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How Much Light is Enough?

Aug 31, 2016 10:31AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Pompeii Stones

Living with a forest of trees on the slope of a valley in southwestern Pennsylvania, there is a certain time of day, just before sunset, when the sun is hidden from view behind a western hill, but still casting sunlight on the trees to the east. This period lasts only a few moments; however, it is the best light of the day—the magic of the forest comes to life.

A slight breeze tickles a few trees high in their peaks; sunlight dances from one branch to the next, soaking bright green leaves in an amber glow that weaves through the depth of canopy in dimensional pockets of light and shadow. Waldbäume, or forest trees, are not the same as a solitary tree isolated by a well-manicured lawn. This light of the forest reveals the fullness of trees, their true measure. As an architect, they remind me of the potential in light to create a meaningfulness felt by a wonder of nature's endlessness.

Earlier this summer, my family traveled to Pompeii, Italy, to visit the ruins of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago. A Roman city clad in stone, trees were confined to interior courts and not found along the streets. However, the stones that lined these streets told another story of light, revealing a secret that has been hidden for some time. Irregular shaped stones filled the streets and in-between spaces at corner joints were filled in with coin-sized fragments of Italian white marble. The Romans were resourceful people with nothing wasted; not even moonlight, which reflected off these small pieces of stone, appearing to the eye as twinkling stars on full moon nights.

I am not sure that we would notice such nuanced light today—certainly not when drowned out by street lights. Our electric world has an abundance of light, day and night. Sensitivities have dulled to the subtleties of light. We live in a time that is experiencing an easing of precision, by distancing ourselves from a tactile existence.

The typical suburban home illustrates this point; the house and lot are created with as few shadows as possible, exposing interiors to a flood of light. Windows are not carefully placed as apertures metering light; rather, they are lesions, growing across exterior walls without intention. Eaves are more like a ripple of trim work marking the transition from wall to roof, rather than an overhang to shade and provide cover from the sun.

Inside, walls and ceilings are painted white, dispelling shadows in the farthest corners. When music is amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost—so, too, beauty vanishes under the harsh glare of light. Brightness may provide good lighting for the tasks at hand in an operating room, but it is the quality of light on the theatrical stage, measured and balanced, that captures the dramatics of life.

We must be attentive to achieve such an effect. Curtains that filter light homogeneous, muted without soul, must be pulled back to establish a connection to the outdoors unfiltered. For a home to feel as if it was made for us, openings must be proportioned to the scale of a human being. It is the relationship of our body to the space, defined by a window fitted as a suit, that allows just the right amount of sunlight to pour in, resonating with our soul.

We are creatures of light, emotionally and physically, and our houses should celebrate this. Fluctuations of intensity in rhythmic waves as clouds drift past remind us that sunlight is a living, breathing thing; not the stagnant illumination from artificial lighting.

Daily acts are more pleasing when experienced within the variations of natural light, communing with the sun. Furnishings should be placed to receive sunlight across their surfaces, shadows articulating form. When a room is composed as a whole, daylight timed with ritual acts, such as morning coffee or an afternoon snack, a meaningfulness returns.

In the design of a house, nothing is more important than light. Without it, a house is only good for sleeping. An architect knows it is the crafting of light, its modulations carving out of space, that makes for a home. And maybe by handling sunlight with a little more care, our eyes may soon appreciate the delicacy of moonlight and the stars overhead.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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