Let there be light: How to illuminate your facility

Let there be light: How to illuminate your facility

Before you build, learn about daylighting, clerestory windows, building orientation, and much more.
Jun 01, 2010
By dvm360.com staff
Photo by Ed LaCasse, LaCasse Photography

There’s a secret strategy that will make your staff members feel more alert, see and perform better, achieve more of their goals, and miss work less often. Plus, it will make clients feel more relaxed and boost your patients’ well-being. And not only does this secret cost relatively little, it makes your facility look better, too.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not. The secret is sunlight. Daily exposure to natural light is proven to produce all of these benefits, says Wendy Wheeler Martinez, director of design at BDA Architecture in Albuquerque, N.M. But just cutting a hole in the wall and calling it a window isn’t enough—there’s an art to getting the proper amount of lighting in a room for maximum benefit.

“When I talk about daylighting techniques, most people don’t really know what I mean,” Wheeler Martinez says. Daylighting is not a new concept—buildings have been designed around natural light for centuries. In the 1970s, however, architects started closing up buildings to protect against solar heat gain. Then, in the late 1990s, high-performance glazing became available and sustainable design techniques began to be enforced. Those trends continue today, with more designers and builders pushing for natural light. “Using a good planning strategy, we can capture more light without spending more money,” Wheeler Martinez says. “And appropriate window and skylight placement can improve the quality of interior light and reduce energy costs.”

Photo by Mike Potthast, Potthast Studio

Once upon a time, using natural light in a veterinary hospital meant putting the exam rooms around the exterior of the building and including a window in each room. Good start, but that wasn’t enough. The surgical, treatment, and kennel teams often didn’t know if the sun was shining or the rain was falling until they left the practice at the end of the day.

With a few (not-so-simple) strategies that a skilled architect or builder can help you implement, all team members will reap the rewards of a well-lit facility. Whether you’re planning a new building or a small remodeling project, the following tips can help you see the light. Incorporate one or all, and enjoy the benefits that are sure to follow.

Use light sensors. When natural light is captured and controlled, and allowed to bounce into the inner sanctum of a hospital, the need for artificial lighting lessens. That’s where light sensors come into play. A light sensor measures has two components. One component measures the amount of natural light in a room, while the other component automatically adjusts the artificial light level to make up the difference.

For example, if a room is flooded with indirect natural light at midday, there may be little to no need for artificial light. But as the sunlight wanes during the afternoon, the artificial lights ramp up to compensate. “This saves energy and provides an optimal general background light,” Wheeler Martinez says.

Orient the building. You can’t always control which direction a building faces. But when possible, orient the length of your building to face north and south, Wheeler Martinez advises. “North-facing windows capture natural light without a glare, and south-facing windows—with the assistance of light shelves—bounce natural light deep into spaces by reflecting indirect light off of white ceilings,” she says.

Photo by Dr. Robert Ness

Incorporate clerestory windows. Clerestory windows are, simply, windows placed high along the wall to let in natural light. These windows are especially useful when you want to avoid the glare or heat that a large window at eye level might admit. Used in conjunction with deep roof overhangs, baffles, light shelves, and the right wall and ceiling color, clerestory windows are the answer for builders who hope to bathe a room in soft, natural light.

Use light baffles and shelves. These tools help shield or guide light from a certain angle. Baffles hang parallel to a building and are used to reflect light into north-facing windows. “These are great for capturing southern light for north-facing buildings,” Wheeler Martinez says.

A light shelf is a structure that sits below or near the top of a window. Light bounces off the shelf, through the window, onto the ceiling, then down into the space, Wheeler Martinez says. Light shelves are typically positioned near the top of large “view” windows, but hang below transom or clerestory windows. Above a view window they act similarly to sunshades by screening the direct heat gain from southern exposures.

Open the roof. Skylights can sometimes be a better light source than windows, Wheeler Martinez says, but they have to be positioned just right. A skylight in the center of the room can admit too much glare depending on the sun’s angle throughout the day. But if it’s positioned at one end of the room, an interior wall can serve to bounce the indirect light back into the space. A second skylight at the opposite end of the room will balance the contrast of light and make the space visually more comfortable, Wheeler Martinez says.

This list is obviously just a starting point for the conversation with your architect and builder about light use. As Wheeler Martinez says, “Daylighting doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. It can be achieved simply by using the same number of windows but placing them in strategic locations to maximize the final effect.”

Photo by Jose Barrios

When Dr. Loren Nations built Veterinary Healthcare Associates in Winter Haven, Fla., last year, letting the sunshine in was a big priority. The previous 3,000-square-foot building had virtually no natural light; now the team enjoys 11,000 square feet with natural lighting flowing throughout, clever accent lighting for effect—and much cheerier moods.

1  Clerestory windows. “Dr. Nations wanted an open, airy feeling in the reception area, and he accomplished that with high ceilings and lots of windows, including clerestory windows,” says hospital administrator Julie Stewart. “It’s not the usual closed-in feeling with fluorescent lights.”

2  Light tubes. Light tubes are a way of transferring natural light farther into the building, via skylights, and are a popular daylighting technique. Dr. Nations included two in the hospital’s rehabilitation area and one in the ICU to give patients more of a natural feel of day and night. “Having more daylight throughout the building has also been really helpful for our staff,” Stewart says. “The ICU is a stressful environment, but sunshine really pumps up our moods and makes a dramatic difference.”

3  Pendant lighting. Of course, plenty of sunshine doesn’t mean there’s no need for accent lighting. Being in Florida, Veterinary Healthcare Associates enjoys bright natural light most of the year, but Dr. Nations also wanted striking accent lighting, especially in the reception area. Here he used pendant lighting at the check-in and checkout areas.

4  Motion lights. To save on energy—both human and electrical—Dr. Nations installed motion-sensor lights in every room. When a person enters, the lights come on; after a set period of inactivity, the lights turn off. “Unfortunately we learned the hard way that motion-sensor lights don’t work in the overnight room,” says Stewart. “When our on-call doctor would roll over in his sleep, the lights came on!”

Sarah Moser is a freelance writer and editor in Lenexa, Kan. Post comments or questions on our message boards at dvm360.com/hdboard, or e-mail them to [email protected]