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Understanding How Light Can Enhance Architectural Design

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Daylight + Architecture

In the sunny British Virgin Islands, we are blessed to live with an abundance of natural light. The sunshine is one of the reasons visitors and residents alike love the BVI. When it comes to the design of any structure, whatever its purpose, the sun and its light should be considered. Besides being considered, in many cases, it should be one of the fundamental drivers of how space is designed. Proper design with daylight can dictate whether a space is successful for the end user. We will explore the benefits and disadvantages that light can present in our tropical climate and discuss how we at OBMI design with this in mind.

Light + Health

People have a natural attraction to daylight. We have been using it to orientate ourselves and tell the time for millennia. Daylighting can affect our well-being, productivity, and overall sense of satisfaction. This can work both ways, both positively and negatively.

Poorly designed spaces that do not control direct sunlight penetration can produce an unpleasant glare on surfaces, computers, or even your eyes. They can also let in a lot of heat. In classrooms, office spaces, and homes this can create spaces that are difficult to work in and live in. Heat gain in our tropical climate can make an environment hot and unpleasant, with occupants becoming irritable and dehydrated.  Poorly designed spaces with not enough light can affect mood.  We have some of the best views in the world and it seems a shame to hide them and not let in their light when it is not necessary to close them off.

The benefits of controlled daylighting in spaces are enormous and can promote a healthy lifestyle. Studies have shown that natural light can help hospital patients to recover more quickly and school pupils perform better, and also reduce symptoms of depression. It can also have an impact on the productivity and satisfaction of employees in a work environment and even retail customers in a shopping environment. Daylight added to good design can be a powerful combination.

Sun + Shade

Architects design tropical architecture with the sun in mind. Not only for psychological well-being but also for building performance. Controlled daylight can minimize the use of artificial light and use of air conditioning and reduce energy cost. If properly controlled, natural light generates hardly any heat at all. Controlled daylight can create living conditions that do not require air conditioning if the client prefers, using passive design principles instead.

Ways in which we can design to embrace the benefits of the sun and cut out the negatives to promote more sustainable design:


  • Building orientation and proximity to other structures. The proper positioning can minimize solar heat gain whilst also harvesting daylight.

  • Size, firm, and glazing treatment for windows. These considerations will alter view, glare, heat gain while mitigating against damage from hurricanes.

  • Shading for visual comfort and cooling. This consideration is critical in tropical architecture, to block direct sunlight and create cool spaces whilst allowing views to be maximized.

  • Controlling interior surfaces to increase daylight level in the depth of the space.

  • Ensuring task areas have a good relationship with daylight, making areas useful and enjoyable.

  • Daylighter reflector systems.

  • Harness the solar radiation to energize your building.

  • Landscape & Built form. It’s essential to fit the architectural design into its tropical landscape.


Shadow + Reflection

Shadows can be the magical part and my favorite part of the design. Going beyond designing the functionality of the space and treating daylight as more than a strategy to optimize the energy-saving potential of buildings. Manipulating daylight to enhance spaces and create ambiance can be fun and beautiful. This design feature can be achieved by using sunlight to cast shadows and reflect off surfaces to create patterns and another layer of texture within spaces. Dappled light on surfaces can be soft and can be dramatic, creating shade for exterior spaces. This can be done through landscaping to the side or in the overhead, or by reflections off water such as a swimming pool. Shadows can be more architectural with controlled shapes through the use of slatted louvers or pergolas overhead or through openings in the building envelope.

Whatever the building function or desired effect for daylighting, a skilled architect should be part of the design process to ensure you achieve the positive results for your island home.

by: Sian Seys-Evans, Architect, British Virgin Islands

Read Original in Virgin Island Property & Yacht