Summer 2004

Today's School

Reprinted with Permission. From the January-February 2004 Issue of Today's School: Shared Leadership in Education. © Peter Li Education Group

Daylighting for Healthy Schools

By V. Joseph Pica, Pica + Sullivan Architects, Ltd.

School construction is booming. You may have noticed. Aside from the many other inconveniences, the noise and dust are hard to ignore. But take heart, the future is looking bright.
Growing enrollments and the need to remodel or replace aging infrastructure have resulted in a new wave of campus construction. In California alone, plans are under way to construct 46,000 K-12 public school classrooms over the next few years. This is only the latest upswing in a cycle of renewal that stretches back to the 1940s. In addition to adding space, each period of expansion has been seen as an opportunity to alter the learning environment to test the latest teaching concepts. Rethinking schooling has always been a dominant theme in the reconstruction of schools.
While changing teaching techniques influence design, so do costs. These generally include those related to construction, long-term maintenance and operations. Of the three, the escalating cost of operations has far out-paced the others. After salaries, it is a school’s largest expense. The most significant factor contributing to operating costs is energy consumption.

(Above) The new Art Center and Pavilion at Windward School in West Los Angeles, CA. Design by Pica + Sullivan Architects, Ltd.   Photograph by Randall Michelson


Incorporating The Concepts Of Sustainable Design

Since the 1970’s, design efforts have sought to create buildings to better conserve energy. The original concept was to focus efforts on imposing environmental control. The new physical plant was conceived as a model of efficiency – the definition being the controlled use of utility- distributed energy resources. As an important component of this effort, buildings were designed to contain and preserve an artificial environment.

Less window area reduced heat gain and heat loss. Fluorescent lighting provided a low cost, even distribution of footcandles. Conditioned air was maintained by limiting, and in some cases eliminating, operable windows. To the chagrin of many teachers, even the thermostats were locked down. The quantifiable results were admirable. Energy usage dropped. The greater the disconnection between the interior and the exterior envionment, the greater the cost savings. The buildings were specifically designed to work in spite of their immediate environment.

As we flash forward to the building boom of today, we find ourselves grappling with many of the same issues confronted by previous generations. But some things have changed. In recent years questions have emerged about the heavy-handed tactic of environmental control. The architectural monument designed to resist external climatic changes has given way to a more responsive environmental model. Being more adaptive to the surroundings is now understood as both a strong conservator of natural resources and a potential windfall for longterm cost savings. Passive heating and cooling, use of natural ventilation, daylighting, and use of alternative energy

sources have modified how buildings are designed. Recently completed environmental-friendly facilities have shown results of between 30% and 50% less energy used when compared to the previous generation’s “environmental control” models. Sustainable design (or “Green” Architecture) has come of age and school buildings have much to benefit from this approach.

The concept of “Green Architecture” can conjure up dramatic images. Contorted structures covered in solar collectors. Small villages surrounded by turbine windmill farms. Buried buildings constructed of rammed earth, adobe or other locally manufactured materials. While these examples can and probably do exist, they are some what more exotic than most communities are willing to attempt. But incorporating the concepts of sustainable design can be done in a more modest fashion and still achieve remarkable results.

Aside from minimizing energy usage and reducing operating costs, studies have revealed that a sustainable approach to school design can promote physical and emotional health. Studies have found a direct relationship between performance and a sense of well-being on the part of building users. Improved indoor air quality, access to natural lighting and better acoustical performance all make for healthier environments. These benefits can be accomplished by simply altering the design of the classroom to reconnect with the outside world. And with the enhancement of the interior environment comes the enhancement of the student’s ability to learn.

 (Above) Painting and drawing classroom at the new Windward School Art Center and Pavilion complex in West Los Angeles, CA. Design by Pica + Sullivan Architects, Ltd. Photograph by Randall Michelson

Daylighting and Performance

Does daylighting in classrooms enhance academic performance? A 1999 report by Fair Oaks, CA-based Hershong Mahone Group, Inc., entitled Daylighting in Schools: An Investigation into the Relationship Between Daylighting and Human Performance, sought to determine if daylighting provided a measurable benefit.

Their approach was to obtain data from three school districts in different sections of the country. Elementary schools were chosen due to the extensive data available from standardized testing and the fact that elementary students are typically assigned to a single classroom. The study involved 21,000 students in three districts: Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County, CA, The Seattle Public School District in Seattle, WA, and the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, CO. The research team utilized an analysis technique to control for the numerous variables that could affect student performance. The study involved comparing data on math and reading tests against the daylight conditions of the specific environments.

In a comparison of test scores over an entire school year, the results were nothing less than astounding. “Controlling for all other influences, we found that students (in the Capistrano Unified School District) with the most daylighting in their classrooms progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% on reading tests in one year than those with the least. Similarly, students in classrooms with the largest window areas were found to progress 15% faster in math and 23% faster in reading than those with the least. And students that had a well-designed skylight in their room, one that diffused the daylight throughout the room and which allowed teachers to control the amount of daylight entering the room, also improved 19-20% faster than those students without a skylight.”1

“The three districts have different curricula and teaching styles, different school building designs and very different climates. Yet the results of the studies show

consistently positive and highly significant effects. This consistency supports the proposition that there is a valid and predictable effect of daylighting on student performance.”2

The report authors hypothesized a number of explanations (“informed guesses”3). These ranged from increased illumination levels to possible medical/biochemical reactions that lead to improved health, mood and behavior. One suggestion was particularly intriguing. The authors discussed the attributes that affect visibility independent of illumination levels. These attributes included better light distribution, better color rendition, sparkle and highlights on three dimensional objects and absence of flicker associated with artificial illumination. The report suggested that the quality of light affects how the student sees and that benefits are derived from a clearer perception of people and objects.

