The growing popularity of natural light in building design, especially with the growing trend toward "green" facilities, is hardly a surprise. Natural light is free, clean, and infinitely renewable - in addition to being widely associated with more pleasant work environments. But while the popularity of natural light is no surprise for use in offices, schools, and other such environments, its acceptance as a feature in manufacturing facilities is relatively new development.
The high energy costs of manufacturing create a natural interest on the part of companies to find ways to counterbalance those costs. But the rugged structure required for a facility housing heavy manufacturing has typically led to the use of brick, steel, or concrete - usually from foundation to roof. Several factors are now changing that, though, and are starting to steer some designers and users of manufacturing facilities to the inclusion of natural light.
At East Lansing, Michigan-based Peckham Inc., a new 109,000-square-foot facility set to open this spring is replete with natural light, as much for the human resources benefits as for those of energy savings, although both are clearly factors. "Natural light was a huge component of the design on a number of levels," says Scott Vyn, the architect who led the job for Integrated Architecture of Grand Rapids, Michigan. "One of the most obvious is that natural light is healthy for you and ties you into sequences that are natural to your body. You're aware of the cycles to the day."
In the Peckham facility, Integrated designed a large light well in the middle of the building, which company officials believe does more than just provide light. (Article photos are from the facility.) They believe it helps break down the traditional corporate hierarchy. "We put a lot of emphasis on blurring the line between blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs," says Mitch Tomlinson, CEO of Peckham. "We didn't want that division. We wanted one facility that we all kind of shared. There are very few offices and a lot of open space and natural light."
Natural light is only one of a variety of features that help make buildings more energy-efficient. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that when combined with other features - such as on-site renewable energy systems, better ventilation, downsized equipment, and light-reflective materials - natural light can contribute to energy savings of 20 percent to 50 percent. Tomlinson says he is unsure how much Peckham will save on energy costs, but believes it doesn't need to be much to pay a dividend because the overall cost of the building - about $85 per square foot - is competitive with more traditional approaches.
Tomlinson expects the natural light atmosphere to be a boon to employee morale at Peckham, which is especially important because the company embraces a primary mission of hiring people with a variety of disabilities. "We think, in order for folks to be successful, they need to have an environment that's built around their need for natural support, if you will," he says. "I think our data proves it - that if that environment exists where they can learn and adjust to have the support they need to be successful, they can be as competitive in the labor market as anybody else."
The defense contractor Lockheed Martin reports that a design modification at its Sunnyvale, California, facility that increased daylight and fresh air resulted in a 15 percent drop in absenteeism, a result consistent with the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) assertion that even a 1 percent increase in employee productivity can generate a positive economic impact equal to four times the company's entire energy bill. In a summary of Lockheed Martin's findings in a 2008 LEED newsletter, the USGBC said, "On average, annualized costs for personnel amount to $200 per square foot - compared with $20 per square foot for bricks and mortar and $2 per square foot for energy. A modest investment in soft features, such as access to pleasant views, increased daylight, fresh air, and personal environment controls, can quickly translate into significant bottom-line savings."
Natural light also provides manufacturers with points toward certification under the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program - a coveted designation in today's design and construction world, and one that commonly identifies those who earn it with cutting-edge environmental leadership. But you won't earn LEED points for natural light unless you have a lot of it. The program requires natural light in 75 percent of all spaces, and daylight views from 90 percent of all spaces within the building. "With or without LEED, we were trying to hit 100 percent," says Vyn. "It was a big challenge, because it's a big square building."