In these winter days. when darkness still comes early, I return home from work to find all the lights in my house blazing. My family thinks if the sun has set outside, then it's time to use every available watt to illuminate the interior of the house. I, on the other hand, believe ambient light inside the house should follow the circadian rhythm of the day. Quiet in the morning, peak in the early afternoon hours, quiet again in the evening—adding task lighting when and where appropriate.
There are a number of reasons why I should prevail in my preference, least of all the satisfaction of getting my own way. First of all, this lighting plan saves energy. Natural illumination bears the largest burden for brightening the interior, followed by downlights on their energy-conserving dimmed setting. Second, this strategy better matches the cycle of nature we have too quickly abandoned in our embrace of all things technological. In my opinion, it feels oddly uncivilized to pretend late into the evening that it's still high noon. Is it any wonder our children are still bouncing around the house like barbarians at 8 p.m., when every room is on full alert? Our easy access to energy and to bulbs that promise 100 watts for 25 have trained us that lighting has two settings: on or off. On is for when we're in the room; off is for when we leave it (if we remember to flip the switch).
Why have we forgotten the basics of good lighting? Formerly cheap and plentiful energy is one cause. Another very important contributor is the dumbing down of design in our workplaces and our new houses. Just as we've unlearned everything we knew about natural ventilation since air conditioning was invented, we've also jettisoned important wisdom about natural illumination. If we're lucky, we have an office with one window to the outside, and our new house has a window wall on one side of the family room. One exposure. Even with full sun, you need to turn on lights to reduce the glare and shadows cast by this single source of daylight. And what happens to that natural light source when the sun shifts from the eastern sky to the western? More lights flipped on.
We turn on all these lights to feel balanced, centered in our space. But if our natural light were more evenly dispersed—from a minimum of two sources and preferably three—we wouldn't need to drain the grid to lift our spirits. That infusion of daylight would fill our primal reservoirs and, come nighttime, we'd find ourselves ready to soften the hues.
In many ways, green design—the theme of this issue—means a return to basics. We shouldn't fix with energy-consuming technology what we can achieve with solar orientation and good floor planning.
It's not as easy as it sounds when we're talking about tight sites with problems of proximity to and privacy from adjacent neighbors. And it's even more difficult if the structure is a multiunit, multifamily building. There are inherent economies to housing people in denser envelopes. Already, the building type is a green move. But it can forsake much of those savings if it requires more energy to illuminate because of single exposures or to ventilate because air cannot naturally circulate.
As architect Allison Ewing, AIA, LEED AP, of Hays + Ewing Design Studio says, we can't just add a “green roof toupee” to a building and call it sustainable. Let nature do the work for you, while she still can.
Comments? E-mail: S. Claire Conroy at email@example.com.