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Design of atriums for people and plants 12

Design of atriums for
people and plants

Donald Watson


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12 Design of atriums for people and plants

quick notes
12 Design of atriums for
people and plants
Atriums are common features of major build-
ings, which can be used to great advantage and
may help reduce operational costs. Misapplica-
tion of design can be costly, creating overheat-
ing, overlighting and glare. A Table presents the
range of design factors based on climate.
author: Donald Watson, FAIA


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Design of atriums
Design of for people
atriums andand
for people plants
plants 12

Summary: Atriums offer many energy design opportuni-

ties, depending upon climatic resources, to provide natural
heating, cooling, lighting and plants. It is necessary to es-
tablish a clear design goals, outlined in this article by an
overview of solar heating, natural cooling and daylighting
choices. Provisions for healthy planting and indoor gardens
can also be combined with atrium design to benefit both
plants and people.

Key words: atrium, daylighting, designing for plants, horti- New Canaan Nature Center Solar Wintergarden, New Canaan, CT
culture, microclimate, natural cooling, solar heating. Buchanan/Watson Architects, 1984

The atrium concept of climate-control has been used throughout the H4.To recover the heat that rises by natural convection to the top of
history of architecture and in indigenous building in all climates of the atrium, place a return air duct high in the space, possibly aug-
the globe. Suggested by its Latin meaning as “heart” or an open court- menting its temperature by placing it directly in the sun. Heat re-
yard of a Roman house, the term atrium as used today is a protected covery can be accomplished if the warm air is redistributed either
courtyard or glazed wintergarden placed within a building. Modern to the lower area of the atrium (a ceiling fan) or redirected (and
atrium design incorporates many architectural elements—wall enclo- cleaned) to the mechanical system, or through a heat exchanger if
sures, sun-oriented openings, shading and ventilation devices, and the air must be exhausted for health and air-quality reasons.
subtle means of modifying temperature and humidity—suggested by
examples that derive from the courtyard designs of Roman, early Because a large air volume must be heated, an atrium is not an effi-
Christian, and Islamic building and 19th-Century greenhouses and cient solar collector per se. But the high volume helps to make an
glass-covered arcades of Great Britain and France. overheated space acceptable, especially if the warmest air rises to the
top. If the atrium is surrounded by building on all sides, direct winter
Atriums offer many energy design opportunities: first, comfort is sun is difficult if not impossible to capture except at the top of the
achieved by gradual transition from outside climate to building inte- skylight enclosure. However, by facing a large skylight and/or win-
rior; second, designed properly, protected spaces and buffer zones dow opening towards the equator, direct winter solar heating becomes
create natural and free flowing energy by reducing or by eliminating entirely feasible.
the need to otherwise heat, cool, or light building interiors. Depend-
ing on climatic resources and building use, the emphasis in atrium In cool climates, an atrium used as a solar heat collector would re-
design has to be balanced between occupancy and comfort criteria quire as much winter sunlight as possible. In overbright conditions,
and the relative need for heating, cooling, and/or lighting. dark finishes on surfaces where the sun strikes will help reduce glare
and also to store heat. On surfaces not in direct sun, light finishes may
How the atrium can work as an energy-efficient modifier of climate be best to reflect light, especially welcomed under cloudy conditions.
is best seen by examining separately its potential for natural heating, In most locations and uses, glass should be completely shaded from
cooling, and lighting. The first and most important step is to establish the summer sun. Although not practical for large atriums, in some
a clear set of energy design goals appropriate to the specific atrium applications greenhouse-type movable insulation might be considered
design. The resulting solution will depend upon its program (whether to reduce nighttime heat loss.
for circulation only or for longer term and sedentary human comfort
and/or for plant propagation and horticultural display) and the result- Natural cooling
ing environmental control requirements. Several guidelines related to the use of an atrium design as an inter-
Solar heating mediary or buffer zone apply to both heating and cooling. If an un-
If heating efficiency alone is the primary energy design goal of the conditioned atrium is located in a building interior, the heat loss is
atrium, the following design principles should be paramount: from the warmer surrounding spaces into the atrium. In buildings with
large internal gains due to occupants, lighting, and machines, the atrium
H1.To maximize winter solar heat gain, orient the atrium aperture may require cooling throughout the year. If one were to design exclu-
(openings and glazing) to the equator. If possible, the glazing sively for cooling, the following principles would predominate:
should be vertical or sloped not lower than a tilt angle equal to
the local latitude. C1. To minimize solar gain, provide shade for the summer sun. Ac-
cording to the particular building-use, the local climate and the
H2.For heat storage and radiant distribution, place interior masonry resulting balance point (the outside temperature below which heat-
directly in the path of the winter sun. This is most useful if the ing is required), the “overheated” season when sun shading is
TOC heated wall or floor surface will in turn directly radiate to build-
ing occupants.
needed may extend well into the autumn months. While fixed
shading devices suffice for much of the summer period, movable

