Sunlight is a critical contributor to human health. While too much sun can be hazardous, sun exposure contributes to production of Vitamin D and also melatonin, thereby countering bone degradation, infection, and sleeplessness, and boosting mood and energy levels. Having evolved in bright sunlight, we need regular contact with our star’s life-giving rays to maintain our well-being.
Architecture, which shelters us from precipitation and temperature extremes, is our chief mediator of sunlight exposure. And given that Americans work longer hours than citizens of almost every other developed country (the Germans and Dutch have it easiest), our workplaces quite literally stand between us and the sun. Considering the demonstrated benefits of sunlight, how is our workplace architecture performing? Is it helping our health, or hindering it?
Building technology made great gains during the 20th century, but these gains distanced us from light. The modern wonders of air-conditioning, available after 1932, and fluorescent lights, available after 1938, generated today’s bulky, boxy office buildings and single-story warehouses, with vast interiors that are artificially lit and cooled, and correspondingly deprived of fresh air and sunlight. Fluorescents and AC transformed city skylines from dramatic to “inert,” to use Vincent Scully’s term, and converted expensive multistory factories into the faceless sheds that comprise contemporary manufacturing.
The average worker’s loss of sunlight and fresh air was dramatic. While a worker in the Empire State Building was likely to be within 18 to 36 feet of an operable window providing access to daylight and fresh air, a worker in a corporate office park of the 1960s might be 70 or even more feet away from a window that could not open. The office buildings of Mies van der Rohe and som are monuments of Modern architecture, but also memorials to the diminished daylight of the contemporary age.
But all is not lost. Momentum is growing to encourage or even require minimum levels of daylight exposure for office and industrial workers. Germany is ahead of the United States, not only in reducing total hours worked but in requiring proximity to windows. Its national industrial standard specifically governs the provision of daylight to building interiors, emphasizing the psychological benefits of exposure to daylight for workers and residents. As a result, most German workers are effectively within 8 meters (26 feet) of the outdoors.
And while the US has no national building code at all, never mind one governing daylight exposure, numerous energy-efficiency codes mark the happy coincidence that increased daylight is also one of the best ways to reduce energy usage for lighting and cooling. One industry study indicates that new fenestration technologies alone could reduce energy usage in commercial buildings by up to 13 percent.
We stand at the edge of a revolution in improving health through building design, and architects will be key players. By integrating daylight and fresh air exposure into every new structure, designers can improve the quality of all of our lives while reducing energy waste. The formal outcomes may be surprising, as boxy, insensitive structures make way for lighter, attenuated, more responsive architecture. Bringing back the light is something that all building designers and building users can anticipate with joy.