It is midterm review for the six teams of Pratt students enrolled in ARCH 400.13, and they are presenting their ideas for the 21st century workspace. The studio's instructor, Michael Kubo, gave the students an option: either design an entirely new office prototype, or explore the potential of installing a skylit ceiling in the 1957 headquarters of the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. (now Cigna).

Designed by Gordon Bunshaft, one of the most notable midcentury designers at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Bloomfield, Conn., headquarters is considered an archetype of a suburban office complex. It remains an iconic example of the modernist open-plan office with its flexible space planning. Students who chose the Bunshaft challenge had to take into consideration a 2006 retrofit that altered one of the building's defining elements, its exposed modular ceiling, which was the first synthetic example integrating lighting, ventilation, and acoustic functions.

The project brief's emphasis on ceiling planes and illumination has added significance given that the studio's sponsor is Danish skylight manufacturer Velux. The students are invited to incorporate Velux products into their design solutions, and they may just broaden their understanding of daylighting in the process.

“I have a new appreciation for lighting designers because one can imagine certain lighting effects, but in fact it is much harder to fully realize and produce them,” says fourth-year Pratt student Jerome Hord. “Over time we've all come to understand there are so many directions to go with office design, and it's interesting to think about how a ceiling skylighting system is crucial to an open office space.”

Kubo, who is an architect and the New York director of Actar Publishers, has high hopes for the Velux studio. “The students are already exploring some very exciting ways to use skylighting to achieve complex environmental and aesthetic effects in their projects,” he says. In the upcoming weeks, they will have to develop their ideas to a high degree of precision—in terms of the amount and quality of light the designs produce, as well as the coordination of ventilation systems, structure, space planning, and construction. “The students will have to shift from the abstract scale of the work so far, to a more detailed scale involving software to test lighting effects, large-scale detail models of their ceiling systems, and more sophisticated renderings that can show the qualities their systems produce,” Kubo explains.

One Of A Series

The Pratt course is just one of several design studios that Velux has sponsored in the United States. Launched in 2007, the studio sponsorship program expands on the company's existing student initiatives, which include the website, and a biannual award founded in 2004 for architecture students around the globe.

“The Velux America studio sponsorship program draws inspiration from our international design competition in that it strives to get student architects thinking about daylighting in architecture, and takes it one step further by focusing students on the practicalities of implementing daylighting strategies that include skylights,” says Tim O'Neill, a district sales manager for Velux. O'Neill is one of several sales managers at the company who work closely with the studios, instructing students about Velux's products and daylighting strategies, and participating as jurors in midterm and final reviews.

In the 2007–08 academic year, Velux sponsored studios at five architecture schools: Boston Architectural College (BAC), Carnegie Mellon University, Pratt Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The company's outreach concentrated on architecture schools in the Northeast because of their relative geographic proximity to the Velux America headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C.

For its first foray into academia, Velux collaborated with faculty members from each institution to customize the scope of the studio to suit the school's curriculum. At the BAC, for instance, students work during the day at architectural firms, so they participated in weekend design charrettes that challenged them to create two gallery spaces—one requiring direct natural lighting, and the other requiring indirect natural lighting.

At Carnegie Mellon, the students' mission was to create a light museum. More specifically, the brief called for an annex to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh for the display, study, and storage of art-work relating to light. The freestanding structure, located across the street from the existing museum, also was intended to serve a didactic function, increasing museumgoers' understanding of light as central to how we view art and architecture.