Let there be light

“Splendid! Magnificent! Awesome!” is how Henderson County historian par excellence Louise Bailey described Pardee Hospital’s new emergency room. Indeed it is magnificent, Mrs. Bailey, but for reasons beyond the obvious improvements in the health care available to county residents. The visionary architectural design also ushers in a new era for solar buildings in this corner of Western North Carolina. Because that beautiful beginning — a group of vaulted windows above the central nurse’s station — is also designed to flood the whole area with glorious natural light.

Natural sunlight is the best bargain in the universe. It’s free, and it has the power to lighten our days, lift our spirits and curb our dependence on fossil fuels. Natural sunlight even seems to have captured the attention of Madison Avenue these days. In a recent advertisement promoting a natural-daylight lamp, the copy reads, “The man who had perfected time-lapse photography, Dr. John Ott … discovered that natural sunshine is the best light for everything we do, from reading and studying, to hobbies and more, and that sunshine even helped people feel better!” (Parade Magazine, March 16, 2003).

Looks like my Grandmother Griffin was right: “Inside makes you sick; outside makes you well.”

Fortunately, this “new” discovery has not been lost on the younger generation of designers and architects. One such solar-savvy architectural firm, Innovative Design, has its world headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. Innovative Design has incorporated healthy, energy-reducing solar designs into business facilities worldwide as well as three schools right here in North Carolina (to learn more, visit innovativedesign.net). Incorporating natural light has been shown to drastically reduce school energy costs (by anywhere from 24 to 64 percent). And those three Johnston County schools — Four Oaks Elementary School and Clayton and Selma middle schools — consume less energy than almost any other schools in the southeastern United States.

In North Carolina, a 125,000-square-foot middle school incorporating a well-integrated “daylighting” scheme could save $40,000 per year compared to the energy costs associated with typical school construction. That’s good news considering that in just five years, annual electrical usage in the Henderson County schools has increased by 25 percent, costing taxpayers an additional $304,237. That’s enough money to fund 10 new teachers, an entire set of new textbooks, an integrated foreign-language program, or the finest science labs our children could hope for.

But there’s more to daylight construction than dollars and cents alone. Evidence suggests that it can actually improve student achievement. Comparing scores on standardized tests, a pair of 1992 studies found that sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students in Johnston County’s “daylit” schools had outperformed county students as a whole by 5 percent the first year, increasing to 14 percent over three years. Now that’s a figure that gets this parent’s attention. Imagine how our children might benefit by being in classrooms flooded with soft, natural daylight!

As impressive as those cost savings and student-productivity gains are, however, the most important benefit of daylight design is health, not wealth. Can the right design not only make a building work better but actually make the people in it feel better?

That’s the conclusion reached by a Canadian study, as reported in The Washington Post (“The Difference is Daylight,” Sept. 5, 1996). For two years beginning in 1992, the Alberta Department of Education compared the health of elementary-school children in rooms with full-spectrum lighting (the kind you get from natural light) and kids in rooms with conventional electric lighting. The study found:

• “Exposure to full-spectrum light resulted in better attendance,” with daylit students averaging 3.5 fewer days absent per year.

• “Students in full-spectrum rooms had better dental records — nine times less tooth decay.”

• “Students in full-spectrum classrooms grew more — more than 3/4 inch in two years.”

•”Daylighted libraries had significantly less noise, a result of students’ increased concentration levels.”

• “Full-spectrum lighting induced more positive moods in students and caused them to perform better scholastically.”

The curriculum in our schools should include more than just “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” It’s also our responsibility to teach children — by example — how to be responsible stewards of the natural world that sustains them. How will they learn to conserve if we don’t? Can a region with a burgeoning population prosper without conservation? Is it responsible stewardship to increase our use of an energy source that depends on coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels?

In a mere 20 years, mountaintop removal — an extreme form of strip-mining that involves blasting off the tops of mountains so that huge machines can mine thin seams of coal — has turned 300,000 acres in West Virginia into moonscapes. Adding insult to injury, the mountaintop rubble is then dumped into adjacent valleys and streams. In an October 1999 decision, Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II of West Virginia’s Southern District ruled that this practice violates the Clean Water Act. Here’s an excerpt from that decision (as reported on the TomPaine.com Web site): “When valley fills are permitted in intermittent and perennial streams, they destroy those stream segments. … If there are fish, they cannot migrate. If there is any life form that cannot acclimate to life deep in a rubble pile, it is eliminated. No effect on related environmental values is more adverse than obliteration.”

Judge Haden’s ruling in favor of a group called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth blocked the Martin County Coal Corporation from dumping coal-mining wastes into more than six miles of streams and at the heads of 27 valleys and barred the Army Corps of Engineers from issuing new permits for such dumping. But on Jan. 29, 2003, a higher court overturned Haden’s ruling, which had been appealed by mining officials and the Bush administration.

To date, the Corps of Engineers has approved 6,700 valley fills in Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia and West Virginia. Between 1985 and 2001, 1,200 miles of streams in this four-state region were impaired, and 724 miles of those streams were buried — obliterated outright. If all the presently approved valley fills are carried out, another 1,000 miles of streams will be impaired and/or destroyed in the next 10 years. And this in a region that has already lost 380,547 acres of forest cover during the last decade, according to a draft environmental-impact statement released May 29, 2003 by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This short-sighted obliteration of nature is decimating more than just the landscape in West Virginia and Kentucky; it’s also fouling our air and water. Coal-burning power plants are the single biggest air polluters in the U.S. They account for 40 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S. — the pollutant largely responsible for global warming. (according to information from the EPA, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and www.cleanenergy.org).

North Carolina’s 14 coal-powered generating plants run on West Virginia and Kentucky coal. These facilities emit 82 percent of the sulfur dioxide in our air (which causes heart disease, lung disease, asthma and haze), 45 percent of the nitrogen oxides (asthma and acid rain), and 65 percent of the toxic mercury (birth defects and fish kills), according to information from the American Lung Association of N.C. and the Clean Air Task Force Web site (www.catf.us).

Whenever we flip the switch in any Western North Carolina school, business or home, there’s a good chance the electrical energy we’re tapping comes from one of two coal-fired electrical plants: Progress Energy’s Lake Julian Power Plant (in Buncombe County) or Duke Energy’s Cliffside Steam Station (on the border of Cleveland and Rutherford counties). Lake Julian’s two fossil-fuel units burn nearly a million tons of coal per year; the Cliffside plant burns 7,400 tons of coal every day that it’s in operation. Some of the coal that fuels these facilities is coming from mountaintop-removal mines in West Virginia and Kentucky.

But the blame for obliterating our local earthly paradise doesn’t rest entirely with the power companies. We, the consumers, are culpable as well. Generating the electricity consumed by the average Henderson County school requires 247 tons of coal per month. And a family whose monthly home electric bill averages $60 is responsible for burning a quarter-ton of coal per month.

The problem seems obvious: too much demand placed on an energy source that carries too many liabilities. Which brings us back to that wonderful, divine bargain — natural sunlight. It’s free, nonpolluting, invigorating and technologically feasible. Maybe there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Let’s put that “gold” to use in Henderson County’s new Health and Human Services Building, the new schools in Polk County, the Mountain Community School, and wherever we want to enjoy energy savings and healthier living spaces. After all, God said, “Let there be light … and it was very good.”

Hendersonville resident Eva Ritchey is a community activist whose interests include environmental and transportation issues.

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