i H3.To prevent excessive nighttime heat loss, consider an insulat-

ingsystem for the glazing, such as insulating curtains or high perfor-
mance multi-layered window systems.
shading is the only exact means by which to match the seasonal
shading requirements at all times. In buildings in warm climates,
sunshading may be needed throughout the year.

W Author: Donald Watson, FAIA

References: Architectural Graphic Standards (Ninth edition) “Atriums.”
Watson, Donald 1982. “The Energy Within the Space Within.” Progressive Architecture, July 1982. [out of print].

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12 Design of atriums for people and plants

C2.Use the atrium as an air plenum in the mechanical system of the The following principles apply to atrium design for daylighting:
building. The great advantage is one of economy, but heat recov-
ery options (discussed above) and ventilation become most effec- L1. To maximize daylight, an atrium cross-section should be stepped
tive when the natural air flow in the atrium is in the same direc- open to the entire sky dome in predominantly cloudy areas. In
tion and integrated with the mechanical system. predominantly sunny sites, atrium geometry can by based upon
heating and/or cooling solar orientation principles.
C3.To facilitate natural ventilation, create a vertical “chimney” L2. To maximize light, window or skylight apertures should be de-
effect by placing ventilating outlets high (preferably in the free- signed for the predominant sky condition. If the predominant sky
flow air stream well above the roof) and by providing cool “re- condition is cloudy and maximum daylight is required (as in a
placement air” inlets at the atrium bottom, with attention that the northern climate wintergarden), consider clear glazing oriented to
airstream is clean, that is, free of car exhaust or other pollutants. the entire sky dome, with movable sun controls for sunny condi-
The inlet air steam can be cooled naturally, such as accessed from a tions. If the predominant sky condition is sunny, orient the glaz-
shaded area. In hot, dry climates, passing the inlet air over water such ing according to heating and/or cooling design requirements.
as an aerated fountain or landscape area is particularly effective to L3. Provide sun-and-glare control by geometry of aperture, surface
create evaporative cooling. Allowing the atrium to cool by ventilation treatment, color, and adjustable shades or curtains. Designing for
at night is effective in climates where summer nighttime tempera- daylighting involves compromise to meet widely varying sky con-
tures are lower than daytime (greater than 15F difference), in which ditions. What works in bright sun conditions will not be adequate
case the cooling effect can be carried into the next day by materials for cloudy conditions. An opaque overhang or louver, for example,
such as masonry (although, as a rule, if the average daily temperature may create particularly somber shadowing on a cloudy day. Light
is above 78F (25.5°C), thermally massive materials are disadvanta- is already made diffuse by a cloudy sky, falling nearly equally
geous in non-air-conditioned spaces because they do not cool as rap- from all directions; the sides of the atrium thus cast gray shadows
idly as a thermally light structure). The microclimatic dynamic no on all sides. For predominantly cloudy conditions, a clear sky-
different than that evident in the Indian teepee—when stack ventila- light is the right choice. Bright haze will nonetheless cause intol-
tion is possible through a roof aperture, the space will ventilate natu- erable glare at least to a view upwards. Under sunny conditions,
rally even in the absence of outside breezes, by the driving force of the same skylight is the least satisfactory choice because of
heated air. If air-conditioning of the atrium is needed but can be re- overlighting and overheating. The designer’s choice is to com-
stricted to the lower area of the space, it can be done reasonably; cold promise. Unless the local climate is truly cloudy and the atrium
air, being heavier, will pool at the bottom. requires high levels of illumination, partial skylighting can achieve
While there is apparent conflict between the heating design principle a balance of natural lighting, heating, and cooling. Partial
