Sunlight and good design

Sunlight and good design

This article is going to piss some people off. I know that now, because this article questions a commonly held assertion that north-facing is best. Don’t get me wrong. Homes and gardens that face north have some advantages over others. As the main source of sunlight in the Southern Hemisphere, north is definitely a good thing. But sometimes you don’t want direct sunlight, and sometimes homes that face south can also be light-filled, wonderful places to live.

When my partner and I first moved to Sydney we lived in a little shoe-box apartment in Darlinghurst. It was at the back of a 40s block and faced more or less south-west overlooking Paddington. It didn’t have a single window facing north or east, yet from morning till night was filled with a wash of indirect light that made it utterly charming to be in. Not once did we crave direct sunlight or wish we had a north-facing window. This was interesting for me, for I had been educated that apartments such as ours should be depressing, cold and dark places where mould thrives. I guess this might have been the case had it been a ground floor unit with no ventilation, but on the third floor with ample windows to let in light it was just great.

It made me think a bit about the nature of light, and the ingredients that make up a pleasant living environment.

It’s well known that artists prefer the constant quality and non-glare of indirect southern light -“ light that emanates from the sky away from the sun. Studios should always be designed with ample south-facing glass, yet modern designers are somewhat obsessed with facing living areas towards the north.

This idea is based on the useful fact that summer sun is higher in the sky than winter sun that means with careful design of shading devices you can exclude sun in summer yet allow it to penetrate in winter. The thing is, in Sydney, even in winter direct sunlight can be annoying. Not only can sun passing through glass be hot enough to cause overheating of a room (the greenhouse effect) it can also cause distracting glare problems. The other thing is, the principle that allows shade in summer but not in winter only really works for the midday sun. This means that morning and afternoon sun will still be an issue that must be addressed through use of vertical shading such as blinds or landscaping.

A north-facing balcony or courtyard is great in winter when you will be happy to sit in the full sun, at least for a while. But in summer it could be virtually unuseable without installing some kind of shade structure.

The worst evil is the bare-faced north-facing window, especially common in 60s flats but also sadly frequent in modern project homes where the issue of orientation is often ignored when placing a home on a site. I lived for some time in an 80s flat in Adelaide with a west-facing picture window in the lounge. During those two-week 40+ heat waves the whole flat would heat up to such unbearable levels I had no choice but to move out for a while.

The key is to somehow achieve a compromise between supplying ample light, which is essential to human well-being, and avoiding overheating in summer. These days it’s common to solve these problems with air-conditioning. Instead we should be considering how to avoid overheating problems in the first place by using a bit of forethought and clever design ideas.

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