The Right Environment: Lisa Heschong on Why Daylight is the Most Important Architectural Consideration
Design consultant and researcher asserts that architects must prioritize daylight as well as view quality in building design
Metropolis magazine, in partnership with Lutron, presents The Right Environment: a series of profiles featuring experts who are helping to make buildings better for occupants. For the second installment of the series, Metropolis caught up with design researcher and consultant, Lisa Heschong. Heschong shared her insights on the importance of daylight in building design, and how considerations around daylighting and view quality, along with use of technological innovations, help create The Right Environment.
Studies on lifestyle habits have found that Americans spend upwards of 90 percent of their lives indoors. This is a profound statistic that should imbue architects and interior designers with a greater sense of urgency around the importance of their work as it relates to wellness and productivity.
Design advocate and consultant, Lisa Heschong, is acutely aware of this fact and has brought it into practice throughout her entire career, publishing several research studies that have influenced how architects and designers think about both natural and manufactured lighting throughout their buildings.
“We’re basically indoor creatures,” said Heschong. “Given that, the design of the indoor environment, our natural habitat, has to support the health and wellbeing of its occupants.”
It Starts with the Building
A recently retired consultant, today based in Santa Cruz, CA, Heschong has spent her career conducting groundbreaking research, first on thermal qualities in architecture, and later daylight in architecture. After graduating from MIT in 1978, Heschong worked as a designer for several architectural firms but quickly grew frustrated that she was unable to convince colleagues about the importance of providing and/or simulating daylight indoors when designing buildings.
“The design of windows is really the greatest gift that architects can give to a building’s occupants over the course of [the building’s] lifetime,” said Heschong. “Nobody else has the power to change this other than the original building designers. It’s very important that they get it right and they understand both the benefits and also how to manage all of the factors relative to windows and skylights to create a physically and visually comfortable environment.”
She stressed that in conceiving buildings, architects must consider not just the visual impact of windows, but how to create ambient lighting that occupants will not have to constantly block off with window coverings. If angles of light haven’t been properly considered, as well as sight lines from indoors to outdoors, the value of a window’s architectural gift has been degraded.
Daylight = Productivity and Cost Savings
Heschong’s studies conducted in both the 1990s and early 2000s uncovered the impact of daylight on retail and educational environments across Seattle, Colorado and Southern California. The findings in retail from a 1999 study, which can be reviewed here, were particularly striking.
“The [retail] chain that I worked with was seeing a 40 percent increase in their gross sales for their day-lit stores compared to their non-day-lit stores,” Heschong said. “This was a fall-off-the-back-of-your-chair kind of number.”
Her studies’ findings from school districts she researched, and from later, more in-depth studies on the office environment of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which can be reviewed here, were similarly unequivocal.
Greater access to daylight led to higher test scores in the schools and led to fewer health complaints (particularly in reference to headaches, fatigue and stress levels), and to fewer complaints about the offices in general relative to factors like thermal comfort and air quality.
View Quality Considerations
Findings around view quality have also been informative throughout Heschong’s research. She argues that being closer to a window with a large view and views of the sky, vegetation or human activity can have a positive effect on performance. Her subsequent studies confirmed those assertions, proving that anything which gets in the way of those views – such as bars, screens, or even too much sunlight – can and did have a negative effect.
“I have come to believe that there’s a very important distinction between daylight as the illuminant in the space – providing the light that allows you to see everything – and the view out of the window,” said Heschong. “Those are two distinct and separate concerns.”
Heschong notes that certain design techniques will help balance light throughout the day. Placing windows facing in multiple directions, for example, and using skylights and/or clerestory windows can all drastically alter the indoor environment and the impact created by natural light sources. Shading techniques can also make a big difference. When comparing the use of roll-up and roll-down shading systems, she found that roll-up systems saved 27 percent of lighting energy. This was because users were happy to allow more light in from above, thereby minimizing the use of artificial lighting.
She believes so strongly in view quality and its physiological, social and cultural impact, that she is currently working on a book on the subject titled, Visual Delight in Architecture, set to publish in 2019.
Innovation in Electric Lighting Systems
Heschong is encouraged that her findings have played into a greater awareness about daylighting and view quality in the design community. While she asserts that a building’s design is paramount, she also believes that technological innovations have helped improve interior spaces.
“A huge change has come with LED digital lighting,” she said. “The controls are so much easier, and we have so much more opportunity to control on a highly granular basis.”
The introduction of solutions which allow changes in color temperature and focus at a very fine scale have helped designers to create interior environments whose electric lighting systems better supplement – not attempt to imitate – daylight. Although nothing replaces natural daylight, she says, the dynamic electric lighting solutions now in market provide excellent options for supplementing daylight when daylight is unavailable.
“Rather than punching holes in a wall” to let light in, says Heschong, the job of architects and designers is to help daylight create a more successful environment.
If and when these decisions are given the appropriate time and consideration, the supplemental indoor lighting choices become far easier and lighting solutions begin to naturally present themselves.
Look for future installments of this The Right Environment series profiling additional perspectives from industry experts.