UW News

October 7, 2004

UW prof shines with world-recognized lighting lab

In Joel Loveland’s office, don’t look for the light switch.

The light of day illuminates the architecture professor’s desk. It streams through a horizontal window 20 feet above, and spends the day subtly dancing to the silent music of cloud drift and angled sun.

Under that window, Loveland runs the BetterBricks Daylighting Lab, which with little fanfare has become one of the world’s busiest centers for designing buildings that are lit, as much as possible, by natural light.

Already known among the hundreds of architects who come seeking advice, the UW lab is breaking into broader public recognition, from a glowing New York Times article last year to this week’s Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Practices.

The lab draws increasing attention because well-designed “daylighting” not only slashes a building’s lighting and cooling costs, it confers increasingly well-documented benefits on those inside.

“Daylighting started out being all about energy efficiency,” Loveland said, “but we’re also creating a better environment for people who work in buildings.”

Loveland and a staff that includes six UW architecture students collaborate with the designers of some 150 buildings a year — roughly 10 percent of all non-residential buildings going up in the Seattle area.

No such daylighting studio in the nation, Loveland said, has anywhere near as much influence on the built environment.

“To me, this is what a professional school is all about,” said Loveland, who joined the UW in 1980 and is now an associate professor of architecture. “It’s research that’s active in the community.”

The UW-operated lab, located just east of Interstate 5 on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, draws funding from the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, a consortium of utilities that credit the lab for savings of more than $1 million a year that otherwise would be spent on lighting and cooling.

Architects use the lab’s free consultation service to help design schools, offices and many other kinds of buildings — preferably, Loveland says, in the earliest stages of planning.

When done right, daylighting can cut a client’s cooling costs by 10-20 percent and lighting bills by more than 40 percent, studies show. That made the lab a natural choice to be picked by the state Department of Ecology as one of seven winners of this year’s Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Practices, which Loveland and other UW officials will receive tonight in Olympia.

Not that natural light is anything new. It was, after all, the chief source of illumination for millennia, until 20th century engineers somehow got the notion that officeworkers needed lighting of perfect uniformity.

Human beings, it seems, respond better to variety. That’s the gist of several recent studies that indicate students in daylighted classrooms score higher on tests and shoppers in daylighted stores pile more goods onto their carts.

Loveland believes this is because natural light — even if it’s indirect, even without a “view” — offers a primal link that human brains and bodies crave to what he calls “our place on the surface of the Earth.”

So what’s the big challenge? Just add windows, right? Not so fast. Direct sunlight is the nemesis of anyone squinting at a computer screen, and it can turn a summer day at the office into a sauna session.

The goal is to spread light that’s balanced, and Loveland says he spends as much time removing windows from blueprints as putting them in.

Effective daylighting, it turns out, requires factoring in a building’s location, elevation and orientation, microclimate in every season and, as if all this weren’t enough, the light-blocking buildings, hills and trees that surround it.

Fortunately, Loveland commands the Sun and Earth — with the lab’s essential tool, called the heliodon, which looks like something from a middle school science fair. Earth is an adjustable table. The Sun is a 1,000-watt theatrical light. Beam the Sun on a building model placed on the Earth (with a tiny digital camera inside the model), and you can get a pretty good look at conditions inside.

The sophisticated part is adjusting the table to simulate the latitude, rotating it to represent various times of day and tilting it to mimic days of the year — typically, June 21 (the highest sun angles), Sept. 21 (average angles) and Dec 21 (lowest angles).

“It takes some of the guesswork out,” said Greg Squires, an architecture master’s student who on a recent morning was speeding up digital video footage from the heliodon and turning it into a CD demo for the architects designing a college fitness center. The CD showed the fitness room with and without skylights; it was clearly better with them.

“That’s the beauty of what we do,” Squires said. “There’s a direct effect, and seeing how we influence so many buildings is just incredible.”

The helidon is not the lab’s only tool. Models of buildings also do time in a walk-in room, reminiscent of a carnival hall of mirrors, called the mirror-box artificial sky. Clear panels in the walls and ceiling shed evenly diffused light that conforms to the exact standard for an “International Overcast Sky.”

The first thing most visitors do when they enter that room is blink.

“People are always surprised by how bright that is,” Loveland said.

Entering his final year of architecture study before setting out on his own, Squires gets to try out such tools not only on others’ building designs, but also on his own.

Near Squires’ computer, meanwhile, another UW architecture student refines and improves the lab’s software for predicting heat gains.

As the Daylighting Lab gains popularity among working architects, it has recently spun off a network of satellite labs: in Portland, as a collaboration with the University of Oregon; in Boise, with the University of Idaho; in Bozeman, with Montana State University, and soon, a Spokane lab with Washington State University.

Taken together, the network of labs burnishes the Northwest’s reputation for putting daylighting into practice as nowhere else.

Who would have thought that the famously rainy Northwest — Seattle averages 200-plus overcast days a year — would become the hotbed for using natural light?

“It turns out,” Loveland said, “that an overcast sky is actually a great sky to work with.”