Mt. Angel Abbey aerial view
I finally made it to the Mount Angel Abbey at St. Benedict, Oregon this past month. Up on a hill in remote seclusion, this beautiful abbey south of Portland, Oregon has two world-class buildings that focus on integration with the natural world. The first, built in the 1970 by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto is the library. Aalto is world famous for his use of natural light in buildings and this small library is one of only two buildings he built in the United States. Then in 2006 the Abbey monks put together an expert team to design a new classroom building. The results are ingenious and beautiful.
Interior view of library - image by green mormon architect
Aalto’s library is built on a radial plan on the sloping hillside. The entrance is a simple one story building, but as you move towards the center, the library steps down the hillside and opens up. The radial skylight in the center of the building brings natural light down into even the lowest level of the library and reaches all the bookstacks. The minimal use of glass, especially in the radial skylight is best illustrated by viewing the roof of the library. Remarkably this small well-designed skylight provides light for the entire library. (See here for more info) Even perimeter daylight penetrates into the center bookstacks when perimeter offices are used because of the transparent use of materials.
Aerial view of library - at the roof level, the radial skylight allowing light into the building is actually quite small compared to the size of the building - image from abbey website
Looking up into radial skylight of library - image by green mormon architect
Contrasting with the Classroom building we will see below, "performance glass and shading are not necessarily needed if the windows are carefully placed. As Joel Loveland of the Lighting Design Lab in Seattle says, 'Daylighting design is the use of good design sense, not the application of technology.' Alvar Aalto’s Mt. Angel Abbey Library, has only 20 percent exterior glass and still manages to give daylight an important presence in the building. In fact, the library had enough daylighting to be the only building at the seminary to remain open during a power outage in 1996. The critical factor is not how much exterior glass you have in a building, but where and how you use it." (source)
Transparency of perimeter offices allows light into book stacks - image by green mormon architect
In the words of SRG Partnership, the designers of the Classroom building, "the central idea of the building, dedicated primarily to the intellectual formation of future priests, was to graciously express, through the architecture, that this is a place where God’s Wisdom is sought. One should sense this in every space and in every detail of the building...The new building, aptly named Annunciation, embodies a beautiful convergence of spiritual and sustainable design. The abundance of natural light, the views outward, the rhythm of the arches, and the simplicity of the color and materials palette, all contribute to a building that is contemplative and disciplined but also very gracious in its openness." (source)
The new Classroom building uses natural light for 95% of the occupied hours. Additionally, natural ventilation is used reducing the demand for HVAC systems. Overall the building is 62% more energy efficient than the Oregon Energy Code. (source) In these ways, even in rainy Oregon, the building uses the climate as a resource, not a liability.
Natural ventilation of the building is not to cool the people, but to cool the building mass. The ceiling fans are to move air around during the day and cool the people. The mass is cool in the morning. During the day the building mass absorbs the suns energy and slowly heats up since the building mass is highly insulated. Ceiling fans circulate the cool air inside. By the evening, the mass is warm, but the space is still cool. The building is then opened up to ventilate and cool the building using automatic dampers in the exterior walls and wind turbines on the roof. The air passing over the thermal mass cools it down throughout the night. You wouldn't want ventilation during the day since it would bring the hot air in. This process eliminates the need for mechanical, or air conditioning equipment.
Each classroom has a centrally located skylight, sloped ceiling, and a reflector hanging below the skylight. The skylights have louvers between the glass plates that are controlled by the light sensors. The louvers automatically adjust to maintain a pre-set light level in the classroom. Louvers in skylights reflect the suns energy back up while allowing the light in. (source)
The reflector hanging below the skylight inside the room is made from triangular-shaped extruded aluminum. The triangular shape allows for some of the light to pass through and some to be reflected up onto the ceiling that is then reflected into the room. These reflectors are densely spaced at the center (where the light is intense) and open up more at the edges to achieve a uniform light intensity throughout the classroom. Light shelves are also used on the south side to keep light from directly entering the classroom.
The light shelf, skylight louvers, and reflector are all there to keep direct sunlight from hitting people, while allowing sunlight to bathe the room with a natural glow.
These principles would apply not only to a classroom or library, as we see being explored here at Mount Angel Abbey, but also to Church meetinghouses and Temples where spiritual learning takes place in chapels, classrooms, and celestial rooms. Using natural daylight in buildings not only saves money, but makes building users happier, healthier, and more productive. Think of the Temple worker in the Temple all day without a glimpse of the outside world. Think of the three hour Sunday block with scarcely any natural light to illuminate the gospel teachings learned. Think of the increase in spiritual learning, enlightenment, and awakening when daylighting is incorporated into the design of our places of worship. And on top of that, think of the tithing money saved from thousands of meetinghouses and hundreds of temples using a fraction of their electricity and lighting bills.