For many of us, the first thing we do after waking up in the morning is open the blinds or curtains on our windows. After being indoors for a little too long, we feel the familiar pull to step outside for some sun, even if just for a few minutes. And after a long winter, we anticipate the arrival of spring and setting our clocks forward to gain an extra hour of daytime. It’s a fact; we crave daylight because it has an inarguable positive impact on us.
So it’s no surprise that daylighting is a popular design strategy. It’s defined as the controlled admission of natural light – direct sunlight and diffused skylight – into a building to reduce the use of artificial electric lighting and save energy. But it’s also used to create a more natural, pleasant and healthy indoor environment. Daylighting is frequently introduced in corporate offices; sunshine in lieu of fluorescent light is well-known to boost employee productivity, wellness and job satisfaction. And daylighting is also a common feature in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, contributing to improved patient outcomes and recovery times.
But when you think of industrial facilities – manufacturing plants and the like – you probably don’t immediately think of a bright, cheerful workspace. Plants of the present day usually have few conventional windows, relying instead on artificial lighting to illuminate the interior, particularly in process areas. But that hasn’t always been the case. Steel mills from the 1800s and early 1900s were, in fact, full of sun. Rows and rows of windows into the main process area provided a wonderful distribution of natural light.
So why did we steer away from that trend over the last century? Well, daylighting in industrial facilities isn’t without challenges. For many companies, privacy is a factor. They don’t want their equipment or processes visible to outsiders peering in, so windows aren’t ideal. Glass window panes can create maintenance issues in facilities where dust and debris are produced. Glare on computer screens and monitors can also be problematic. And improperly designed windows and skylights can introduce an even bigger problem: water infiltration. Water leaking into an industrial environment can contaminate products or disrupt production processes, and it can also be quite dangerous if it interacts with certain chemicals or equipment.
However, daylighting in industrial facilities has great merit and many benefits. Natural light can improve focus, productivity and morale for employees, especially those assigned to repetitive tasks – which is common in an industrial setting – and it can also stimulate greater creativity with those responsible for non-repetitive tasks. Workstations are also better illuminated, with natural light creating less glare than artificial light. And, of course, there are the economic advantages. Daylighting can significantly reduce electrical costs, saving a company a great deal of money both short-term and long-term (and payback is often fairly fast.)
Traditionally, techniques such as integration with electric lighting controls – so artificial lights dim (or even turn off) when daylight is brightest and turn back on as daylight fades – have evolved in their reliability and become more cost-effective. We can also paint interior walls certain colors to better reflect or better absorb light based on location within the building, and capture natural lighting from one location and directionally transmit it to another. But daylighting strategies are becoming much more high-tech. I recently saw a window available for purchase that places a special film between two panes of glass. The film is connected to a wire, which can from there be connected to a building’s automation system, allowing users to adjust the window from transparent to tinted to opaque, based upon lighting needs during different times of day and different activities. And the price for such features is coming down rapidly, so design implementation is more and more feasible.
So how does all of this apply to your company? Is daylighting the right strategy for your facility? Does it make sense economically and practically? The answer is: it depends. Daylighting is a site-specific situation, so we would need to first begin by holistically assessing the specific facility and its associated processes and goals. For instance, if privacy is a particularly critical issue for a client, we could select a privacy window – something like a one-way mirror – or even locate the windows higher up on the building, out of view of passersby. If water leakage were of particular concern, we could explore the use of vertical (or tubular) lighting, which introduces plenty of natural light into a space by means of reflection, but without the risk of leaks from water standing on a horizontal skylight. And for clients with processes that are highly sensitive to light or UV infiltration, we can customize daylighting strategies for certain parts of the building, giving you control over what areas are exposed to sunlight.
As with most design elements, you simply can’t apply the same daylighting strategies to every industrial location; it needs to be tailored to each individual space. But it’s exciting that the value of daylighting in these types of facilities is being recognized once again.
Has your industrial facility incorporated any daylighting elements? What are your motivations or hesitations for doing so?