Daylight is plentiful in India, but we have not paid adequate attention to harnessing it in our houses and other living spaces in a healthy manner. Of course, our laws (and the cost of artificial lighting and ventilation) have largely ensured that daylit buildings are the norm. But increasingly in our cities we have more money to spend on buildings and interiors. We have also eagerly bought into the fantasy of an international image and lifestyle. These factors combine with the favourable economics of large floor areas in commercial buildings to give us spaces for work, healing, learning and leisure that are air-conditioned and electrically lit. We feel good about having arrived. But what does this expensive withdrawal from daylight mean for our bodies?
D for daylight, and a vitamin boost
Since we have evolved in sunlight, it is not surprising that it directly affects our health and happiness. Sunlight is the sun’s electromagnetic radiation. What reaches us is a mix of visible light, infrared radiation (heat) and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Sunlight is a significant disinfectant. It is the best natural source of vitamin D, which is necessary for our body to absorb calcium from food. Sunlight also actively influences the circadian rhythm, our internal body clock that regulates our sleep cycles. The production of a brain chemical called serotonin, related to feelings of joy, increases with sunlight. More of the balancing hormone, melatonin, induces a feeling of sleepiness when the sun weakens. The serotonin-melatonin balance maintains our circadian rhythm, and hence, the basic rhythm of our bodily processes and lives.
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Sunlight also carries some threats. Overexposure to UV rays, which cannot be seen but increase as the sun climbs higher in the sky, is associated with skin cancer—more so in fair-skinned people. It is also responsible for glare that can damage our eyes.
Throwing light on performance
Studies in the US have shown that productivity, learning and even retail sales improve with daylight. These studies have greater piquancy in the US, where it is often considered cheaper to artificially light and ventilate large occupancy spaces such as schools, offices and big stores. But we should pay heed in India too, as we tend to unthinkingly ape the American model in many areas.
Moving away from the view
A few basic elements of architecture bring the sun into our lives in a controllable manner: windows, balconies and courtyards. These are also elements disappearing from our daily lives. Take windows. Anecdotal evidence suggests floor plates (or footprints) of commercial and office buildings have increased with the popularity of air conditioning. Hence, a greater number of people now work further from an openable external window than, say, 25 years ago. Worse, in most offices, a row of managerial cabins occupies the strip of space along the bank of windows. With workdays extending into the evening, the well-paid new workforce ranks rather low on exposure to daylight, and is less healthy as a result.
Windows survive in apartments. But balconies are disappearing fast. A morning sunbath (of vitamin D) is good for us, but may be especially important for children with calcium deficiency. Yet, as real estate gets more expensive and municipal corporations allow balconies to be absorbed into the space of the rooms they abut, this perch in the sun is disappearing fast. Again, the market wins as the body loses—as it has already done with the house courtyard, that ancient device for domesticating the sun.
Seeing the light
The problem today is not so much design solutions for daylighting (which have always existed) as awareness and conviction. Just because it is free and we are getting more precious, let us not undervalue daylight. It certainly is among the best things in life. It is also the source of some of the best things about living.
The author is a Goa-based architect and writer.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org