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Sunlight's Impact on Architecture and Health
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

It?s hard to believe, but many of us don?t get enough sunlight. In fact, we spend 99% of our day indoors, according to the American Lung Association. So, experts are now considering how architecture can enhance the indoor-outdoor connections. Phillip Mead, AIA, recently came from the University of Idaho to address the 2002 annual ASID meetings with an historical and updated analysis of the sun?s impact on architecture and health.

Sunlight has been a component in healing ever since Greek hospitals included lots of outdoor areas for therapy. More recently in 1860, Florence Nightingale wrote that patients on the bright side of a hospital recovered better than those on the dark side. Her observations led to the construction of long hospital wings surrounded by gardens. In 1903, Neils Finson won the Nobel Prize for research that proved the benefits of UV light therapy on tuberculosis. Later however, the discovery of penicillin and the widespread use of antibiotics marked the decline of environmental therapies in architectural design. Henceforth, the prevailing trend was interior efficiency and spaces that moved further and further away from access to windows.

Today, through biological and technological research, the trend is to look backwards towards the earlier philosophies and at the benefits of stronger indoor/outdoor integration. And homeowners who want healthy home environments might want to brush up on the latest facts in technology and biology.

To begin, note that window glass blocks 97% of the daylight (UV-B) that produces Vitamin D. And interior daylight drops significantly within a just few feet of a window. To bring more daylight into the home, consider bottom-up shades that open windows to the upper reaches of the sky, skylights, or peninsulas of windows, such as a bay window.

Vitamin D has been shown to have a major impact on health: it promotes regular cell growth, and thus inhibits the formation of cancers. Vitamin D helps regulate bone calcium and prevents rickets and osteoporosis; it also improves the immune system as well as nerve and muscle function. Typically, small daily doses of sunlight (an average of 15 minutes?not the prolonged exposures linked to skin cancer) provide enough Vitamin D production. But getting even this amount of sunlight is problematic if we always stay indoors. Many people get in cars that are in their garages and drive to other parking garages, which are often underground.

?If you go directly into your garage, the only real outside experience you get is driving your car, and you are inside,? Mead said.

?There is no other way to get Vitamin D, except to go outside. Outdoor rooms and outdoor kitchens, you just have to make them comfortable. So, it?s a matter of the architecture orients the outdoor space to the breezes and prevailing winds. Where it?s dry in Texas, you put on misters. A fan makes them (outdoor rooms) comfortable.?

?Some elderly housing provides gardens outside. But also the porches outside help?just getting them (older people) outside sitting on the porch. They do get indirect light. We don?t know how much; that?s some study we?ll have to do?I?ve been wanting to do for a couple of years?to see how much light you do get, Vitamin D you do get, when you?re in a shadow, when you get indirect sunlight.?

As we go into the winter months, it becomes even more important to create opportunities to go outside during daylight hours. Decreasing daylight causes depression in 1 to 10% of the population, according to Mead. This condition is sometimes called winter blues or SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Also in winter is the tendency to gain weight or experience sleep disorders.

Research has shown conclusively that the brain manufactures the chemical ?melatonin? at night to help us sleep. If melatonin is present during the day, it makes people depressed. On the other hand, bright light suppresses Melatonin production. But it takes a lot of illumination?that of a bright day to cause the suppression. Achieving such levels is easy outdoors. But on a home interior?creating the brightness of being outside can be problematic, especially in large spaces like the living room, according to Mead. ?WinterBright? therapy boxes, $320, can help alleviate the condition. But Mead suggests alternative lighting schematics.

?As you are taking a shower in the morning, maybe you can have some extra bright lights in there?have those installed,? Mead said. ?That way you don?t get the glare because glare is such a big problem with these (box) lights. They cause headaches and everything else. You?re looking at a 10,000-lum box, which is really bright. But it?s not bright if you put it outside because everything else is about 10,000-lum outside. Also, if bright lights are concentrated in a small room, if everything is lit up the same, it?s like being outside. Or maybe there?s a special nook in the kitchen or breakfast nook, where you have three walls around a table?get that space lit up; get the light to reflect off everything.? Then, reading the morning papers would be almost like being outdoors. (Caution: when outdoors, never look directly at the sun, said Mead.)

Lights can also be used to make getting up in the morning less of a struggle. Ideally, if you put your bedroom windows on the east side of the house, the sun will wake you provided you want to get up at sunrise. But for people who need to wake up at night, there is the ?Dawn Simulator,? an alarm clock that gradually turns on the bedroom lights.

?I set it for 4 and it starts coming on at 3:30 and then gradually hits 4 at full peak,? Mead said. ?Of course it has this little sound. But the light gradually wakes my body up instead of having the sound, which kind of jars you awake?doesn?t wake you gently. That?s key to having a partially good day is being gradually woken up instead of out of deep sleep.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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