Daylighting: the genuine and the artificial9 min read

Lighting plays an essential role in the way people experience and understand the world around them and particularly plays a significant role in the way they perceive architecture. Whether buildings and structures are illuminated naturally or artificially, lighting is the means that allows humans to see and appreciate the beauty in buildings.

As light and transparency signify openness and freedom, this translates to contemporary designs employing glass to allow natural light to flow into buildings and connect interiors to the outside world. Known as daylighting, the area of design has changed to accommodate artificial lighting.

Antony DiMase, founder of DiMase Architects specialises in daylighting and says the trend continues to be the case as artificial lighting becomes more sophisticated and better integrated into the building industry. “In effect, daylight design is seen as a desirable outcome in building projects – as artificial lighting cannot provide the connection to the outside environment, weather, seasons and the like,” says the Melbourne-based architect.

Antony discusses the progression of daylighting and explains that the design method has grown as an important contributor of well-being to occupants of buildings. “Its integration in various building projects has relied less on daylight as a way to bring light in, but more from the point of view that natural light benefits occupants and connects their psyches to what is happening to the outside world,” he states.

A tall narrow window above an existing boundary wall captures the morning light in Melbourne.
A tall narrow window above an existing boundary wall captures the morning light in Melbourne.

People thrive on daylight, as it is vital to our health and triggers non-visual pathways and circadian rhythms. Given natural lighting has multiple human and environmental benefits, it is no surprise why daylighting has always played such an integral role to architecture. A successful daylighting outcome will mostly house – and bring light in from different directions so that the flow of light is evenly distributed throughout the day. As each situation is different, designers should respond according to the needs of the building programme, location and function of the space. “My idea is to bring light into spaces to enhance the experience of the space and to enjoy the subtle shifts of light as they occur throughout the day,” remarks Antony. He explains that the process requires an analysis of the existing conditions and from there, will provide a response that enhances the flow of light into the space.

A tall narrow window above an existing boundary wall captures the morning light in Melbourne.

For Antony, the process is to analyse, make models and observe what it is that he sees. “We can predict certain things – but in reality, daylight is the combination of sunlight, place and atmosphere, any of these three factors change moment by moment in any given place we design.” It is clear that for Antony, the most compelling aspect of daylighting is the unpredictable nature of it; “I love thinking about daylight as it is an aspect of design we cannot control, we simply plan for it and allow the magic dance of light and space to take hold.”

For some, it is believed that natural light works best in fairly restrained light spaces, though Antony confirms this is not always the case. He uses the examples of the dramatic nature of a church and its aura by having dark spaces filled with beams of sunlight. If we look at the lighting requirements of a church compared to that of a home or school, they will vary entirely. “A church is a dramatic space and the aura that is created by having dark spaces filled with beams of sunlight can be very powerful,” comments Antony. Yet for DiMase Architects, their end-goal is for the light in homes and schools to fill the space, enhance the mood and allow people to function while minimising artificial lighting.

On finding the perfect balance between artificial light and natural light, Antony’s view is that daylight and artificial light are separate disciplines and they should be viewed as such. “Artificial lighting can be complex, sophisticated, but it is predictable – especially if a lighting designer is at the helm.”
He explains that daylight is predictable to a point – but its joy is that it is a changeable naturally occurring phenomenon that we cannot fully harness.

Although artificial lighting can cater to all those situations where daylight is insufficient (like night time or cloudy days), Antony believes it is a failure of design when we use artificial lighting in builds to replace natural daylight. “We have buildings that are so deep that we have to rely solely on artificial lighting to be able to function,” he elaborates.

As Antony loves both artificial lighting and daylighting for different reasons, he articulates that they are not the same thing, each having their virtues and weaknesses. He comments, “I think that artificial lighting can offer so much innovation and experience to the built environment but that its role should be tempered by other considerations such as sustainability and its impact on the night sky.” The key for Antony, is that integration relies on understanding what each form of lighting can and can’t deliver.

Many designers argue that the biggest benefit of daylighting is it being a sustainable solution, but Antony is not yet convinced, “Good daylight to buildings offers a source of light, but LED technology is highly efficient.” For him, the advantages are the effects on people’s well-being and the associated costs of having occupants enjoy the spaces which are created.

