Designing with Light

Light is both nothing and everything Light is nothing: it is untouchable, it moves, it travels, it is but a fleeting stroke in the immaterial world. Light is everything: it alone brings space into reality, limited or unlimited, visible or simply intuited.  – Sylvain Dubuisson

Whether it’s natural or artificial, light is a critical part of our lives, and yet we rarely question its significance. In a presentation at Virginia Commonwealth University for a course on “Color and Light in Interior Environments,” Andrea Quilici discussed his experience in working with light and lighting designers, and the importance of lighting in building design.

Exterior Lighting

Light is the medium by which a building is perceived during the day. Walls are perceived as solid: they ground the building. Windows and openings, on the contrary, are perceived as voids, as something that is taken away from the mass of the construction. At night this perception is reversed as walls blend into the darkness of our surroundings and disappear. Windows and openings instead come to life: they show whatever activities are taking place inside, and they project light to the outside world. At the Varina Library we worked to ensure that our three pavilions seated in the sloped landscape reveal their form and the activities within. The deep projections of the walls and roofs of these pavilions will not only ensure that no direct light enters during the day; their interior light will also make them glow at night, thereby highlighting their shape.

Materials and Natural Light

Materials and their colors react to natural and artificial lights in different ways, depending on their opacity, reflectivity, finishes, and how they are placed relative to the lighting source. They can become an opportunity to enhance perception of the building, and to change this perception from day to night as exposure changes from natural to artificial lighting.


At the Libbie Mill Library, we designed a continuous double volume topped by a skylight at the perimeter of the main reading room. For the patrons in the room, this architectural gesture provides a perceived boundary of continuous and uniform light to which they are drawn. To strengthen their perceptions of this boundary, the neutral colors of the reading room are designed to contrast a green hue at the edges from a reflection of the opposite wall. Within this space, moreover, perceptions of the double volume change constantly during the day, as the quality of natural light shifts according to weather conditions and the seasons. The room similarly changes in luminosity as the shades of the window’s terracotta screens add yet another bi-dimensional perception for the enjoyment of the patron.

Artificial Lighting

Lighting an interior space can be one of the most challenging and therefore interesting tasks for a designer. Through the openings of the exterior envelope, the interior rooms become a meeting place between inside and outside, between natural and artificial light. The integration between these two different and complementary types of lights is what brings the space to life.

Within the building we can define 3 different types of lights:

1)      Ambient light

2)      Architectural light

3)      Technical light

Ambient Light

People rarely question their source of light when they are outside on a sunny day. Interior spaces are most successful when there is a general mix of light sources both natural (windows and skylights) and artificial. When natural light is not available, ambient light can be supplemented by light coves or light boxes where the source of lighting is not visible, but can flood the space with what is perceived as a source of natural light.

Architectural Light

By integrating lighting into the design of a space, we’re able to highlight a particular building feature, or make one space appear more vital than others.  At the Law School at Washington and Lee University, the lighting of the reading areas not only integrates the ambient light coming from the large windows at the perimeter of the room, but it also becomes part of the architecture. Light fixtures are integrated within the metal slat ceiling and they become part of the ceiling’s composition.


At the entrance to the First Unitarian Church the landscape and light design at night draw people from the street to its new entrance on Blanton Avenue. Sculptural exposed concrete walls provide for the church name, for seating opportunities, and for the definition of the entry pass as they emerge from the landscaped plaza. At night integrated light fixtures guide people to the entry, while providing for pre- or post- function gatherings for the local community.


Task Light

Task lighting, also known as technical lighting is light that serves a specific function, such as reading, the illumination of art or books in a library, or to point to a building’s emergency exit. The selection of the fixture is part of the furnishing of the space and should be properly integrated. Task lights are the bridge between the architectural form of the space and the furniture that inhabits it.  At Libbie Mill Library, we worked together with the client, the lighting consultant and bookshelf manufacturers to provide an integrated solution for the illumination of the bookshelves.


When designing with lighting, one can find opportunities to create significant spaces not only through given material structures, but also through the infinite potential of a stroke of light.

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