Architects were the first lighting designers, and the first daylighting experts. The sun was once the only thing we had to illuminate the interiors of our architecture. We understood its character, its movement, its color and changeability. Until about 70 years ago or so, daylighting was still the primary source of energy used for illumination.
Sure, we had candles, gas lanterns, and finally electric incandescent sources, but it wasn't until the confluence of air conditioning and the fluorescent tube that we stopped designing our architecture to receive air and light from the great outdoors. Technology has given us wonderful inventions that make our lives on earth easier, happier, more comfortable, and more productive - but for a price. The energy needed to power all of this technology is being depleted. We can heat, cool, and light our buildings in any climate, in any architectural style, but only as long as we have enough fuel.
Indigenous or vernacular architecture was born from solving programmatic needs, using whatever natural resources were immediately available. With the advent of air conditioning in early 1900 and the invention of the fluorescent tube in 1938, we could virtually turn our backs to the outside world and create environments inside our buildings to our liking. As a result, we saw our architecture dramatically change. Office blocks became very large and, consequently, the resulting interior spaces were further removed from the perimeters of buildings. Interior spaces were almost entirely illuminated by electric lighting. It was easier and more economical to use fluorescent lighting than to design a building with more perimeter space that got its light from the sun.
As the years rolled on, we started to realize that these environments were not as desirable as the ones created by nature. Studies started revealing that productivity was suffering, that students' test scores were in decline, and that people's health was being sacrificed - all based on a separation from the sun, which helped us to produce vitamin D, set our circadian rhythms, and provided balance to our physical and psychological well-being.
It's not all a doom-and-gloom story however. Fluorescent lighting is still, by far, the most popular way of illuminating the interiors of our buildings, but with new technologies it is even more efficient than ever before. Furthermore, fluorescence plays well with daylighting. Instead of replacing it, fluorescent and daylight coexist in very efficient and comfortable ways through advanced control technologies and thoughtful design. Dimmable ballasts, photocells, vacancy sensors, individually addressable equipment, and proper design techniques all make it easy to save energy and create wonderful luminous interior environments.
In addition, technology gives us design tools and simulation programs that allow us to forecast energy savings and pre-visualize our designs in unprecedented ways.
But, in order to take full advantage of these available technologies, architects must reclaim daylighting in their design domain. Unfortunately, the history of architecture in the last century is tragically described as a continual delamination between art and science, because architects passed these technologies into the hands of specialist consultants.
Reyner Banham, in his book The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment writes: "... the idea that architecture belongs in one place and technology in another is comparatively new in history, and its effect on architecture, which should be the most complete of the arts of mankind, has been crippling... the art of architecture became increasingly divorced from the practice of making and operating buildings."
Today the profession is filled with competent and useful consultants and specialists, but the architect must use them, just as technology itself, in a manner that supports the art, and the human being living within that art. We must learn from history, but also embrace technology in ways we've never done before, to create beautifully daylit architecture, completely integrated to produce a true balance between art and science.
This article entry first appeared Aug. 10, 2011, on Ideas to Light, a blog written by Cambridge, Mass.-based lighting design firm Lam Partners. The firm created Ideas to Light to inform and educate anyone interested in lighting and design, and to share the knowledge the firm has amassed over a 40-year history designing integrated lighting for architecture and outdoor environments. Click here to read the article on the Ideas to Light website: http://blog.lampartners.com.