Lighting Up Leisure

City officials in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had wanted to build a new 43,500-square-foot facility because the Kirkwood Community Recreation Center was dark and underused. Instead, new glazing on the windows removed glare from the basketball courts and virtually eliminated any need for overhead lights. “The basketball players love it,” says Josh Toutman, Kirkwood’s Recreation Director. “Even on cloudy days, there’s enough natural light to play, and there’s no problem with shadows. The big payoff has been that usage rates by students have increased ten-fold.”

Most people like the idea of daylight pouring in through windows and skylights because it changes the ambience of the interior. And, it is good for you--it changes people’s circadian rhythms and improves their well-being.

The problem is that uncontrolled daylight can be distracting and dangerous. It also can cost a lot of money. Recognition of daylight’s shortcomings and figuring out ways to save energy are the reasons the science of building design--and specifically the design of sports halls, gymnasiums and natatoriums--is changing.

The Dark Side Of Light

Natatoriums have undergone a redesign, especially in finding an alternative to the clear glass that usually dominates the deep end of pools. Glass has many disadvantages, including lack of privacy, and while sunlight dappling the water may look attractive, it creates glare, making it difficult for lifeguards to see swimmers clearly.

Sports halls also have suffered with glare and disrupting shadows on playing surfaces. This is a major problem in facilities with high windows on one or more walls or skylights that can only be controlled with curtains or blinds.

And then there is the problem of money. Simply put, there is a penalty to pay for large areas of fenestration. In summer, more sunlight means the cost of air-conditioning rises; in winter, low insulation means more energy is required for heating. Uncontrolled sunlight eventually leads to expensive sports surfaces and finishes fading due to UV damage. Even on the sunniest days, expensive artificial lighting burns away scarce operating funds. It doesn't need to be this way!

So, architects and facility managers have been trying to find new ways of reconciling the balance between maximizing daylighting with stricter energy management. At the same time, they have had to cope with tougher building codes and higher insulation requirements, all driven by the universal need to be “green.” The result is a new breed of sports and recreation facilities and new technology that not only radically improves leisure activities, but greatly reduces operating costs.

Changing Design

Many alternative materials to clear glass now exist, such as plastics, polycarbonate or fiberglass, which can be used to control daylight or to create translucent cladding or skylights. One system is based on fiberglass translucent wall panels. This insulating, structural composite sandwich-panel system actually “breaks up” and diffuses daylight, distributing it evenly as “museum-quality” light. Unlike clear glass, it eliminates not only shadows, glare and hot spots, but also the need for curtains or blinds. This system is used for pools, and is ideal for sports halls because it creates perfect playing conditions.

Another alternative is a glass double-pane window that uses glass-fiber veils as a prism and honeycomb cells designed to eliminate air convection. This combination not only eliminates glare, but offers thermal and sound insulation, and can be blended with clear glass panels.

Another significant development is a technology that increases the performance of glazing systems by introducing an insulating--but still translucent--ingredient inside the cavity. Based on aerogel, Nanogel is a translucent form of natural silica that is comprised of 95 percent air. It appears “smoke-like,” but actually is a tangle of glass nanostrands that stem heat loss or solar gain while still emitting the full spectrum of natural daylight. By placing it inside daylighting systems, the Nanogel not only diffuses glare, but also increases the R-value to that of an insulated, solid wall.

Projects In Practice

One of the more extreme examples of increasing insulation without losing translucency is present at the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska's interior. With temperatures dipping to -50 degrees F, keeping thousands of cooped-up military personnel physically and mentally fit is critical. A new 60,000-square-foot fitness center offers amenities such as an outsized exercise field of artificial turf, offices, restrooms and a 1/8-mile elevated running track.

This project is particularly important because of the way super-insulating solutions--using aerogel within the translucent cladding system--were included in the center's design by Alaskan firm USKH Inc. to address the issue of daylight. In addition to saving energy, the translucent system bathes the track, indoor sports area and weight-lifting rooms with controlled natural daylight. The use of artificial lighting is reduced, conserving electricity, while the shadowless, glare-free light makes ball-handling easier in team events.

Finding The Right Light For You

Every facility is different, as is the environment in which it is built. If you are interested in taking advantage of all the benefits controlled daylight has for a recreation center, it is important to do a daylighting study before building. Considerations such as weather, purpose, elevation and even the direction the building faces will affect how daylighting should be introduced and handled. The study will help in the design of the building and the decision as to what type of daylighting will work best for your individual needs. Daylighting studies can be obtained from window or skylight manufacturers or via architects.

Christopher Sykes is an architect, journalist and technical copywriter. He has spent many years working

in the architectural and building press, and is CEO of Pressential, a U.S./European PR company that specializes in the building industry.