A Brief History of Daylighting

William Blake’s depiction of early English factories as “dark Satanic mills” is famous. I wonder if he ever set foot in a factory built in 1840 or 1850. Illumination, by candle or kerosene lamp, was expensive in those days. Factories had huge windows to let in natural light so that the spinners, bobbin winders, and weavers could see what they were doing. This restored weaving room, orignally part of the Bootts Mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, built in the 1840s, show you what a mill interior looked like.

There’s a study famous in the history of employee motivation. It was performed between 1927 and 1932 at the Hawthorne Works in Illinois, which produced telephone equipment for Western Electric. It’s been defined as a short-term improvement caused by observing worker performance. Joseph Romm, an expert on energy efficiency and conservation, looks at the Hawthorne study in his book Cool Companies and has a differing opinion. He concluded that the improvement in performance had a lot to do with better lighting levels. The workers could actually see what they were doing!

Too many office buildings built or renovated between 1960 and 2000 are guilty of creating “dark Satanic cubicles” far from a source of natural light. (I know from personal experience. I’ve worked in more than one.) Hierarchical companies used to reward upward mobility with windows and natural light. The newest and greenest employees got the worst place to sit, in the building interior under fluorescent light, where they languished, like plants, for lack of the sun. Sometimes older buildings couldn’t be repurposed into big spaces where everyone shared access to daylight. The interior spots were the darkest, in mood as well as light.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an early practitioner of office daylighting. His building for the Johnson Wax Company in Racine, Wisconsin, built between 1936 and 1939, admitted light into a huge interior space defined by pillars rather than walls. Every spot in the interior received suffused light.

Happily, companies that pay attention to LEED standards, particularly for interiors, do things differently. Ironically, increased energy costs have taken us back to the 19th century, where using daylight is cheaper than artificial lighting. Daylight means the artificial lights can be turned lower, which eliminates glare while saving money. Daylight is also good for the body and the spirit. People who see daylight in the office feel better and work better.

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