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Lighting the way: Daylight ‘harvesting systems’ are a bright idea

December 24th, 2008

By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now

Harvesting daylight is an ancient trick – as old as the first man-made structure, as old as life on our planet, actually. Using the sunlight provided by nature is the most basic and simple way to illuminate one’s world. But when it comes to modern, sustainable architecture, the idea is relatively young.

Only in recent times has “daylighting,” as it’s sometimes called, made a blip on the broader green movement’s radar, with industry experts speculating that fewer than 1 percent of all U.S. buildings use natural light in a substantive manner (going beyond windows). The 21st century approach is waaaay more technologically involved than, say, a prehistoric clan setting up its fire pit next to the cave entrance.

More from GRN

Slideshow: Lighting with natural daylight

“In a layman’s terms, daylighting – which was our original term for it – is the process of bringing natural sunlight into a building and distributing it so you can turn the electric lights off,” says Bruce Bilbrey, co-owner of the Natural Lighting Co in Phoenix, founded in 1990 by his brother, Paul Bilbrey. (See the photo above of Frito Lay offices in Arizona — lit totally by daylight.)

“It’s not using the sun to create power to run the lights. It’s not a solar electric system. It’s using the sunlight directly. You use it with lighting controls, so that the lights can be off when there’s an adequate amount of daylight in the space.”

Bilbrey says the technology involves installation of skylights and reflective “lightwells” that architecturally bend lighting into a space, then, via large lenses and diffusers, deflect the light around. The company’s various systems can be used in residential and commerical spaces, and, depending on a building’s size, ceiling heights, lighting requirements and other needs, different types of diffusers and are employed.

“In very basic terms, it’s solar lighting. We call it simple solar,” Bilbrey explains. “But it’s not the same as having a skylight, which is just a feature on the roof where the light kind of comes in and goes where it wants – though the whole process does (use) ‘skylights.’”

Over the past several years, he and others in the business, such as Lighting Control & Design in Glendale, Calif., have noted a steady rise in the harvesting and harnessing of natural solar goodness. By doing so, “daylighting” converts don’t just save on energy bills and carbon output; they increase productivity among workers and create a healthier indoor environment that can lift spirits as well as enhance mental prowess. (This picture shows a daylight system at a charter school in San Diego.)

Daylighting even helps boost retail sales, studies show.

Large retailers including Whole Foods Market, Kohl’s, Target, Wal-Mart and JC Penney now use solar lighting (known generically as light, or daylight, harvesting) in many of their stores, while corporations such as Frito Lay/Pepsi and branches of the U.S. military employ solar harvesting to shed light on multiple situations – provided the situation occurs during daylight hours.

“Solar lighting really only works during the day,” says Bilbrey, who along with his brother and co-founder James Hennessey works with retailers Whole Foods, Target and Safeway, as well as various schools, municipalities and military bases around the U.S.

“We manufacture and install Component Daylighting Systems, which don’t store light, like a solar electric system,” the Arizonan says. “But in many buildings, the (daytime) lighting load is 50 to 70 percent of total energy use. The lighting load in one gym we worked with was 70 percent of the energy used in that building.”

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