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Coming from Different Directions: Lighting’s Effect on People and Spaces

Imagine walking through Costco. Harsh lighting. Few windows. Not very pleasant. Now you’re walking into an Armani boutique. Ah, much better. Recessed lighting guides you. Each well-made product is lit distinctively.

That’s a pleasant customer experience. Lighting’s effect on people and spaces is crucial to good design and to serving the primary function of the space. At the end of the day, it’s all about the experience.

Lighting promotes a sense of place. Lots of bright lighting, which anywhere else would be harsh, is appropriate for a hospital where cleanliness and productivity are essential. However, it is not appropriate in a hotel – an environment that should put its guests at ease. At a hotel or spa, people want to feel relaxed.

Good lighting provides direction and safety. When people are traveling, they don’t necessarily know the area very well. A dim, dark hotel corridor tends to be a little more threatening … and would not attract repeat customers. Many of my clients are aware that lighting affects their emotions, but it’s difficult for them to articulate it. Yet lighting’s effect on people and spaces is undeniable.

How I integrate lighting is specific to each project. As a rule, I welcome daylight whenever possible. Daylight enhances our ability to concentrate and feel energized. While recessed lighting is attractive, the best means is natural sunlight, especially for offices and health clubs.

Daylighting is very dynamic. A space could feel different on a winter day, compared to a summer day. From cloudy to sunny, the angles change. That’s what makes a space interesting. But as an architect, I first consider the function.

Recently, I designed an optician store called C Clearly in Sunnyside, Queens. Unlike the name of the area, some spaces could not welcome the sunlight. The optician specifically required dimmable lighting, with no daylight, so that the patients could safely transition from the exam room. To meet this need, my design incorporated an area outside of the exam rooms to help reduce the drastic daylight from the retail area.

Lighting’s effect on people and spaces varies in each setting. Orientation is key. Positioning windows or skylights in the proper direction harnesses light productively. A window oriented to the north brings in less harsh light; whereas fullest strength light comes in from the south.

Lighting from the east is best for morning tasks when it’s less hot – I’d welcome that cooler sunlight from the east for an exercise room or a study room. As for a west-facing building, the afternoon light is quite special because it glows. Light from the west would be lovely for a romantic dinner.

But existing buildings (that are undergoing renovation) don’t always have the ideal orientation. It’s my job to find opportunities, to enhance lighting’s effect on people and spaces.

A Syosset single family home comes to mind. On this project, the owner wanted a master suite. We captured the soothing daylight with a skylight facing north; now gentle, ambient light from sunrise pours into the bedroom and bathroom as the owner starts the day.

In your own bathroom, you may turn on a light for a short time. Yet, as long as there is good daylight, there is no need to flip a switch. A north-facing bathroom, especially, brings in enough light. In the case of this residential project in Syosset, no buildings or trees blocked out the light on that side. It made sense for a skylight to take advantage of that natural light. Otherwise, their bathroom would have felt like an enclosed box, even smaller without the light.

A good example of a south-facing project is an NYC commercial office building that I designed four years ago. It had already been oriented on the site and conformed to the city grid. There are two facades, one south-facing and one west-facing. The south-oriented facade is on one of the busier streets in Harlem, 125th Street.

My strategy was to take advantage of that daylight on this side. Commercial buildings benefit from southern light because the people there work from 9 to 5 and gather all the daylight possible from that angle. This way, they keep up their energy and productivity. Because southern light tends to be so strong, my team designed a shading mechanism that shielded occupants from the light yet brought in the ambient lighting.

As with other aspects of design, lighting comes down to the client’s preference. My residential clients pick out light fixtures; lately they gravitate toward energy-saving functions. Some clients prefer modern lighting. Decorative light fixtures find their way into their homes too, such as table lamps and floor lamps.

The most relatable way to consider lighting’s effect on people and spaces – kitchen lighting. Focused and bright lighting is critical in the kitchen because safety comes first. Where the client is handling knives and cooking on a gas stove, I recommend task lighting. The kitchen island can incorporate more decorative lighting. In general, our kitchens should feel secure, bright and welcoming.

Many of my clients respond, “This space just makes sense.” Lighting’s effect on people and spaces is huge. The ultimate impact – when people feel at one with their surroundings.


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