In the 1999 book Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, an interesting subtext about natural light and seeing was woven into the storyline. The narrative follows a period in the life of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, and is told from the perspective of a house servant. In the artist’s garret, many references are made to the windows, particularly how they were positioned. “‘Open the shutters, then. Not the window on the left. Just the middle and far windows. And only the lower part of the middle window.’”4 After each reference a description of light quality, color, reflectance and sparkle follows. The author paints a picture of how Vermeer used natural light to enhance his perception of the subject. “The room became darker but the light shone on her high round forehead, on her arm resting on the table, on the sleeve of the yellow mantle.”5 The intention of the artist was to achieve a clarity to assist in his visual understanding of the subject. Natural light helped to inform and ultimately express his view. These goals are shared in the school setting.

Quality Of Light Affects How The Student Sees

(Above) Interior and exterior of Visual Arts Classroom Building at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, CA. Design by Pica + Sullivan Architects, Ltd.


Natural light has always been an important factor in the design of art classrooms. During the planning phase for new construction, art teachers insist that their studios incorporate large glass openings. Daylighting provides diffuse illumination. If the source is a window, the effect is a lighting of vertical surfaces – such as faces, marker boards and wall displays. The result is a better rendition of three-dimensional qualities.

Art teachers are quick to point out the difference between daylight and sunlight. Direct sunlight pours into a room, creating hotspots, glare and sharp contrasts. This can be distracting. North-facing windows and clerestories are easier to control and therefore more desirable.

At Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, CA, the recently built visual arts classroom building was designed to be oriented to the north.
The building, designed by Pica + Sullivan Architects, Ltd., was conceived of as an art barn and the interior space was formed to reinforce this effect. A high clerestory and a large amount of window

area help to create an open, airy feeling. Users can manually adjust the light intensity with curtains or shades.

Interior finishes also influence the quality of natural light. At Westridge, an exposed wood ceiling was used because the material has a low reflectance and warm color rendition. A matte-finish, dark grey flooring material reduces glare. The overall effect is a softer light quality.

With so many issues affecting campus design, it is sometimes difficult to orient classrooms to a northern exposure. At the new Visual Arts Building at Windward School in Los Angeles, CA, the painting and drawing classroom face both north and west. West windows can allow slanting sunlight to enter in the late day. The building, also designed by the Pica & Sullivan firm, counteracts this by incorporating large overhangs and vertical wall fins on the exterior façade. These elements deflect the western sunlight, even in the late afternoon hours. An additional natural light feature is a linear skylight along the south edge of the structure. A parapet above the skylight blocks the direct south sun but allows for northern light to wash the interior wall. The result is a brightening of a surface used for pin-up and critiques.

Classroom Walls Have Become Valuable Real Estate

Creative placement of windows impacts the exterior aesthetics. Photograph (above) is the exterior view of the Windward Academic Building design by Pica + Sullivan Architects.

The practice of actively employing natural light has rarely been used in other teaching areas. Now, though, due to the emergence of sustainable design, this has begun to change. Previous drawbacks of heat gain and loss have been overcome with the use of multiple pane window sections, tinting and architectural features such as fins and overhangs. As windows reappear in general use classrooms, the question now is how to use them effectively.

The lesson to be learned from art classrooms is that window placement and operation require a strategy. The key is localized control – the ability of the teachers to actively manage their interior environment. While opening and closing blinds and shades can alter room temperature and illumination, it can also help adjust moods, affect attention span and energize learning.

There is a challenge however: the competition for wall space. Project-based and flexible room organization approaches to teaching have created a demand for greater marker and tack board area. Important program elements such as perimeter counters and student-accessible storage vie for wall space. Also, larger room sizes require multiple doors. Even without considering the requirements for wall attached mechanical, electrical and fire-life safety devices, it is a wonder there is any space left for windows. Interior classroom walls have become valuable real estate.

Compromises are necessary to accommodate program demands for wall space and the desire to incorporate glazing. An example of such can be found at the new

Windward School Academic Building. Floor-to-ceiling corner windows, clerestories above marker and tack board space and linear skylights at top-story classrooms provide access to daylight while maximizing wall surface. Although most of the openings are above head height, a floor-to-ceiling corner window allows for a direct view to the outside. This helps reduce stress levels. Corner windows also make the room seem larger. As can be imagined, the creative placement of glazing impacts the exterior aesthetics. The Windward Academic Building projects a definitively modern look. This is reinforced by the linear qualities of the fenestration, the eroded corners, large planar wall areas and deep overhangs.

Another example of opportunistic window placement can be found at the Westridge School Rothenberg Humanities Center. The building was designed with classroom access via an exterior corridor. This arrangement created two potential exposures for each classroom – the corridor wall and the perimeter wall. Unfortunately the corridors are lined with student lockers, limiting the possibility for wall openings. The solution was to place windows above the lockers. Making the openings operable on both exposures allows for cross ventilation. The result is both daylight and fresh air.

As the days of the little red schoolhouse fade farther into history, so too does the concept of imposed environmental control. Connecting the classroom to the outside allows a building to work in concert with the natural environment. The result is long-term financial savings as well as an enhancement of the learning experience. In more ways than one, windows let the light shine in.

1 Hershong Mahone Group. “Daylighting in Schools: An Investigation into the Relationship Between Daylighting and Human Performance.” California Board for Energy Efficiency for the Third Party Program. 20 Aug. 1999. http://
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Tracy Chevalier, The Girl With the Pearl Earring (New York: Penguin Group, 1999), 31.
5 Chevalier 128-129.