Thus, lighting design is looking into numerous aspects throughout the different design stages, which will be anything from sketching an idea to in-depth coordination of technical parameters. We are therefore interfacing with a variety of disciplines with sometimes contradictory requirements. Consequently, our work involves communicating with very different types of people representing a broad range of interests and personalities.
This is both the excitement and the challenge. Eventually, there is a rationalisation process of establishing design targets, identifying budget restrictions and balancing them with expectations to achieve everyday functionality.
Again, it becomes apparent that light has an intangible nature. But more importantly, it leaves a very personal impression on us, interpreted differently and likely to provoke a very individual response. There are barely two people describing the same lighting conditions with the same words.
Even the same person, would evaluate a condition differently, depending on the ‘content’ being presented. A pleasant view, whether technically speaking a source of glare, will typically be evaluated more favourable, than a featureless but glare-free void in front of the window. While the glare resulting from direct sun or excessive contrast may result in discomfort and difficulties, the opportunity to experience exterior conditions and have a view, draws many people to windows. However, functional necessities and long-term performance may require the flexibility that needs to be reserved early. A provision that hasn’t been allowed for now, whether financial or functional, will rarely become available later or only at significant additional cost.
Understanding of the task and how to embed light in the design intent is of key importance for daylight design. It helps to define the goals as well as to identify and address the challenges early on. It creates a toolset, readily available for the design team throughout the following phases, allowing them to evaluate current and future design decisions against the initial targets.
Daylight design is increasingly recognised as a responsibility and expertise of the creative building design process. Interacting and coordinating within the involved teams has high value for a responsive design and can be facilitated through an external consultant or integrated role depending on the project team. This goes beyond technicalities and signature moments as there is more to explore and apply for those just a bit curious about it.