I left work today at about 5:30 pm, and I noticed something as I stepped outside—light. The days are now noticeably longer. This is actually one of the few things I like about the month of February—more time for sunlight. I recently came across a renovated 4-story wool mill in Norristown, PA whose owners (Corbett, Inc.) obviously share my affinity for sunlight. How do I know this? I went inside and was practically flooded with the natural light. In fact, on a recent tour I took there I learned that no employee is more than 15 feet from a source of natural light. I happen to be on the sun side of my office building, but at Corbett, every side is a sun side.
The Washington Woolen Mill building (the home of Corbett, Inc.) was built in 1817. In the 1820s, mills were 4 stories, with supply deliveries and natural light coming in through big doors and windows on the top floor. Then product moved down each floor through various manufacturing processes to the bottom floor, from which finished product was delivered. When Corbett bought the building in 1979, the company overlaid modern technology and extensive re-use to renovate the property. The main element they re-used was the architecture—especially the strong stone walls and large upper-level door and window openings. The original stone walls were repointed, and the original window glass (when present) was re-glazed. (Some of the windows had been boarded up in the 1970s—those got new glass. The frames are the old ones.
In a clever design touch, the employees in the office the most get the work spaces along the outer walls—that is, with the most natural light. One of the critical issues in managing the light (the current term is “daylight harvesting”) is making sure that each employee has the correct amount of light at all times. To ensure this, Corbett installed a very clever light management system that features automatic shades and dimmable overheard ballasts. As the sun travels around the building, the shades go up and down depending upon the sunlight level. At the same time, nearby dimmable ballasts are sensing how much sunlight is coming into the space, and dimming themselves accordingly. The system is so sensitive that single dimmable fixture (the longer ones) can have 2 distinct dim settings working simultaneously.
I’m glad there was so much light inside the building, because I still had a lot of building to see. Looking around, I noticed the very thick support and cross beams—original. I looked down and noticed the beautiful floors—reglazed, but also the original wood. Other spots had carpeting—and this was all both recyclable and made from recycled materials (not unlike the carpet I had bought a few years ago). I looked up, and saw the sprinkler system—re-purposed from the 1970s installation. What I did not see was much (or any) drywall. I saw modular glass walls (panels of glass) that allowed for privacy and the long open sight lines that made the space very pleasant. These panels also allow the light to travel a long way vs. getting blocked by drywall. These modules impressed me; they also impressed a Corbett client who came in for something else, saw the walls, and essentially bought them on the spot.
Even the heating system partially uses the sunlight. First, the allowing the natural light and warmth to come in can only help with heating costs. The property features 2 connected buildings—Corbett’s office in the 4 story section and another company (Kay and Sons) in a connected 2 story annex. Both sections feature exposed ductwork at the ceiling above the cross beams mentioned earlier. The Kay and Sons folks have an extra benefit of a 2-story atrium with the original lever and pulley system intact for opening the upper windows. I was assured that they use the pulley system at every possible opportunity to bring in fresh air, providing yet another modern use for the original design.
When the mill was built in 1817, the architects utilized the sun and surroundings for heat and light because they had to—the technology did not exist and electricity had not been harnessed yet. Now, creators of sustainable buildings and design are looking for techniques and methods for buildings to work more with their surrounding environment for the comfort of the occupants. The occupants of the old Washington Woolen Mill (ie, Corbett, Inc., Kay and Sons) are certainly benefiting from the combination of the original design and modern technology. They don’t have to go outside to get some sunlight (and fresh air)—the renovated building’s design delivers it to them.
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