By Nicholas Szczepaniak
As new parents, my wife and I endeavored to block out the evening light seeping in around the edge of the blinds in our son’s room. Since the birth of our baby boy, we have become increasingly sensitive to the body’s primal relationship with light and its crucial role in aiding our son to get a good night’s sleep.
As an architect who is deeply interested in how the design of our homes can influence these physiological responses, it has been a reaffirming experience for me to witness my son’s development and understand how light and darkness can have such a dramatic effect on the biological rhythms of the human body. Understanding this relationship is why our architectural studio, Szczepaniak Astridge, takes great care designing buildings with light intensity, color temperature, and the sun’s path in mind. We acknowledge it as a critical constraint within our projects, and it’s just as much of an organizing element of the home as human rituals and patterns of living.
Having the correct amount of light exposure is critical to our health. The circadian rhythm is our 24-hour body clock that controls the daily schedule of our sleep and wakefulness and is highly sensitive to light. It intuitively follows the patterns of the sun; when you are first exposed to sunlight in the morning, the rhythm triggers the release of cortisol, which stimulates alertness. In the evening, the body’s melatonin levels rise when dark and remain elevated throughout the night to promote sleep. Exposure to artificial light disrupts this natural process and reduces the amount of melatonin the body produces, making it more difficult to sleep.
The relationship between people, building layout, and orientation of the sun is not a new one. When technology was infant, the sun was a source of energy that created the best conditions for living. An example of this is the Acropolis of Selinunte in Italy. Here, the eastern orientation means that the sun briefly shines into each room at sunrise, creating a spectrum of different atmospheres and light conditions. The architects certainly understood that harnessing the sun’s light meant easier day-to-day function.
On the Spanish island of Majorca, architect Jørn Utzon constructed Can Lis, a house for his family’s personal use. Utzon’s design allows the sunlight to move through the house during the day; this provides a sense of time passing by, like looking at a sundial. Bedroom pavilions are located on the east side of the house, so inhabitants are woken by the sunrise. As the day advances, other living spaces are set progressively to the west to mirror the sun’s movements. The living room has a skillfully located opening in the southwestern wall so that the space receives a sunbeam at every sunset.
In our project Larch House, we were commissioned to design new living spaces as a bridge between the darker areas of the existing house and the brighter areas outside. Light permeates the larch and glass structure, giving the space an intimate connection with the weather and a heightened sensitivity to momentary dips in light as clouds pass in front of the sun. During the day, the family spends most of their time in the new light-filled spaces and then retreats into the existing house where it is darker during the evening.
It is not surprising that many modern living spaces are not conducive to maintaining healthy sleep patterns. Modern-day life has overexposed us to devices and living spaces that have disturbed our primal relationship with the sun. We have screens on our person constantly, and often in every room of our homes. Artificial lights emit the same intensity and color temperature of sunlight throughout the day, which interrupts our circadian rhythms and, ultimately, our quality of sleep.
Technology has the potential to improve our lives and the comfort of the spaces we inhabit. However, it can also be argued that it has distanced us from our primal relationship with the sun’s cycle. As we move forward in the future, it’s imperative to consider how we plan our spaces and our activities throughout the day in relationship to light; rekindling our relationship to the sun through the spaces we inhabit is essential to bringing our bodies back into sync with our natural circadian rhythms.
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