September 20, 2012
Let the Light in: KG takes extra steps to bring living daylights back to old downtown buildings
When commercial buildings were first erected in Fargo’s downtown district in the late 1890s and early 1900s, they were built more to prevent wholesale disaster (i.e. fire) than to promote mental health.
The Fargo Fire of 1896
burned through most of our downtown like a spark through dry kindling, destroying most of the original wooden boomtown structures. In response, city fathers planned grander, less combustible masonry structures. But even those more permanent edifices had their risks. When brick buildings were engulfed in flames, the heavy timber inside would pull down the adjacent buildings, so construction methods had to be adapted. Builders and architects adjusted the frames of the building so that, if a fire broke out, it would implode on itself while minimizing damage to its neighbors. Windowless side walls also helped keep fire from spreading to adjacent structures and just plain made sense when one long, narrow building was clamped onto the existing one, like rows of Lego blocks.
The architecture fit the purpose of those buildings well. Many had retail or public space up front, so picture windows offered a glimpse of the wares inside, plus let light creep deeper into the building. The rear portion of the structure was typically used for storage or behind-the-scenes work, so expansive display windows weren’t always practical. “Just by design, the back half or mid-core could be really dark,” says Mike Allmendinger, general manager of Kilbourne Group.
Today, as Kilbourne Group infuses these old structures with new usefulness, we have to re-assess how light is used as well. This is why, whenever the KG team meets with architects, designers and contractors, a lot of time is spent talking about the proper “daylighting” of buildings. How can former warehouse space be turned into bright, modern office space? Do you need to feel like you’re stuck in a basement just because you actually work in one? How can lots of window light reduce the need for artificial lighting, while not causing glare on computer terminals or becoming intrusive?
No more windowless skyscrapers
After all, natural light not only fills our environments with serenity and beauty, it has powerful physical and psychological benefits as well.
Europeans believe so strongly in the importance of natural light that many Northern European countries have written laws requiring that all workers be within 27 feet of a window.
This school of thought is 180 degrees from a disturbing 1930s trend, in which some architects thought any man-made, dust-free environment, i.e., a sealed, windowless fortress that relied completely on electric light and artificial temperature control, was superior to one where you could hear street sounds or smell exhaust.
When Swedish factory owners built a windowless, underground factory in 1946 to create a cleaner environment, their employees quickly developed a litany of complaints, ranging from fatigue and headaches to increased absenteeism and negative attitudes. In another study, employees in a windowless factory responded with aggression: They repeatedly broke out wall panels so they could catch a glimpse of the outside world.
None other than Frank Lloyd Wright created a nearly windowless edifice with the completion of the S.C. Johnson Wax Headquarters
in Racine, Wis., in 1936. But the legendary architect was astute enough to still give the building a sense of luminous light and soaring space. The structure showcases giant, mushroom-shaped concrete columns, and light is cast between the spaces of the column tops to create a sense of being at the bottom of a pond covered in lily pads. Additional light is pushed into the building by tubes of Pyrex glass that circle the upper heights of the structure. (Of course, the roof also leaked terribly, but Johnson Wax employees supposedly loved their surroundings.)
The many benefits of natural light
Today, of course, we know there is no substitute for natural light. (Full-spectrum fluorescent lights, however, may come closest in mimicking it.) When the National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a literature review of the effects of natural light on building occupants,
they found that workers exposed to natural light were physically healthier, emotionally stronger, more alert, more content in their environment, less prone to eyestrain and more productive overall.
Other studies, recapped in the review, echo that sentiment:
- Two major control centers of the body, the nervous system and the endocrine system, are directly stimulated and regulated by light. If deprived of exposure to natural light for long periods of time, people will experience a vitamin D deficiency followed by weakened body defenses and increased vulnerability to chronic disease.
- Prolonged exposure to artificial light can affect normal circadian rhythms and production of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin affects sleep, mood, body temperature and even puberty onset.
- Access to daylight, or at least full-spectrum fluorescent light, can alleviate Seasonal Affective Disorder-prone workers. SAD is a highly reliable cluster of complaints, ranging from winter weight gain to depression, which is prevalent in people in northern climates. Unlike chronic depression, SAD can be quickly alleviated via light therapy.
