Manny Gonzalez – The Power of Light in Modern Design

Architectural Record

December 3, 2018

Many people are looking for ways to live healthier and happier, and they expect their homes to be part of that quest. As a result, light has been increasingly on the minds of designers and architects. “People want to feel better and live healthier lives,” says Christine Marvin, director of corporate strategy and design at Marvin® Windows and Doors. “Light has a huge impact on how people feel about their home.”

Scientific evidence further affirms the reasoning behind the cultural sentiment. Research indicates that increased exposure to light makes people more productive and improves their sense of well-being, therefore improving overall wellness. It’s no surprise, then, that homeowners and architects alike are exploring ways to bring more natural light and light patterns into homes.

Biophilic Design: A Return to Evolutionary Psychology

To understand why light in the home can be so impactful, it helps to explore the concept of biophilic design. Biophilic design represents a return to evolutionary psychology and what makes us human, and then taking that into account when designing spaces. Humans have always sought certain elements to feel safe, secure, and in the most optimal emotional state, which was ingrained in us from the earliest days of days of living on terrain like meadows and the savanna.

Exposure to Light Makes Us Feel Better

The body’s response to daylight is one area where the power of biophilia becomes evident. Light exposure plays an important role in a healthy sleep/wake cycle, and daylight affects our inherent circadian rhythms, which are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. These rhythms are primarily regulated by light and darkness in one’s environment and are recognized by a third type of receptor in our eyes. The sun as a light source connects to our internal clocks, telling us when to wake and sleep.

The same idea is at work in our homes. The more exposure to the outdoors and light, the better we feel because we’re more in sync with these rhythms, and therefore more in tune with nature.   “All of these things tie into healthy living, the ability to get the sleep that you need, the wellness everyone is talking about trying to get,” says Manny Gonzalez, FAIA, LEED AP, principal and board of directors at KTGY, a Los Angeles-based architecture firm.

‘Sunshine Suits’

Conversely, research has shown that a lack of exposure to light can actually make us sick. As recently as the mid-20th century, most buildings were constructed primarily to use artificial lighting, with natural light as an afterthought. It wasn’t until the 1980s when U.S. software firms discovered one of the most detrimental factors to engagement and productivity was a lack of natural daylight. Even worse, doctors began to diagnose patients who spent too much time in artificially lit, poorly ventilated spaces with Sick Building Syndrome—a condition affecting office workers that is attributed to unhealthy or stressful factors in the working environment. The need for better, more nature-inspired conditions became apparent.

Some countries have already begun addressing their citizens’ right to light. In Japan, skyscrapers and intense urban density led to the concept of “nissho-ken,” which translates to “a right to sunlight.” After a string of “sunshine suits” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, more than 300 Japanese cities adopted “sunshine hour codes,” specifying penalties that developers must pay for casting shadows. “Sunshine is essential to a comfortable life,” the court opined, “and therefore a citizen’s right to enjoy sunshine at his home should be duly protected by law.”

If this weren’t inspiration enough to make design changes, consider that we spend up to 97 percent of our time indoors. This is all the more reason to bring light into the home to experience its myriad benefits since we may not get outside much to experience it.

A Modern Aesthetic That Maximizes Light

Modern homes tend to have more windows and narrower frames, increasing the capacity for light to pass through and offering better views. When Marvin created its new Modern product line, it offered homeowners an opportunity to embrace the principles of modern design, a concept that is closely intertwined with exposure to light.

“Our goal was to create a designed experience through a platform that offers minimal sightlines and large expanses of glass, providing seamless, clutter-free visuals and ease of engaging with windows and doors to the outside world,” says Christine Marvin of the new Modern line. “This enables homeowners to achieve what they seek in their home—connection, restoration, and freeness.”

Gazing outside inspires a direct connection to the healthy, natural state that people experienced when they spent most of their time outdoors. This speaks to biophilic design since it brings the feeling of being in nature into the built environment. “The feeling of being in nature stays with you, even while inside looking at trees, a garden, or patio,” says Gonzalez. “Your mind may not realize it, but your body wants that feeling of getting back to nature.”

Light Considerations in Design

What exactly does it mean to design around natural light? “Being able to control the lighting, whether it’s the natural light that you have, the UV rays that you get through a window, visibility, and window coverings—all those things start tying together when you’re creating the proper environment,” says Gonzalez.

Window styles, configurations, and glazing can all work together to create a functional, healthy, and inspiring light-filled home. In addition to working within the four walls of a home, thoughtful architects take siting into account—understanding the lot or land the building is on so windows can be best placed in the home to maximize natural light.

Another consideration is the difference between light and view. The two are often confused, but they’re not the same. For example, a homeowner might want more light in a room, but the view from that part of the home might be of a neighbor’s house. To have privacy on that wall, the homeowner might choose to tint or obscure that glass, allowing light to stream in even if the view isn’t worth framing.

Emotional and Physical Benefits

When a home’s design embraces and enhances the benefits of natural sunlight through deliberate choices that strengthen our connection to the outdoors, those much-desired feelings of well-being will be the natural result. “If you do a good job as an architect, the resident won’t even know that they’re experiencing biophilic design,” says Gonzalez. “They don’t even think about it—it just feels good.”