Daylight can help us to live more healthily

Cora Kwiatkowski | Stride Treglown

Architects are continuously on the look-out for the better insulation, the paint with no solvents, the more sustainable timber systems, and the new state of the art material. But natural light? We don't give it the special attention it deserves, although it is a very special building material, is readily available, not owned by individuals or countries - and it is free.

In 1903 Professor Niels Finsen discovered that direct sunlight can heal tuberculosis. A few years later, the social housing revolution in Berlin, Vienna and Stuttgart (building with more ‘Licht und Luft’ – light and air) provided thousands of people in the 1920/30s with more appropriate housing giving them healthier lives. The English Government also commissioned several reports which applied to council housing such as the Tudor Walters report, based on the principles of the ‘healthy’ Garden Cities movement (1918), and the Dudley Report (1944) which significantly increased space standards. Despite limitations and increased housing demand, the standards were generally high, with average space standards reaching their highest in 1949, but no reference to daylight provisions was made. The Parker Morris standards and ‘Design Bulletin 6’ that then followed in 1963 focused on the ‘usability’ of space required to use and move around furniture and drew attention to useful door and window positions. These standards are still frequently cited even today as a good practice benchmark regarding space standards but were abolished in 1980 due to cuts in public expenditure, rising costs and increased densities in the cities which in turn led to windows becoming smaller.

By the early 1990s, a drop in Housing Association space and quality standards in England began to be identified by a number of research reports. New technologies such as high-tech materials, better insulation, framing systems, double and triple glazing etc. have since influenced the private housing market over the last decade but with not much effect on general daylight provision.  

Numerous recent studies have shown that daylight increases our concentration and efficiency, reduces depression, improves our mood and general well-being and decreases stress and illnesses. Research at the Centre of American Academy of Sleep Medicine (2013) has revealed that not only office workers’ quality of life will be improved via emphasis on light exposure and lighting levels at their workplace but also the quality of their sleep. There could be a more far-reaching socio-economic connection – would we be healthier with more daylight in our homes and offices, so putting less strain on the health system, which in turn would free up more funds to build higher quality housing? So why is there still no legal requirement for daylight in offices and why are we still living in homes with small windows?

Will daylight standards form part of our future housing standards?

Scotland has legislation relating to daylight standards, as do many other European countries, but neither England nor Wales have a national standard in daylighting. To address this fact, the RIBA launched the ‘Without Space + Light’ initiative as part of their ‘Home Wise’ campaign in 2013 after their research showed that ‘63% of people asked rated natural light as the most important aspect of a home’ and it is clear that space standards and daylight standards are closely connected.  Although the initiative was popular – mainly with architects and designers – only about 4,750 people have formally signed up for it. Is this not something we would all like? A large, airy, sun flooded home, a view from our workplace? It would seem so. In the recent consultation for the Housing Standards Review (for England) 74% of respondents replied ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Do you think that it is desirable to consider having a national daylighting standard for use in the design of new homes?’

The current Government position is that the National Housing Design Standards will incorporate space standards so the RIBA initiative has been a partial success. The draft Technical Housing Standards document is due to be published in the summer. It is currently proposed that many of the requirements of the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH) will be consolidated into Building Regulations through these Standards. But although the CSH does award a (non-mandatory) credit for daylight standards there is currently no guarantee that any daylighting requirement will be included in the Housing Standards. We can only hope that the RIBA will push for this further as it is an important concern for the public. Building Regulations currently diminish windows to means of escape ‘egress windows’ and as such only their size is regulated.

More daylight is more sustainable

Larger windows have undoubtedly advantages for our health and wellbeing and connect us more with nature and the seasons. Well positioned windows will help to save energy as solar gain during daylight hours can actually reduce heating costs and electricity bills. On the other hand, we need to consider their thermal performance and might want to collaborate with engineers to be able to balance the visual and thermal aspects better. It also needs to be considered that the light will only penetrate the space by about 6 metres so that roof lights might be more effective in certain areas.

Making a case for daylight

As architects we have the possibility to advise our clients on the benefits of more daylight, push for larger windows and include roof lights in the top floors of our buildings. We have the power to introduce daylight in the darkest buildings, create atriums– or at least light shafts– to increase the well-being and ultimately the health of the occupants. Even the most unlikely buildings can be naturally lit, as proven for example at Southwark tube station in London where a glazed roof allows daylight to enter deep into the station and adds a shimmer of daylight to the often grim morning commute.

Understanding human needs and the effect that daylight has on our environment and ourselves should be equally important to providing functional buildings and fulfilling the brief – the use of daylight will enhance our schemes and has long-term benefits for both occupants and clients. 

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