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  • Writer's pictureCheryl McIntosh

Architectural Lighting and Wellness Centered Design

Updated: Jan 2

Thoughtful architectural lighting plays an important role in promoting wellness in the built environment. Designing around natural light is gaining awareness around the world among legislators, building owners and designers. It is now considered an integral part of sustainable building design–and it has been a key part of Rhodes Architecture + Light’s design strategy since our founding almost 30 years ago.

Lighting design in Seattle

Seattle ranks as one of the cloudiest cities in the nation, and while Vitamin D supplements populate our medicine cabinets, we still need robust natural light to feel generally well. Many of us experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a form of depression that occurs during the same season each year, most commonly in the fall and winter months when there is less natural sunlight. The lack of sunlight can disrupt the body's circadian rhythms which regulate sleep and mood.

Designing around natural light for the sake of wellness is a complex task that requires a holistic approach to address the visual and biological needs of the occupants as well as energy efficiency and overall comfort. Using natural light from the sun, sky and exterior surfaces can reduce energy consumption in the process of making us feel better in the spaces we inhabit.

“Our lamps are in the garage. We have all the light we need in here. We have one floor lamp in the whole house and it’s decorative. It’s amazing to think you can build a whole house and not put one lamp in.” –Homeowner

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a remarkable 90% of city dweller lives are spent indoors. This is why Rhodes Architecture + Light looks for ways to bring the outdoors, in. Deliberate and strategic lighting design–both natural and manufactured–is shown to promote wellness and improve the overall health and well-being of building occupants. Nowhere is the effect of wellness-centered lighting more noticeable than in the home environment where we raise our children, cook + entertain, unwind and even work.

Orienting a home along an east-west axis is a first possible step in optimizing the use of natural light in the home. When the long axis of a home runs east to west, the windows on the south side of the home will receive the most direct sunlight during the day. This can provide natural thermal gain during the colder months when the sun is lower in the sky while roof overhangs reduce the effects of direct sunlight during the summer.

A study by the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that exposure to natural light in the morning can help regulate circadian rhythms and improve sleep. With careful planning, east facing windows can capture the sun rising in the morning for its full health benefits. For example, abundant natural light in an east-facing dining room has the potential to give homeowners a natural boost as they start their day. At Rhodes Architecture + Light, we collaborate with our clients and think through how they use their homes–then design accordingly.

“It’s lit in a way that lamps aren’t really necessary, which is unusual to me in a house. It’s bright, even at night. In the NW it’s dark as can be and it’s nice to have the lighting. The light is warm and we can make it softer or brighter. That was one of the things that stood out to us when we were selecting an architect–that they did lighting.” –Homeowner

Kitchen lighting design in modern Seattle home

Natural light can also reduce or even eliminate the use of powered lighting for much of the day, reducing energy, the use of fossil fuels, and greenhouse gas release. Passive strategies such as light shelves or louvers mitigate the intrusion of direct sunlight in warmer seasons while admitting diffuse daylight inside the space. Strategically placed windows and skylights gently track the sun’s progress throughout the day and help our bodies align with circadian rhythm while bringing an overall sense of well-being.

“We have this gorgeous skylight that brings in all this light and it’s amazing to watch how the light patterns change as the season changes. We keep meaning to take a series of pictures to show how the light changes over a year. It’s fantastic. Our dogs love finding the pool of light and taking a nap.” –Homeowner

Rhodes Architecture + Light designed three new residences at Anderson Gardens with a large (20 foot by 10 foot) overhead glass skylight system that is centered on the dining + kitchen, primary gathering spaces, and the central stairwell to the lower level. Owners reported that they rarely use electric lighting as a result, feel calmer and more positive, and appreciate the focus on the central “core” of their home.

During the initial planning phase, we will walk your lot with you and talk through ways to orient your home to maximize your views and connection to nature. In a 1984 Science article, it was reported that surgery patients who had a view of the trees in their room recovered faster and required less pain medication compared to those without a view into nature. While it’s hard to predict the nuanced effect of wellness-centered architecture, lighting and a connection to the outdoors on each individual, we know that our clients have reported positively about their experience in the homes that we design.

“…if you want someone who can capture light so beautifully and create very livable spaces–I’m standing here in a line of light coming through the skylight and it’s great. I love it.” –Homeowner

“The first thing we noticed when we moved into this house (designed by Rhodes Architecture + Light) was the light and how much that affected our mood in terms of waking up, and feeling lighter for some reason. I guess I’d say that seems to be one of the characteristics that I notice with their work is how they handle light and how it affects peoples’ moods in the house.” –Homeowner

With a deliberate and strategic view of lighting design, we can create spaces that not only reduce energy consumption but also improve the overall health and well-being of the people who use the buildings we design. We live in a uniquely beautiful region–made possible by the rain. Harnessing and controlling our precious light is essential not only for energy savings, but also critical to our general state of mind. We use every method at our disposal to meet both needs–from the home’s orientation on a site, to built-in passive energy saving strategies that increase the home’s overall comfort and felt experience.

Rhodes Architecture + Light prioritizes the health and wellness of our owners by emphasizing a connection to light and nature in the commercial and residential spaces we design. We would love to learn your wellness goals and demonstrate how architecture and light can help you achieve them holistically.

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