to maximize solar gain and the cooling design principle to minimize skylighting (that is, a skylight design that occupies only a portion
it, the sun does cooperate by its change in its apparent solar position of the roof surface) offers the further advantage of controlling
with respect to the building. There are, however, design choices to be glare and sunlight by providing reflecting and shading surfaces to
balanced between the requirements for sunshading and those for the view, such as by the coffers of the skylights. Because it is
daylighting. The ideal location for a sunshading screen is on the out- reduced in light intensity and contrast, a surface illuminated by
side of the glazing, where it can be wind-cooled. When the outside air reflected light is far more acceptable to the human eye than a di-
ranges about 80F (26.7°C), glass areas even if shaded admits undes- rect view of a bright window area. Movable shades for glare and
ired heat gain by conduction. In truly warm climates, a minimum of sun control provide a further, surprisingly simple means of bal-
glazed aperture should be used to prevent undesired heat gain, in which ancing for the variety of conditions. This can be provided simply
case the small amount of glazing should be placed where it is most by operable canvas or fiberglass shades.
effective for daylighting. Heat-absorbent or heat-reflective glass, the
common solution to reduce solar heat gain, also reduces the illumina- The relative importance of these design principles for heating, cool-
tion level and, if facing the equator, it also reduces desirable winter ing, and daylighting can be weighted according to building type and
heat gain. the local climate. In the northern United States and in Canada, par-
ticularly for residential units or apartments that might be grouped
In temperate-to-cool climates, heat gain through a skylight can be around an atrium, the solar heating potential predominates, while the
tolerated if the space is high, so that heat builds up well above the natural cooling potential predominates in the southern United States.
occupancy zone and there is good ventilation. In hot climates, an atrium In commercial and institutional structures, natural cooling and
will perform better as an unconditioned space if it is a shaded but daylighting are both important. In this case, the local climate would
otherwise open courtyard. determine the relative importance of openness achieved with large
and clear skylighting (most appropriate for cloudy temperate-to-cool
Daylighting regions) or of closed and shaded skylighting (most appropriate for
In all climates, an atrium can be used for daylighting. Electric light- sunny warm regions). While no one set of recommendations fits any
ing cost savings can be achieved, but only if the daylighting system one climate, the relative importance of each of the design principles
works; that is, if it replaces the use of artificial lighting. (Many daylit is indicated by climatic region in Table 1.
buildings end up with the electric lights in full use regardless of light-
ing levels needed.) Atriums serve a particularly useful function in
daylighting design for an entire building by balancing light levels—
Garden atriums
Plants have an important role in buffer zones. If the requirements of
thus reducing brightness ratios—across the interior floors of a build-
ing. If, for example, an open office floor has a window wall on only
one side, typically more electric lighting is required than would be
required without natural lighting to reduce the brightness ratio. An
plants are understood, healthy greenery can be incorporated into atrium
design and contribute to human comfort, amenity and energy conser-
vation. Plants, however when uncomfortable, cannot move. Major
planting losses have been reported in gardened atriums because the
atrium light court at the building interior could provide such balanced
“two source” lighting. An atrium designed as a “lighting fixture” that
bioclimatic requirements were not achieved. A greenhouse for year-
round crop or plant production is intended to create spring-summer or
reflects, directs, or diffuses sunlight, can be one of the most pleasing the growing-period climate throughout the year. A wintergarden rep-
means of controlling light. licates spring-summer conditions for plant growth in wintertime by

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Design of atriums for people and plants 12

