Bright Ideas: Architects and Engineers Make the Best of Alaska’s Natural Light (or Lack Thereof)
With just three hours and forty-two minutes of sunlight on the shortest day of the year, Fairbanks—like much of Alaska—presents multiple challenges for lighting designers looking to create a pleasant, comfortable environment.
While the angle of the sun remains low throughout winter, hewing close to the horizon around the winter solstice, the other half of the year brings a wealth of daylight, creating two situations that can wreak havoc on circadian rhythms.
“The dynamics of our light cycle up here are so unique,” says Dana Nunn, interior design director at Bettisworth North, an Anchorage architecture firm. She notes that the sun’s changing angles throughout the year can change the color and the quality of the light dramatically.
“Figuring out how to balance that and give people a comfortable space to work in or to learn in, it’s important to layer light and controls, just so people can create a lighting environment that’s best for what they’re doing in the moment.”
Yet energy consumption also plays a factor, with Alaska residents often paying higher energy costs than anywhere in the United States.
That’s where LED technology, combined with integrated controls, can help manage energy use, Nunn says.
Ideally, good lighting design incorporates a “variable and flexible lighting system so that things are just as well-lit in the winter as they are in the summer,” she says. “It would be great to start with a cooler color temperature at the beginning of the day, coming down to warmer temperature during the day.”
Lighting and Mood
Nunn says that decades of research, industry standard, and best practices help determine the ideal brightness levels for various spaces, depending on their intended use, measured in foot-candles: full, unobstructed sunlight produces approximately 10,000 foot-candles of light, while an overcast day generates about 100 foot-candles.
Lighting levels in people’s work and living spaces can affect their anxiety, wellness levels, and mental acuity levels, Nunn says. That makes it important to take into account what outcomes designers are aiming for in a given architectural space.
“We talk a lot about circadian rhythm,” Nunn says, noting that a lighting design’s effect in healthcare organizations and hospitals is critical—especially when natural window light is limited. For instance, one challenge may be designing lighting to shift circadian rhythm while still allowing patients to get quality, restful sleep.
On the other hand, some clients might find that an aggressive lighting strategy best serves their interests, Nunn says, using the example of a tech company with employees working in three shifts.
“We’re designing to meet building code at the very least, while also layering lighting with health and wellness concerns in mind,” Nunn says. “Oftentimes, the code has a target range.”
Part of that process involves considering how the space will be used and what other light sources are in play, balancing those concerns to create “a more comfortable place to be,” asking questions, and working with a client to help them select lighting fixtures.
In healthcare settings, Nunn says, high-accuracy color rendering is often ideal for patient care spaces, while areas such as hallways are lighted in a way to provide smooth transition. By contrast, in office settings, a mixture of light sources provides the ideal balance between overhead lighting, natural lighting, and personal light fixtures.
“Everyone should have a task light between their screen and their eyes, and that brightness should not be brighter than that of the surrounding area,” she says.
Alaska’s Natural Light
Alaska’s architectural lighting considerations also vary by latitude.
“There’s a little difference between lighting a building in Anchorage versus Togiak or Nuiqsut,” says Channing Lillo, vice president and principal electrical engineer at RSA Engineering.
North of the Arctic Circle, summertime’s midnight sun might make a clear glass lobby or atrium space seem ideal. “It’s great for a few months out of the year,” Lillo says.
But for the rest of the year it’s far more preferable to incorporate lighting controls to mimic daylight. “You want it just to feel right, and you almost don’t want to know why,” Lillo says.
“Color temperature is amazing, and it’s probably one of the most misunderstood elements by consumers,” Lillo says, noting that depending on a building’s architectural details—richly colored cherrywood columns, a bright white ceiling, beige walls—it might make sense to match the color temperature to some of the finishes.
Color rendition is another important factor.
When working on a project such as the North Gallery expansion of the Anchorage Museum, light with a high color-rendering index was critical to present exhibits accurately, Lillo says. By contrast, school classrooms have different needs, he adds, noting that studies have found a connection between lighting temperature and children’s mental acuity.
One such study by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology published in 2016 looked at the effect of different color temperatures on student performance. The experiment found that students were more alert and performed better on tests under “cool” bluish lighting that mimicked sunlight at 6500 on the Kelvin scale. Meanwhile, “warm” yellowish-white lighting rated at 3500 K encouraged the students’ recess activities.
Gains in Energy Efficiency
Lillo says that high-efficiency lighting can pay for itself in the long run, despite slightly higher up-front costs—and the same goes for building upgrades.
“It’s a small portion to just buy new lights,” Lillo says. “That would be step one. Just on that, you can basically save 33 percent from going from fluorescent to LED—just in bulb costs.”
Automatic on/off switches can provide 20 percent to 30 percent in additional savings, he adds, although “that also makes it more complex.”
Lillo says sustainable, energy-efficient building designs just make sense from an economic standpoint. “Those concepts will pay for themselves over the life of the building.”
Additionally, Alaska has adopted International Energy Conservation Code that applies to new public buildings, such as schools, which Lillo says translates into a good use of public money. “It’s going to require that you have a highly efficient building, which is a better deal for the taxpayer in the long term.”
“For many, many years, as an architectural entity, we’ve been circling around the notion of what makes something Alaskan,” says James Dougherty, managing principal, Alaska, at RIM Architects. “How do we capture something uniquely Alaskan?”
