Let the Sunshine in by Design: The Top Reasons for Applying Daylight to Adaptive Reuse Projects

Did you know sunlight can provide infinite returns on investment?

From providing healthy environments, comfortable illumination level and aesthetic quality to improving occupant productivity and building energy efficiency; below we’ll explore some of the many benefits daylight offers in adaptive reuse architecture projects. 

What is adaptive reuse?

“Adaptive reuse” (also called building reuse) offers a way to breathe new life into empty structures. Adaptive reuse projects can be challenging for the simple fact that an existing structure presents inherent constraints. Luckily, the environmental, cultural and economic sustainability benefits largely outweigh starting from scratch with new materials and more waste. Through the use of daylighting, architects can breathe new life into vacant existing structures to create inspiring new spaces.

Here are the top reasons for applying daylight to your next design:

Occupant wellness

Each day, new research, case studies, design guides and design standards magnify the importance of daylight as a source of interior lighting that drives human health and happiness. This is because daylit environments provide the mental and visual stimulation necessary to regulate human circadian rhythms and the production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.

The human circadian rhythms are the body’s natural clock. When your body is exposed to daylight, your brain releases neurotransmitters in response to the changing intensity and spectral content of daylight over the course of the day. Ultimately, these neurotransmitters play important biological roles in telling your body to wake you up during daylight hours, and when darkness hits, enabling your body to fall asleep. By exposing your body to daylight throughout the day, your healthy human circadian rhythm will have a significant role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle and have a positive influence on your eating habits and digestion, body temperature, hormone release and other important bodily functions.

Additionally, a study by Dr. Alan Hedge, a workplace design expert and professor at Cornell University, even found that natural light has been shown to decrease eyestrain by 51%, drowsiness by 56% and headaches by 63%.

This is one reason why the Lincoln School, located in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, focused on adding a thoughtfully planned daylighting design when repurposing a former 90,000 square foot Target retail store into Independent School District 544’s newest campus.

By using top-down daylighting, the district was able to make the nearly windowless big box facility highly functional and full of natural light.

Energy Efficiency and Savings

To no surprise, another reason for applying daylight to an adaptive reuse project, is to reduce energy consumption and therefore save on energy costs.

Electric lighting accounts for 35% to 50% of the total electrical energy consumption in commercial buildings. By generating waste heat, this lighting also adds to the loads imposed on a building’s mechanical cooling equipment. The energy savings from reduced electric lighting through the use of proper daylighting strategies can directly reduce building cooling energy usage by an additional 10% to 20% and can reduce up to one-third of total building energy costs.

Additionally, spaces outfitted with daylight-sensing controls can reduce the energy used for supplemental electric lighting by 20% to 60%.


What would happen if your building needed to change again?

Another matter to consider is how the new design would be modified, in the case that the building undergoes further changes in the future.

For example, at the Lincoln School, forty-nine tubular daylighting devices, also known as TDDs, were used throughout the entire building in classrooms, kitchen spaces and open offices.

The adaptable tube design will allow for future interior layout flexibility. If the building needs change, the TDD’s light distribution lens and tubing can easily be realigned to new locations. Fixtures can be updated by swapping out or adding new accessories to customize the new space, saving facility owners money and reducing waste.

Perceptual Impact

Architects have long recognized that a good daylighting design can enhance architectural features in a special way, infusing emotion and completely transforming a space to be more welcoming and comforting.

This was a driving factor when Architect Timothy Bundy of Bundy Finkel Architects, decided to turn a former 60,000-square-foot big box facility into an inspiring and modern shared office space. The innovative use of natural light is one of the first things you notice when entering the new office lobby at The Center in Lake Meade, NV.

By combining tubular daylighting devices with luminous shades designed to fit over the units, he was able to create a bright central “atrium” space that will welcome future occupants. 

Occupant Productivity

In addition to nurturing the health and wellness of occupants within a building, daylit-filled environments have also been proven to inspire and lead to a more productive atmosphere. To this end, it’s no surprise that ‘access to natural light and views of the outdoors’ were the two most popular perks in a recent Future Workplace study for the Harvard Business Review. In the article, 70% of people reported that access to natural light improved their work performance.

Highlighting History

The value of natural light in terms of its ability to create a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere, contributes to the uniqueness of a location.

Situated in the heart of downtown Minneapolis in the historic Midland Bank building, Hotel Emery is a perfect example of how daylighting can be used to revive and beautify an empty historic structure.

Thinking outside the box, the design team used daylighting to create an urban oasis and biophilic design in the middle of the city. The Hotel Emery’s transformed daylighting design embraces the spirit and nostalgia of the past by integrating seamlessly into the ceiling and highlighting the building’s bones of marble and granite, producing a beautiful and one-of-a-kind environment that will stay with the guests long after they leave the hotel.


When working on your next adaptive reuse project, consider making daylight the primary source of interior illumination for daytime hours. The benefits go way beyond simple energy efficiency, with quality daylight illumination influencing virtually every aspect of a commercial facility in a positive way.

(posted 4/6/23)


About the Author

Neall Digert, Ph.D., MIES, Vice President, Innovation and Market Development, Kingspan Light + Air | North America, has over thirty years of consulting and education experience working in the energy/lighting/daylighting design and research fields, specializing in the design and application of advanced lighting and daylighting systems for commercial building applications. Here, he draws upon his expertise to build awareness on the importance of daylight as a source of interior lighting in adaptive reuse projects.

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