"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Facade renovation in San Francisco

Sunlight, the Bay Area & Building Value

The single most powerful design tool that I, as an architect, have at my disposal on behalf of my clients is sunlight.

Sunlight can define, dramatize, animate, and color the buildings and the rooms that it brightens. When it is handled with artistic intent and skill, it can give us much pleasure. Our desire to experience this pleasure on a daily basis gives added value to the buildings and the interior spaces that capture sunlight in abundance, and in striking ways. When we construct a building or renovate a room, it is wise for you to remember this not just for your own enjoyment of the project, but also for the appeal that it can have for a future buyer, tenant, or customer.

A Special Bay Area Sensibility and Need

Although people everywhere enjoy the presence of sunlight on and within their buildings, Bay Area residents, in particular, seem to desire large amounts of natural light in their homes and in their workplaces. Why might this be so?

Perhaps one reason is that many of us have chosen to live in this area because of an affinity that we have for the outdoors. Our region’s mild climate, usually predictable weather, and unique geography are ideal for outdoor activities. When indoors, we continue to maintain a strong visual connection with the surrounding landscape or cityscape, often via large window areas that face some of the many vistas that Bay Area hills provide. Indeed, for a number of people in our area, the best kind of wall between outdoor space and indoor space is no wall at all!

In the most densely built parts of the region — the downtown and surrounding neighborhood areas of San Francisco and Oakland — the amount and the location of natural light within buildings take on even greater importance in giving them value. Many structures are located on narrow, deep lots, with buildings immediately to either side. Front and rear building walls are the only major sources of direct sunlight for the lower floors and innermost areas of these structures. New building designs for these city locations need to be imaginatively done to overcome light limitations and minimize their negative impact on building value.

Bay Area Sunlight

Our local weather is characterized by days of clear, cloudless skies. Sunlight is direct and sharp, not diffuse. Under such light conditions, every building mass and detail is accentuated because of the dark shadow cast next to it. In addition, each surface irregularity is more clearly visible.

Increasing Building Value with Light

A successful design strategy based upon the idea of maximizing building value through the effective use of natural light incorporates many of the following guidelines:

  • The overall mass of a building should be divided into smaller parts, each with enough detail to fully exploit the type of sharp shadow casting potential that Bay Area sunlight has.

  • Large unbroken, unadorned wall surfaces should be avoided if the visual impact of their imperfections and unevenness under direct sunlight is to be minimized.

  • The rooms in which people spend the most time should be located adjacent to the exterior walls that receive the most light. Storage spaces, mechanical rooms, corridors, stairways, and bathrooms should be in the innermost areas of a building.

  • A room with windows on two or more sides will seem larger than a room with windows on only one side.

  • Windows that are grouped will usually have a greater design impact than will the same number of windows spaced far apart.

  • Small windows in large walls will create the most glare yet, potentially, can have the most drama because of the shafts of light they delineate with early morning and late afternoon sunlight.

  • If light is needed evenly across the full width of a room, a continuous horizontal strip of window area will be most effective.

  • As soon as light passes through a wall or roof opening, it must be reflected toward building spaces farther away if it is to impact the largest building area.

  • Mirrored surfaces and bright white surfaces reflect the most light, and reflectivity rapidly diminishes as surfaces are made darker and given color.

  • To provide a room with a warmer feeling and changing light throughout the day, windows should face east, south, and west. To provide a room with even light throughout the day, windows should face north.

  • Natural light whose source is hidden from view can be softer, mysterious, and sublime.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767