One of the leading ideas that RIM focused on was the state’s abundance of summer sun, and its opportunities to “harness daylight”—an endeavor that involves balancing it with artificial lighting. “The two go hand in hand,” Dougherty says.
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The approach aims to address seasonal changes in the availability of natural light by creating a system that works for both.
In the past, one aspect of that was installing fluorescent lighting fixtures, Dougherty says, though now it’s LED lighting—an investment that can quickly pay for itself in energy savings.
Another strategy is increasing ceiling heights to allow sunlight to reach deeper into the building, he adds.
But solving one problem can sometimes inadvertently create another; larger windows let in more light, but “glass is not a very good insulating material of the building’s exterior, or the building envelope,” Dougherty says. “The more glass you have, the more heat loss you experience.”
In the summer, that light-friendly glass also traps more heat unless the effect is mitigated.
That leaves a designer with the task of finding “a happy medium from an economic standpoint,” Dougherty adds.
The STG office in Anchorage, a RSA Engineering project.
The Best Solutions
“We have a quality of light that is really kind of problematic to deal with,” Dougherty says of Alaska. “That sun being low in the sky means that you have this really intense light source in your view shed.”
Sunlight originating near the horizon can throw off workers’ ability to see their desktops, contributing to eye strain and headaches. That intense light might prompt office workers to pull the shade, but that might mean everyone is in the dark again, Dougherty says.
On a sunny day, individual offices might have shades drawn while others keep them open, leading to “a jack-o’-lantern effect,” Dougherty says. “You have this haphazard, higgledy-piggledy effect, where people pull their shades in April and leave them down until October. Some people say that’s kind of fussy, what the building looks like. They might say, ‘We don’t really care,’ but when you’re setting the high mark, you do care.”
Some treatments for reducing the entry of sunlight into a building, such as a woven stainless steel fabric, don’t necessarily work in Alaska, given the ice and snow that could accumulate on such exterior features and present a safety hazard. “Aesthetically it may be a good idea, but when you add up the ergonomics and the safety, it’s just not worth it,” Dougherty says.
Instead, RIM looked at the potential of increasing the amount of incoming light directed toward the ceiling. This can be achieved by using a daylight diffuser—“It’s kind of like rice paper,” he says—or daylight panels that incorporate nanotubes to bounce sunlight off the ceiling, also reducing glare.
An exterior view of the Bill Sheffield Alaska Railroad Depot, an RSA Engineering project, at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Modern office buildings, built with an abundance of windows and state-of-the-art energy conservation techniques, actually use a significant amount of energy to cool during the day when warmth from computers and workers’ body heat is factored in.
“It’s very expensive to cool that air. You’re trying to reject as much of the light spectrum that brings heat and brings light into the space,” Dougherty says. “Most office buildings—even in Anchorage, Alaska—are controlled not by heat but by air conditioning. Anytime it’s above 35 degrees outside, your building is going into cooling mode. You’re not concerned about heating the building.”
The most common way to maximize the sunlight in a space while blocking its heat is by using windows with a low-emissivity (low-E) coating, although calculating what glass is best to use in windows that face a given direction can be daunting. “There are so many factors that it can become overwhelming,” Dougherty says.
However, the development of SmartGlass, a type of self-dimming glass that can greatly reduce light transmission, has given architects a way to reduce cooling costs while preserving great views and natural light, Dougherty says. The glass’s automatic tinting occurs slowly and uniformly, allowing artificial-lighting controls to supplement interior lighting as necessary.
Bettisworth North worked closely with Perkins + Will designers to create flexible and inspiring lighting solutions at James C. Ryan Middle School in Fairbanks.
The electrochromic glass, sometimes called dynamic glass, was utilized in RIM’s design of the Fireweed Business Center for CIRI. Additionally, the Anchorage building’s windows incorporated a section of clear glass along the top to help diffuse natural light along the ceilings, providing balanced, glare-free lighting.
Doughterty says that CIRI was “very concerned about the people who would be working in their building” and looking at its future occupants from an intergenerational perspective.
Dougherty adds that recognition of a warming global climate has been “a bit of a wake-up call” for industries, and that the carbon footprint of buildings will continue to be a concern.
“There are broader societal issues that we’re trying to combat with this new building stock we’re putting out,” he adds. “We want people to be comfortable. We want occupants to be happy. It’s about making the business perform better with happy employees who are more productive.”
The Human Effect
So, what’s it like to work in a building with next-generation lighting design?
Ethan Tyler has worked for about two years in the Fireweed Business Center.
“It’s just a really comfortable space to work in, from a lighting standpoint,” says Tyler, who serves as the director of corporate affairs at CIRI, which is headquartered at the Fireweed building.
The office’s tinted windows allow for dramatic views of the Chugach Mountains, Tyler says. And beyond the scenery, the interior design’s light panels direct sunlight into and throughout the building. “It’s aesthetically pleasing, but also the light is good for people.”
Tyler says he notices a difference when he enters buildings other than his own.
“It’s funny, when you go into other buildings, you’re always comparing your space to their space,” Tyler says. “The openness, the light, the space—it just really all comes together for worker comfort.”
The lighting, he adds, makes all the difference.
“I like coming to work because I like my job anyway, but it definitely makes you want to be there.”
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The 2021 Best of Alaska Business Awards
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