Table 1. Relative Importance of Design Principles in Various Climates

Seattle Denver LosAngeles Houston
Chicago St. Louis Phoenix New Orleans
Minneapolis Boston Midland TX Miami
H1 To maximize winter solar heat gain, orient ● ❑ ▼
the atrium aperture to the south.
H2 For radiant heat storage and distribution, ▼ ❑ ●
place interior masonry directly in the path of
the winter sun.
H3 To prevent excessive nighttime heat loss, ● ❑
consider an insulating system for the glazing.
H4 To recover heat, place a return air duct high ❑ ● ▼
in the space, directly in the sun
C1 To minimize solar gain, provide shade from ❑ ❑ ●
the summer sun.
C2 Use the atrium as an air plenum in the ❑ ❑ ❑ ❑
mechanical system of the building.
C3 To facilitate natural ventilation, create a ❑ ❑ ❑ ●
vertical “chimney” effect with high outlets
and low inlets.
L1 To maximize daylight, use a stepped section ❑ ▼
(in predominantly cloudy areas).
L2 To maximize daylight, select skylight glazing ❑ ❑ ❑ ❑
for predominant sky condition (clear and
horizontal in predominantly cloudy areas).
L3 Provide sun- and glare-control ❑ ❑ ● ❑
Key: ● = Very important; ❑ = positive benefit; ▼ = discretionary



Fig. 1. Atrium designs for solar daylighting, heating, gardens, and natural cooling

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12 Design of atriums for people and plants

maximizing winter daylight exposure and by solar heating. Plants If the function of the atrium includes plant propagation or horticul-
need ample light but not excessive heat. Although it varies according tural exhibit (replicating the indigenous climate in which the display
to plant species, as a general rule planting areas require full plants flower), then clear-glass skylighting is needed for the cloudy
overhead skylighting (essentially to simulate their indigenous days and adjustable shading and overheating controls are needed for
growing condition). Most plants are overheated if their roots range sunny days. If the plant beds are heated directly, by water piping for
above 65F (18.3°C). Their growth slows when the root temperature example, then root temperatures can be maintained in the optimum
drops below 45F (7.2°C). As a result, a greenhouse has the general range without heating the air. As a result, the air temperature in the
problem of overheating (as well as overlighting) during any sunny atrium can be cool for people, that is in the 50F (10°C) range, with the
day and of underlighting (in intensity and duration) during any resulting advantage of providing a defense against superheating the
cloudy winter day. space. People can be comfortable in lower air temperatures if exposed
to the radiant warmth of the sun and/or if the radiant temperature of
surrounding surfaces is correspondingly higher, that is, ranging above
80F (26.7°C). Lower atrium temperature offers a further advantage to
plants and energy-efficient space operation because evaporation from
plants is slowed, saving water and energy (1000 Btu are removed
from the sensible heat of the space with each pound of water that
evaporates). Plant growth is aided by air movement, if gentle and
pervasive. Air circulation reduces excessive moisture build-up at the
plant leaf and circulates CO2, needed during the daytime growth cycle.
The requirements for healthy planting and indoor gardening can thus
be combined with energy-efficient atrium design for benefit of both
plants and people.
Atrium design can be integral to a bioclimatic approach to heating,
cooling and lighting buildings, while adding the restorative benefit of
planting. The Gardner Museum in Boston provides a turn-of-the-cen-
tury U.S. precedent. wherin a Venetian Renaissance garden forms the
central organizing space (Fig. 2). The Ford Foundation in New York
City 1955 incorporates a landscaped atrium within an office building
(Fig.3). The TVA Headquarters design in Chatanooga derives from
an atrium cross-section for daylighting and for planting (Fig. 4). These
examples demonstrate the amenity offered by atrium design adapted
to the opportunities of their particular building type and climate.

Fig. 2. Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. Boston, MA. E. H. Sears,

Architect, 1902

Fig. 3. Ford Foundation Headquarters. New York. Roche Fig. 4. TVA Office Building Chattanooga, TN. The Architects
Dinkerloo, Architects. Dan Kiley, Landscape Architect. 1955. Collaborative (TAC). 1984.

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