A tall narrow window above an existing boundary wall captures the morning light in Melbourne.

Antony explores some of the disadvantages of daylighting; cost, control, and meeting codes within Section J of the National Construction Code (NCC). In terms of the integration of daylighting, Antony confirms that of course, it comes at a cost. “It is not free as some people might say. It is a resource, it is abundant, but there is a definite cost to the integration of daylight into buildings.” He continues on the control in design, stating that over lighting spaces is certainly an issue in daylighting, which can lead to glare and an over reliance on cooling systems.

The other downside of designing with daylight is that the benefits are hard to see on the drawing board. “Light is very much an experiential aspect of design that works when buildings are built,” Antony emphasises. Yet, when it comes to daylighting, most of the beauty comes through the surprises that occur in the finished product, which you can’t plan for. Antony validates the appeal in the unpredictable nature of the design method; “We control what we can and allow nature and the sun to do its magic on the walls and floors we create. It is how buildings become enlivened and enriched.”

When it comes to Section J of the NCC, this codifies what we can and cannot do in buildings which evidently imposes a restraint on building designs. The issue for Antony is that Section J considers daylight as a source of heat that needs management; “in so doing we limit the opportunity of light and connection to the outside environment which has benefits to our wellbeing.”

Given that natural light brings with it heat gain, this is a complex area to look into, as it also introduces visible light and views. Antony is conscious that the NCC has not understood the full picture when it comes to daylight design and orientation, he points out that a more purposeful approach is to conceive a building in its specific location and allow the design response to be tailored to the available light, views and limit heat gain through passive design elements. “I am anxious that any attempt to codify daylight takes away from the design possibilities and innovation that can emerge from engagement with this area of expertise,” he proposes.

This West Melbourne home provides a comfortable internal environment while reducing household energy use by up to 90 per cent
This West Melbourne home provides a comfortable internal environment while reducing household energy use by up to 90 per cent

As daylight is abundant in mainland Australia, unlike other places of the world, perhaps we have not considered its benefits in quite the same way. In reality, for much of Australia, we need to control sunlight and limit the impact on heat gain, but this is part of how we integrate daylight into architecture. Antony has an interest in how we can make better use of daylight in our buildings – so that the resource which we get to enjoy every day affects the interior spaces we create. He elaborates, stating that on an urban design level, we do not build our cities to limit daylight at the street level – but rather we shape our buildings to allow for our streets and buildings to remain vibrant places for people to enjoy.

Antony believes that within Australia, architects understand daylight design really well, however, the method comes with its challenges. “It is simply a case of building programmes being cognisant of not creating monolithic building types in highly urbanised places that disallow light to be a feature of the end product,” he states. For cases where big buildings have low flat building floor plates, the integration of natural light is more difficult and the resulting outcome will need more artificial lighting and climate control to make the spaces habitable.

When it comes to inspiration, Antony draws his from the play of light in which he sees every day, “be it the reflection of light in a puddle by the side of a street, or the reflection of light on a car bonnet that shines into my office during the day.” He says that daylight is simply magic; from the way it grazes the façade of a building – creating shadows, to the way it bounces around a room. “The inspiration comes from being aware of light – rather than the objects the light is illuminating.”

It is clear why Antony is so passionate about daylighting in design as he outlines how this design process not only impacts the aesthetics of a room, but also positively impacts our health and well-being. “We have the opportunity with daylight to enliven spaces in ways that are limited only by our imagination, architects know this and through the history of architecture we have many fine examples to draw upon,” he expresses. Yet, despite his overall enthusiasm, he clarifies that it is an individual thing, as some people are more susceptible to glare and enjoy darker spaces, where others may embrace the light and simply cannot get enough in their homes.

Acknowledging that we are different and that each of us has a different relationship to light is important. The innovation which Antony would like to see is the ability to control light at an individual level so that each person can create a light level that suits them. “This is not impossible as technology is available to allow control of light,” he confirms. The next step for designers is to integrate natural light into cities and homes in order to start manipulating the light levels to suit different individuals.


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