Ancient Lights


Our original intention to explore how we design buildings for daylight in terms of design and in terms of the legal position of a right to daylight of neighbouring buildings. This piece was an attempt to unravel the legislation surrounding one of the oldest design dilemmas, the issue of ‘Rights to Light’ particularly in terms of side-by-side buildings in a dense urban context and separately how we as architects use daylight and orientation as one of the primary drivers in our design process.

After some reflection it seemed that it would be more informative, and enlightening (sic) to travel back in time and refer to the first treatise published on this subject by Vitruvius.

Vitruvius was a Roman author, architect, civil and military engineer during the 1st century BC and is best known for his multi-volume work entitled De architectura. His discussion of perfect proportion in architecture and the human body, led to the famous Renaissance drawing by Da Vinci of Vitruvian Man.

Early architects understood the importance of designing a building that was responsive to its position and orientation.  Vitruvius wrote as follows within his five fundamental principles of architecture:

 ‘There will also be a natural proprietary to use an eastern light for bedrooms and libraries, a western light in winter for baths and winter apartments, and a northern light for picture galleries and other places in which a steady light is needed; for that a quarter of the sky grows neither light nor dark with the course of the Sun, but remains steady and unshifting throughout the day’.

It would have been possible then (as it is now) to create models and measure their daylight performance over a given period of time in varying orientations.  This would have informed how the floor plan could best accommodate room arrangements and uses, both internal and external, window placement, etc.

Alongside these considerations other factors played a part – you’ve guessed – windows.

Glassmaking was already remarkably advanced during the Roman era, and many ancient homes had glass-paned windows. The earliest windows were panes of glassy pebbles laid on a wooden frame — these would let some light through, but probably weren’t that transparent. Clear glass panes were first invented in the late 3rd century CE, when glassmakers would blow a cylindrical bubble of glass and then slice it lengthwise and flatten out the results.

During the so-called Dark Ages, this technology, like so many others known before the Fall of Rome, somehow got lost. While cathedrals across Europe made use of stained glass for their windows, domestic windows were totally unglazed, with only wooden shutters to keep out the cold. Some people took thin animal hides (or parchment) and soaked them in oil to make them as translucent as possible. They also had to keep their windows (and doors) pretty small, to minimize the drafts, and whenever possible, curtains or mats further helped with insulation. This is why interiors were so dark back then, with the never-extinguished fire providing most of the light.

It was from the Renaissance onwards that architects were able to employ glazing as an integral architectural element and to exploit it in grand public structures.  The potential of double-height or enlarged ceiling heights enabled daylight to be reflected and distributed in innovative ways as it had been in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

Roof-lights, light-wells, enlarged and strategically located windows all contributed to the building’s response to its immediate environment and the natural progress of the sun throughout daylight hours.

In spite of the many overwhelmingly convincing arguments for natural light to be exploited as fully as possible within the domestic and working environments there are no guiding principles that indicate the relevance of designing ‘healthy’ buildings that respond to orientation and sunlight and impact as little as possible upon their immediate surroundings.