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Advantages of Natural Light in Manufacturing Facilities

Already popular in offices and retail, natural lighting is now gaining recognition for its benefits in manufacturing settings.

Apr/May 09
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Maximizing Materials
One way to get natural light to the entire building is to use a building material that inherently lets light through. That was the strategy of Hamilton, Montana-based Rocky Mountain Log Homes when it was forced to build a new manufacturing facility following the loss of its old one to fire six years ago. Company president Jim Schueler says the company wanted the energy savings and the improved environment after its old building - constructed from steel - basically functioned like an oven once the fire started.

The solution was a building Schueler describes as a tent, constructed from duraweave fabric by a company known as Cover-All. "It's an aluminum frame that that goes up quite fast, and it's pretty close in cost [to a traditional building]," he says. "But if you don't need an insulated building, you can put in floor heat. It just runs heat through the floor so an operator's feet are warm, and he stays warm just about up to his head. It's basically the same energy consumption as it was with a metal building."

William Abney, a representative for Cover-All, says such buildings were originally designed to house livestock, but he is seeing growing interest for commercial and industrial uses. "They're not really designed to be an efficient building, although from an air-loss standpoint, they're pretty air-tight, which is a good thing," he says. "The light is going to give you the best natural light if you want light in the building, and the colors minimize the light a little."

Cost Concerns
While natural light is clean, plentiful, and free, there are places where too much of it will actually drive your energy bills up - like Florida. Nestle Waters earned LEED points for the recent construction of its new 640,000-square-foot plant in Madison, Florida, but the LEED points didn't come from natural light. "In Florida, where you have a balance issue between the light and the heat, you have to figure out how much light you can let in before you start using too much power to cool the building down," says company spokesperson Jim McClellan. "Even though we used some natural light, we didn't meet the LEED criteria. The cost/benefit analysis didn't support the use of that much."

The expense involved with installing natural light may be slowing the manufacturing sector's embrace of it. "I have not seen an increase in the use of natural light in manufacturing facilities," says Brenden McEneaney, green building program advisor in the Office of Sustainability and the Environment for the City of Santa Monica, California. Although McEneaney said that owes partly to the rather light volume of manufacturing in Santa Monica, it also has to do with limits to what natural light - especially from skylighting - can achieve when used in currently popular ways. "The indoor environmental quality, while improved by daylighting, would be far more improved by access to views, which skylights typically can't provide," he says. "If the skylights did look out over landscape, and were clear, they would increase the cooling loads dramatically for the structure."

Of course, skylights are not the only method by which to achieve natural light. Rod Kivioja, director of sales for Wisconsin-based SuperSky - a skylight installation company that worked on Toyota's Georgetown, Kentucky, facility - says manufacturers wanting natural light these days might go for clerestory windows, which are sometimes referred to as "light scoops" and consist of rows of windows above eye level that allow light into a space. "Those are a lot less expensive than skylights, and a vertical clerestory does let in natural light," he says.

It's far from the perfect solution, but in an age when everyone is looking for ways to cut costs, a source of light that is clean, free, and widely available will receive growing attention; which is why the combination of manufacturing facilities and natural light is likely to become more common in the months and years ahead.

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