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“Where’s the sun?”, a design challenge to be reassessed

Where in your new house do you want the kitchen with breakfast nook? “Facing east, of course, since that’s where we’ll be in the morning. And the salon facing west because that’s where we are in the evening,” my parents invariably reply. And when my children play with their brand-new Christmas toys, their play spot also follows the sun. I also catch myself doing this: following the sun, as well as looking at the toys with some envy.

Apparently, the question, “Where’s the sun?”, keeps very few architects awake. Yet for millions of years, humans have lived in very close contact with the sun. Only in the last 100 years have humans become creatures who spend up to 90% of their time indoors. And we’d better take a moment to think about that. After all, insights from neurobiology show that living with the sun has fundamentally shaped us as human beings throughout history and that the human body cannot do without it. The ancient Greeks and Romans already applied this knowledge to the construction of their homes and bathhouses.

Où est le soleil ?

Bactericidal UV light

In more recent times, the mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, observed that the chances of healing were the lowest in the north-facing wings of her hospitals. The burgeoning knowledge about bacteria at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century proved her right and demonstrated the bactericidal qualities of UVa light. The importance of UVb light for the production of Vitamin D3 was proven several years later. This even resulted in two Nobel Prizes in Medicine. The influence of this scientific knowledge on the architecture of the early Modernists at that time, however, has been almost completely forgotten by the present generation. Try as it might, UV light still can’t get inside because we’ve fitted the windows in our homes with screens and hi-tech sun protection, all with the best intentions of ‘improving’ the indoor comfort.

Lumière UV bactéricide
Bactericidal UV light

Nobel Prize for circadian rhythm

Early on in the 21st century, science once again unravelled a crucial building block of our interaction with the sun. The winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Medicine discovered the ipRGC receptors in the human eye, which respond to a particular spectrum of daylight. These cells and the related cortex in our brain not only react to this spectrum, but also to its intensity, duration, evolution throughout the day and the year, and its frequency. In essence, this regulates our biological clock, also known as our circadian rhythm. This clock is our metabolism’s operating system – including things like the production of hormones that help us sleep and wake up (cortisol, serotonin, melatonin), regulate our body temperature, blood pressure, etc. – and is very sensitive to dysregulation. This is certainly the case for weaker people, such as the sick, the elderly, and young children. But healthy young adults are just as susceptible. The pathologies that science has been able to link to a disturbed circadian rhythm are beyond comprehension.

In the meantime, architects have to give up more and more potential high-quality interior space to the ever-increasing number and size of technical installations, which are supposed to increase the user’s ‘comfort’.  Space is shrinking, false ceilings are getting lower and lower. Fundamental spatial quality is being lost.  It is a pity that these installations often don’t live up to what the theory promises when put into practice, provided that the user is able to operate and maintain them well at all. On the other hand, many surveys in building patrimony have often shown that users are most satisfied when they have a window (light), with a pleasant view (visual comfort), which can be opened (personal comfort), and which has an (interior) screen that they can operate themselves (visual comfort).

Fundamental question, fundamental health

This brings us to the fundamental theme of the window as an interface between inside and outside: the challenge is not only to make ‘inside’ look like ‘outside’ as much as possible, but also not to let the disturbing influences of ‘outside’ come ‘inside’. These are fundamental design questions that you can’t solve post-factually with a technical intervention such as outdoor screens that – if the designer is honest – you have to lower almost constantly in order to guarantee the desired thermal comfort inside. Here, too, the designer must take up the challenge of developing an integrated response in which user experience and well-being are paramount.

Therefore, it’s high time that architects once again asked themselves the questions, “Where’s the sun? How does the sun reach the people?”. As an architect, you are partly responsible for the fundamental health of the users of the buildings you design. Therefore, it’s high time that architects incorporate this duty of care into their design practice and that they are given the opportunity, space, and authority to do so. And that, in turn, is a working point for the client.  The multiple generations of building users will thank you!

la fenêtre comme interface entre l'intérieur et l'extérieur
La fenêtre comme interface entre l'intérieur et l'extérieur

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