Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Let the Sun Shine In: Turn out the Lights to Reduce Energy Costs and Improve Moods

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Let the Sun Shine In: Turn out the Lights to Reduce Energy Costs and Improve Moods

Article excerpt


A basketball player sinks a shot from across the court. The gymnasium at the Southwest Community Center in Portland, Ore., has hardly a light turned on. But it's open hours at the center and the basketball player has no trouble seeing his target. He's not aware that careful planning and construction resulted in his three-point success. After all, the court is lit almost completely by natural daylight. And that's just what the planners and designers had in mind.

Incorporating natural light into the design of recreation facilities and community centers, or "daylighting" is becoming routine practice. Letting sunlight into an atrium, fitness room or indoor pool area has numerous benefits ranging from patron well-being and interest to significantly decreased energy costs.

Light and Health

Craig Vanderbout is the interim director of the Southwest Community Center. He says that the center attracts people because of its naturally lighted de sign. "It gets people there, makes them feel more comfortable and they enjoy themselves more," he says. "I've had a number of people tell me that this feels like a home away from home."

That comfort illustrates what researchers have been saying for many years: sunlight is a human need, much like food and water. But the role of natural light on the human body is complex. While electric light provides the ability to see, it fails to compensate for the needs of the rest of the human body, which thrives on short-wave blue light prevalent in natural daylight.

Joel Loveland is a professor of architecture at the University of Washington and the director of the Integrated Design Lab, Puget Sound, which studies the human effects of lighting in architectural design. He says that this blue light is important to our internal clocks.

"People feel healthier in buildings like this," Loveland says of daylit community centers. "This is related to circadian vision--bluish light that triggers our circadian rhythms. That higher intensity bluish light affects our well-being." Circadian rhythms trigger the body's cycle of melatonin, associated with sleep, and serotonin, associated with alertness.

"Most people don't think in terms like this--they just think this is nice lighting" explains Heinz Rudolf, a principal at BOORA Architects, Inc., the firm that designed the Southwest Community Center. He says that lighting is important because it offers indoor users an awareness and connection to the outside.

"When we have windows, it allows us to see the hourly cycle, to see the weather, the seasons, the temperature changes. It's important to recognize what's going on outside from a health perspective" Rudolf says.

In simple terms, natural light makes people feel better.

A number of studies have been conducted to show positive responses to natural light in buildings. Most famously, the Heschong Mahone Group in Sacramento, Calif., conducted numerous tests on the performance of school children and in retail stores. The studies found that when the 20,000 students were tested during the school year, those whose classrooms were lit mostly with natural light increased their scores 26 percent over those in classrooms with artificial light.


The group also studied a Lawrence, Kan., Wal-Mart store, half of which was fitted with skylights. Not only did sales in the side with skylights outpace the rest of the store by 40 percent, but workers under artificial light argued that their departments should be moved to the daylit side.

Energy Savings

The benefits of daylighting buildings is two-fold. Health and wellness is an important consideration, but the reason that many buildings are built to let the light shine in is often because of the potential energy savings, which can be enormous.

Ruldolf says, "Typically, we save about 40 percent of the electrical energy by using daylighting. …

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