Natural lighting in architectural design: a conversation with architect Stuart Shell

Why is natural lighting such an important part of today’s design philosophy? How does natural light accentuate other design elements? How long has the emphasis on natural light been such a primary focus of architectural design, and have the appetites for daylighting from building owners changed over the years?

“Artificial lighting” is a relatively recent development in architectural technology, and a design element that continues to become more sophisticated. However, from a philosophical standpoint, recent attention has somewhat shifted back to natural lighting, in part due to interest in revisiting the wisdom of older buildings. Aesthetically, natural lighting is the most visually pleasing and complimentary to both the inside and outside of buildings. Vision is our dominant sense, and because our senses are intertwined, other aspects of our spaces, such as acoustic features, artwork, and furnishings, also feel better when lighting is good. Natural lighting is so appealing because it is dynamic – for example brightness of light during different times of the day and ‘color’ as it fluctuates with passing clouds. Electric lighting technology is beginning to emulate these natural patterns, but there’s a long way to go, and we’re also only just beginning to understand how much we appreciate and benefit from natural lighting as a species.

Designs featuring natural lighting are beginning to pop up in pockets locally, but the element has yet to become a trend in a broad, significant way. In high performance design buildings, where increased occupant outcomes and resource efficiency are paramount, natural lighting has been the first design strategy since the 1970s. However, these facilities aren’t overly common in our region yet, and building owners have not significantly invested in this type of design in the Midwest. In recent years owners have recognized the trend and are responding positively with interest, but haven’t yet started to make decisions to lease or build spaces that are driven by natural lighting.


From a practical perspective, what does using natural light do for a company’s bottom line?  What does it do for its workforce? What does it do for attracting talent or to aid learning (as in a school setting) or setting the ambiance (as in a restaurant or a church)?

From a bottom line perspective, use of natural lighting is a practical financial benefit in several ways. As a result of reduced electricity use, natural lighting logically reduces utility costs for building owners. However the highest impact of natural lighting may be employee retention, as the cost of turnover can be debilitating to an organization. Employees are found to be happier and have a stronger desire to work in spaces with ample daylight. Additionally, revenue studies have shown higher profits due to productivity gains and presenteeism as a result of high quality indoor environments directly correlated to natural lighting.

Studies also link increased student achievement with natural lighting in classrooms, and worship spaces value natural lighting from a spiritual perspective. Elements of tranquility and solemnity are found in the peace of natural lighting, which provides a gravity towards the sacraments of worship in a way that electrical lighting cannot.


What are the challenges to maximizing natural light in projects?  New buildings can be oriented a certain way, but they still have to contend with what’s around them (trees, taller buildings, etc.). What tactics and techniques can be executed when rehabbing older buildings?

For many reasons, the ways in which we use modern spaces have pushed us away from buildings that are connected to the outdoors. For example, hospitals are driven by efficiency of floor plans, but operationally these designs don’t often allow for inclusion of windows and natural light. The challenge is resourcefully crafting such specialized programs into spaces that also respect the human desire for access to the ecosystem.

Additionally, though tall surrounding buildings, large trees, and other site elements can be seen as a barrier to maximizing natural light, they are also unique elements of beauty.  Finding ways that the challenges presented by such obstacles is key to a successful daylighting strategy. Light dappled by trees and other cover can be exceptionally beautiful in the right spaces.

Identifying optimal spaces on floor plates and thinking carefully about building shapes provides the most organizational benefit in maximizing natural lighting. Working to create access to daylight and views based upon desires, company culture, and other distinctive factors unique to each client is essential in making the best use of natural light. Even further, the ability to shape programming around natural resources like light and views is a highly desirable option, if feasible.


Is/are there new technology or new products that assist in designing spaces with ample or maximum natural light? What kinds of products or technology is used to control the daylight during warmer months to keep interiors from getting too hot and how can these be reversed or adjusted during a Nebraska winter? What has the demand for daylighting done to spur innovation and drive down cost of building components related to this feature?

There are several new technologies and tools that enable incorporation of natural lighting into design, not only for aesthetic purposes but for sustainable, energy-saving measures as well. The Daylighting Pattern Guide is an interactive tool for the design of daylighting strategies in a variety of building types and spatial organizations that uses built examples and advanced simulation techniques. This is a simple resource for owners and designers to explore daylighting concepts and principles.

A daylight harvesting system is technology that allows for automatic, yet gradual interior lighting controls to dim or increase as natural daylight changes. This technology is evolving quickly in the design profession, and not only imperceptibly changes illuminance levels, but can also adjust the color temperature of light. Lighting changes to mimic natural outdoor lighting in order to achieve occupant comfort while also saving energy.

There are a variety of options to thermally control daylighting through windows as well. From translucent films, light penetration control through glazing, electrochromic glass, or shading devices (automatic or otherwise), there are a multitude of ways that natural lighting can be controlled by the occupant. By selecting the right combinations of strategies based on occupant needs and a variety of factors unique to each client, quality daylighting can be achieved.

The demand for daylighting has caused lighting systems to become more affordable and more available in the market, which helps designers take advantage of natural lighting, and ultimately drives down costs for the client.


As an architect, and therefore one who balances the practical with the aesthetic, how do you use natural light to satisfy both sides of that dynamic?  Does it inspire you in a particular way? Can you point to a particularly difficult application, complicated design or challenging rehab that turned out particularly well?

Designing spaces with good daylighting requires a balance of occupant comfort and energy savings, while at the same time laying out a functional building that allows designers to take advantage of the natural ecosystem. Natural lighting is inspirational because it gives shape and form at an almost philosophical level – it’s a reminder of the bigger world we’re a part of. We spend lots of time ‘inward’ during our workdays, and natural lighting can be a reassuring reminder of our environment. Natural lighting makes spaces look better, it makes people work happier, and even scientifically, has been proven to improve patient health. Natural lighting is something that humans biologically respond to and actually need.


A particular project that posed a challenge was the new Educare of Lincoln facility in Lincoln, Nebraska. It had many constraints, including a small site with lots of elevation change. We needed to balance access to outdoor spaces such as playgrounds, with an efficient and functional program layout. The solution was to build a space with classroom ‘wings’ that offer students and teachers access to views, light, and the outdoor environment, as opposed to a more enclosed, block-style structure. Where classroom floorplates were too deep to achieve sufficient daylight from the windows, light wells were incorporated as a way to achieve natural lighting. Solutions to the challenge of providing quality daylight and outside views were achieved through creative site design and building orientation.


In February, 2016, Stuart Shell joined Forte Building Science, a division of M.E. GROUP, as a project manager. M.E. GROUP is a high performance building consulting firm dedicated to improving life through a better built environment.

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