- “Daylighting” can reduce worker absenteeism and increase productivity. When an Iowa human services organization moved into a daylit building in 1999, one social service group in the building tripled the amount of clients seen and served without adding staff. Another group in the same building reported a 200 percent decrease in staff turnover.
- Good light can also affect workers’ attitudes toward their jobs. A 1975 survey of office workers found that 35 percent of employees responded that their biggest difficulty with their office space was the lack of windows. The workers complained of “no daylight, poor ventilation, inability to see out and have a view, feelings of being cooped-up, feelings of claustrophobia, and feelings of depression and tension.”
The bottom line, according to the study authors: Daylighting can be more expensive up front, but it does have “penny-foolish-pound-wise” benefits.
The incredible lightness of building
A few examples of how Kilbourne Group has worked to ensure their revitalization projects see the light of day:
- KG founder Doug Burgum purchased the former Northern School Supply building at 650 NP Ave., in 2000 to save the then-97-year-old building from demolition.
He then donated the building to the NDSU Development Foundation, along with $1.5 million, for restoration of the building, which is a pivotal player in the Downtown Fargo Historic District. Fortunately, the structure, which originally served as a farm implement warehouse and dealership, had plenty of windows to begin with. All of the building’s original window openings were retained, albeit with much more energy-efficient windows than they had a century ago. (The structure is the first LEED-certified building in the state.) The building’s ample light helps the rechristened Renaissance Hall serve its new purpose perfectly: It houses NDSU’s visual arts department, along with components of the school’s architecture and landscape architecture departments.
- Kilbourne Group purchased the former Straus Clothing building at 102 Broadway in 2007 and made numerous renovations, including new windows, awnings and additional storefronts along Broadway and First Avenue.
While planning the second-floor of office space, a clerestory, a partial, all-glass story above the roofline, was added to the second-floor atrium. Interior windows were strategically placed in rooms and offices below so they would benefit from the clerestory’s blue-sky view. A green roof also was added, so employees need only climb a flight of stairs to be surrounded by flowers, green turf and fresh air.
- The Loretta Building at 208 Broadway is a striking example of how an early 20th-century retail/warehouse space can be transformed into bright office/commercial space for today.
The footprint of this one-time furniture store is long and narrow, with little natural light in the center of the building. Along with JLG Architects,
several adjustments to lighten up the interior. In the basement, full-sized windows with generous window wells were installed. The sidewalk overhead was replaced with frosted glass block to bring even more light into a historically dark space.
The lowest level of this still-in-progress building also will receive plenty of natural illumination from a walk-out, back-entrance patio.
Long-boarded-up window openings were filled with energy-efficient panes, and additional windows were punched into the south side ….
Plans also are underway to feature a rooftop deck on Loretta’s fourth floor. Accessible through accordion doors, the deck will seamlessly meld with interior space, creating an outdoor room. (Incidentally, it will also offer what’s arguably one of the best views available of Broadway in downtown Fargo.) Â And light wells in the second-through-fourth floors of the building’s once-dark interior will let the sun shine in, yet still be outfitted with retractable fire doors to meet building safety codes.
- KG’s 300 Broadway Condos have generous windows and walk-out balconies. Even the hallways leading to individual units are lined with windows. A two-story wall of glass in the atrium goes a long way toward helping this building’s public spaces feel bright, spacious and light. Many interior rooms in individual units benefit from daylighting systems like tubular daylight devices or skylights.
- When transforming this 1917 office and warehouse into The Lofts‘ apartments at 309 Roberts Street, Kilbourne Group was granted light and air easements, which ensures the building is not obstructed from sunlight or the benefits of natural airflow from neighboring structures. This allows every unit on the south side of the building to have a large window, even the smallest studio unit. Other architectural details — 11-foot-high ceilings with exposed beams and open floor plans — help these spaces feel as expansive and bright as possible. On the Lofts’ first floor, Mezzaluna‘s fine-dining restaurant features glass walls that gaze out at the building’s historic stairway and a show kitchen in front of display windows.
Sources: “A Literature Review of the Effects of Natural Light on Building Occupants,” by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; www.thefranklloydwrighttour.com; “The Case for Architecture,” a blog entry at www.coldbacon.com; City of Fargo website.