Sky Lab

It’s a typically overcast morning in Seattle, but an architectural model of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s new Ballard Branch Library is brimming with light. The model is being tested at the Daylighting Lab, a facility devoted to helping architects study the use of natural illumination to reduce a building’s dependence on electric light. A group called BetterBricks (funded by the deep coffers of local electric utilities) operates both the Daylighting Lab and a sister lab in Portland in hopes of nurturing what’s already a progressive regional green-building culture.

If, as Le Corbusier has said, forms are revealed in light, then this process has so far been more of an art than a science. Because it costs more to cool than to heat many commercial buildings, architects have focused mostly on keeping light out. But with green building occupying an ever larger segment of the building market—and studies showing that people are more productive in naturally lit spaces—more architects are turning to daylighting.

Joel Loveland, the Daylighting Lab’s director, hoists the library model onto a heliodon, a flat plane that can be tilted in different directions to correspond with any time of day or year, allowing designers to study the effects of sun orientation, glare, and window placement on their building. (Ironically a large electric spotlight is used to simulate the sun.) Want to see the building in early January at noontime? How about mid-August at 8:30 a.m.? “It’s easy to forget all the different geometries of the sun,” Loveland says, adjusting the heliodon. Indeed to witness its actual effect on a piece of architecture, you’d have to stand outside for 365 days straight.

Both labs also feature an “artificial sky,” a room lined with mirrors that simulates outdoor light but allows light levels to be kept stable so that changes to the model (and therefore the design) can be measured accurately. Although the artificial sky and the heliodon have both been used for study in university settings for many years, the Seattle and Portland labs are the first to actively reach out to the commercial building market. With green building rocketing into public consciousness during the last five years, however, the Daylighting Lab has been busy, consulting on as many as 150 projects per year. Recent clients include Seattle’s new city hall and justice center, as well as Antoine Predock’s Tacoma Art Museum.

The Portland lab, which opened late last fall, hopes to offset some of the workload. Moreover, because it’s part of the University of Oregon’s downtown branch, it draws the interest of old-school designers as well as die-hard greens. “A lot of architects are used to design ideas being proprietary, but we’re getting beyond that,” says Rob Curry of Yost Grube Hall Architecture, who was instrumental in bringing the lab to Portland. “The lab fosters a community where we can learn together.”

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