Across the Pond

By Matt Latchford

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The ‘Right to Light’ is an awesome piece of legislation in the UK. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in the US, and references to it have even been shot down in court cases. The UK law, in layman’s terms, says that an existing property has the right to enjoy and benefit from natural light. So, if a developer comes along and wants to build a bigger building near your property, one that reduces the amount of light your property receives, then they can’t build what they’re planning to. There’s often compromise, but the law ultimately favors people’s rights to natural light. Now, quantifying how much light one is entitled to may get a little more complicated in a legal dispute, but the principle is good – and surprisingly straightforward.

As energy codes continue to evolve, though (and I should note that the ‘Right to Light’ is a zoning law), they seem to be getting more and more complicated. Some code language has become so complex that there’s a concerted effort to simplify it, for better or worse. In principle, I would agree that simplification is in the design community’s best interest, but we shouldn’t set ourselves back just because the math gets too hard. Code language should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

When considering daylighting and the individual’s right to light, how can we ensure that everyone in a building gets a piece of that daylight? Currently we do no such thing. We simply say, through energy codes, that if you have any daylight in a building, irrespective of building size or proportion, then you need to provide lighting controls to take advantage of the potential energy savings. When we discuss putting daylighting requirements into codes, any language that doesn’t deal with energy is basically forbidden. There’s no home in the current code structure for anything relating to quality. It’s good that we’re at least conscious of one of the benefits that daylighting provides, but perhaps we’re ignoring the most important reason for daylighting a building: we ignore the human factor.

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If you wanted to build the most energy-efficient structure possible, you would build a box without windows. Glass is a worse insulator than a solid wall; it lets heat enter into and escape from the building envelope. Historically, we had very large windows because they provided the sole means of lighting the spaces within – great for lighting, but bad for heating and cooling. So, once we developed cheap electric lighting, we did away with all that glass (reference most buildings built in the 1970s). Sure, energy use went down, but so did happiness. I personally went to a middle school where you had no idea what the weather was doing outside until you left at the end of the day, and I certainly would not want to spend hours on end there now. So if no glass is the most efficient, why did we start adding windows again? People’s comfort!

There have been numerous studies over the years, and a little common sense, that told us we went too far in the 1970s. Have we done enough yet, though? If people’s happiness is the real reason for introducing daylight into a building, why do some people still sit near the core of a building, with no windows in sight? Why are buildings even designed to have such spaces? If we are willing to sacrifice energy efficiency to make people happier, why do we only do a half-assed job of providing daylight and views for everyone? Social inequality? Perhaps. LEED does a great job of promoting daylighting and views as an indoor environmental quality issue, but it’s still optional, as is the whole rating system. Maybe it’s finally time to focus on what daylighting our buildings is really about and put it into code language – simple code language.

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Is it possible, then, to establish a personal right to light, and does it have any other benefits? Think about it: if we need to provide access to daylight and views for every regularly occupied space in a building, our buildings will naturally get thinner, which begets natural ventilation as well as more useful daylighting. We’ll also be able to seriously re-work our interior space planning so that there are no poor souls trapped behind the solid wall of private perimeter offices. Storage rooms and transient spaces get pushed in, and occupied space spreads outward. Ultimately, the more we can rely on naturally available resources like daylight, the more sustainable a structure becomes.

A building without windows will never be able to be inhabited without energy. Can we say, then, that every individual in a building, in their main workspace, must have access to daylight and views? From a code-language point of view, does this approach help to simplify how we regulate the use of daylighting? It’s a personal ‘right to light’ that just might help us save energy and drive future sustainable design innovation. Is it really that simple and intuitive?

Photo Credits: Paul Sableman (1), Miles Gehm (2), Joel Bedford (3)

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