Was the lightbulb the death of modern construction?

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Was the invention of the light bulb one of the worst things to happen to the construction industry?

Our managing director Lee Marshall, explains why he thinks so…

There is no disputing the economic and social impact that the arrival of the light bulb had on our lives. It allowed factories and businesses to run into the night, revolutionised our homes and social lives, and allowed us to travel safely in the dark. So much has been made possible with artificial light.

However, in my view, it was also one of the worst things that could have happened to the world of construction as it made everything smaller.

It led to the death of large, airy windows that let natural light flood in. Before the light bulb was introduced in the nineteenth century, properties were built to let in as much daylight as possible, thanks to the astronomical cost of oil lamps and candles. 

In the post-war era, ceiling heights in properties really came down and windows became smaller as we could light our homes artificially. This continued into the housing boom of the 1950s and 60s and in the social housing growth of the 1970s and 80s. With the advent of LED lighting, our homes are more energy-efficient to run – not to mention warmer thanks to modern insulation and double glazing – but we haven’t updated our construction methods. 

This needs to change. We need to not only start building better but also change our approach to how we build.

“If you have a good, sustainable housing offering that is scalable then there is an opportunity to transform the market, but designs need to be more creative.”

How do we transform the market and make designs more creative?

I firmly believe that if you have a good, sustainable housing offering that is scalable then there is an opportunity to transform the market, but designs need to be more creative. For example, there is a huge waste of space and volume with traditional triangular roof trusses - you are probably losing about 25 to 30 percent of the building for nothing.  

We could push into that volume. By lifting the first floor a few hundred millimetres and raising the bedroom ceiling further into the loft, you could push up the space by about ten feet and put in bigger windows, create some nice features such as vaulting, and reduce the energy consumption.

Under current regulations, a window area must equate to approximately 20 percent of the floor area to allow a small amount of daylight. If we said it should be increased to 40 - 50 percent and the minimum ceiling height should be three metres, it would transform how we live and improve health & wellbeing.

We could also redefine our living spaces by changing the layout and geography of a house, which is normally dictated by the position of the stairs. If we put the stairs at the back of the property, then all the downstairs rooms could be at the front of the house. Would you even need windows at the back? It could be a north-facing wall that is timber-framed and well-insulated.

Then you could have bigger windows on the front. The bedrooms would be front or south-facing, making the property a more rectangular shape, and you would have a larger, south-facing front garden that is accessible from both the kitchen and living area. If an entire neighbourhood is organised in this way, it creates a sensitive layout that gives privacy but maximises daylight – reducing the reliance on artificial light.

Our experience

I’ve been working in this industry for 20 years and understand it takes time to turn things around. Many in the building industry have convinced themselves that people want a square house with a big roof and there is a reluctance to break the mould. 

As a practice, we know that being sustainable and saving CO2 emissions is about spending as little as possible in order to save as much as possible. As a result, we offer a different perspective to our clients and the projects we are involved in and we have certainly seen a good response. In fact, we are currently working on a selection of social housing that gives properties bigger windows and a higher floor to ceiling height.

So, while the invention of the lightbulb has led to building sizes being reduced unnecessarily, the energy revolution we are experiencing will allow people to live happily in homes that still have those important echoes of the past.

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