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TinotopiaLog → Natural Light in Offices (17 Jan 2001)
Wednesday 17 January 2001

Natural Light in Offices

My office recently moved due to overcrowding. My company rented the top two floors of a building across the street from our old building, and a few departments made the move.

The building we’ve moved into is incomparably nicer than the old building (which, ironically, is newer than the new building). The old (i.e. new, i.e. the building I moved out of) building was built as multi-tenant space by a developer, and my company just came along and rented the whole thing. The intention, I suppose, was for insurance agents, small software developers, etc. to each rent a single suite on a single floor, sharing nothing but the elevators and the toilets.

As a result, there is no cafeteria, no functional mailroom, etc.

The new building — the one I moved into — was built as headquarters for a very large quasi-governmental financial service corporation. They’re now moving a lot (if not all) of their employees to Indiana or someplace like that, so they’ve got space to spare. The building, as I’ve pointed out, is a little older than the old (new —I promise to stop this, right now) one, but only by two years. The building I moved out of was first occupied in 1998, the building I moved into was first occupied in 1996.

This building is equipped with a large heated parking garage, a gym and sauna, a sundries shop that actually sells soft pretzels, a cafeteria, lots of nice artwork on the walls, a very nice formal garden with ponds and a gazebo, etc., etc., etc. It’s got marble floors and fancy wood paneling in much of the public space. It is, in short, a fancy building, and much fancier than the old one. For a suburban office building, it’s very nice; it could even hold its own in a lot of urban settings.

The design of it is obviously expensive. It is also incredibly hostile.

About half of the old building consists of what we call technical space, which basically means computer rooms. Several floors consist of nothing but batteries, computers, routers, and air-conditioning equipment. Only three floors are given over to office space.

On those three floors, there are precisely two hard-walled offices, on the top floor, in, strangely enough, the two least desirable corners. All the other partitioned offices in the building are constructed out of what amount to ceiling-high cube walls made out of translucent panels and with nice wood doors.

Each office floor has two conference rooms (since commandeered as offices) with windows; the other conference rooms are arranged around the building core. Those rooms are grim, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The walls of the cubes in the old building are about five feet tall, which is lower than the normal height. There is one row of cubes up against the windows (with no wall on the window side), and a double-row in the middle, one on each side of the building core.

The result is that even if you’re sitting in an interior cube, you get at least a little bit of natural light.

The new building has much larger floorplates than the old one, so the cubes can be arranged about five deep on each side of the core. Offices and conference rooms alike are placed around the core, or in rows just like the cubes.

This is all rather abstract, so I’ll provide a few pictures. Here’s the overall floorplan:

The curved thing at the front of the building (bottom of plan) is the balcony. Now, here’s a detail of part of the bottom left part of the floorplan:

Note the large windows on the exterior wall. Some of these are doors, and all of them are glass from, effectively, floor to ceiling.

What I’d like to point out is that the building’s design carefully sees to it that nobody gets any natural light. All of the sunlight falls on blank office or cube walls. Occupants of certain offices and cubes get intense, blinding light (the outside wall faces south) for about 30 minutes once a day, when the sun shines through their doorways (which are always perpendicular to the windows). Otherwise, everything’s done under the buzzing fluorescent lights, and everyone looks a little green.

Here’s a photo taken at the point marked with a red arrow on the floor plan above:

(I might also point out that outside the windows is a balcony that runs the length of the building — several hundred feet — that, of course, nobody is allowed on. I will not be covering that idiocy in this complaint, as it seems to me that this is related to insurance anxiety, rather than the architect’s lack of sense.)

If you’re a close observer, you’ll have noted that there are a few rooms on the full floorplan that do have windows in them. This is correct. The rooms on the back of the building are what amount to LAN closets — the print servers etc. live there. And as for the rooms on the sides — look for yourself.

The room at upper left, the one with a (locked) door to the balcony? "Shared Tech", which means it’s got a copier in it. Just below it are a couple of conference rooms. These rooms are actually quite pleasant, but they have a maximum occupancy of about three.

The detail above is a bit larger because I want to call attention to the fact that there’s no fundamental difference between what the plan calls "office" and what it calls "file closet".

I got to thinking about this today because of the power troubles they’re having in California. As I write this, the power is off in much of San Francisco because the utilities there cannot generate or buy enough power to meet demand. There are a lot of causes behind this crisis, but part of it is that California uses a lot of power, and, relatively speaking, it doesn’t generate very much. I wondered: How much less electricity would be needed if all the offices in California had adequate windows, and could do without electric lights?

I have noticed that, in Europe, all the offices have big windows, and a lot of them actually open. That’s a huge generalization, and I’m sure that there are actually a lot of offices in Europe without windows, or with sealed windows — though in Germany the law requires that every office shall have a view of the sky. I have never had an office anywhere in Europe without at least one operable window, though, nor have I ever visited one. And I’ve worked in some pretty dodgy places.

And you know what? In nearly all the offices I’ve worked in or visited in Europe — and this ranges from steel mills in little towns behind the Iron Curtain to the offices of multibillion-dollar operations in Paris, London, and Munch — people leave the lights off. I’ve even seen them do this in retail establishments. (I have to admit that I’ve only ever seen that in places like People’s Revolutionary Grocery Store #17 in towns in Eastern Europe, but the point is that at least it’s possible.)

A kilowatt-hour is the energy required to run ten 100-Watt light bulbs for an hour (more or less). According to the U.K Electricity Association’s publication, International Electricity Prices (a fascinating read), electricity costs about twice as much in Europe as in the USA. The average price for a kWh of American electricity was 4.03p in 2000; in the U.K., it was 7.97p. Nearly all EU countries fall between 8p and 9p per kWh.

So lighting an office with 100 22W fluorescent tubes for eight hours would cost £7.09 in the USA, and £14.02 in the U.K. (Add 50% for a quick conversion to U.S. dollars.) A lot of offices in the U.S. are left lit all night; apparently the cost of wiring them to be easily turned off and on and the insurance risk of having someone trip over something in the dark is greater than the cost of the power to leave them lit.

But I don’t think that has anything to do with the lights being left off in Europe. The Europeans, as a people, are too fond of electric space heaters for me to think they can possibly give a damn what the electric bill is going to be.

No, I think they leave the lights off because it’s nicer that way. There’s less eyestrain with natural light. There’s a sense of the passing of time as the light changes. People are quieter, for some strange reason, when the lights are off.

And so I am personally offended when I encounter people-space where there appears to have been no consideration that people prefer to be in space with natural light.

Never mind that we’ve been living with sunlight for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years, but with electric light for about a century. Natural light is cheaper. Most of man’s petty, everyday inhumanity to man (like airplane seats or bad food in restaurants) is a direct result of fiscal economy. I’m willing to accept that, since the airline, cinema, restaurant, etc. is in business to make money. But when I see money being spent (and natural resources depleted) to make people more miserable, it just makes me see red.

Posted by tino at 14:00 17.01.01
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