ORIENTATION EXPLAINED, AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU

The sun can be both friend and foe. As Architects, it is our responsibility to use it wisely, but our methods can seem quite random when it comes to the layout of your home.

Having an understanding of the ‘why?’ behind orientation is helpful when evaluating your site, wish list and initial designs.

This explainer is here to give you just that, minus most of the science mumbo jumbo.

IN THE BEGINNING…
Light, and with it, heat. When it comes to comfort levels in your home, there are certain spaces you would like to be warm, and others where the cool is welcomed. This all changes with seasons, and is why orientation is essential to designing spaces for living throughout the year.

 

LET’S BREAK IT DOWN

It’s best to look at orientation with the understanding of some initial concepts, including sun angles, compass points, and place.
Time to dive in!

  1. SUN ANGLES

South Africa is found in the southern hemisphere, meaning that the majority of our daily light comes
from the North at different angles dependent on the seasons. We’ve all noticed that the sun sets and
rises at different points along the horizon throughout the year.This, along with the angle of the sun
as it moves through the sky give us this basic diagram adjacent.

When designing, we take 88o (1) for summer and 40o (1) for winter into consideration as our  ‘worst case scenarios’. With this in mind, building form, window and door placement, etc. can be considered more carefully to let light in or to shade. For example, the effect of these angles on a basic window aperture are shown.

1: Napier, A. (2000) Enviro-friendly methods in Small building Design for South Africa (1st ed.) South Africa. Published by  Author.

2. COMPASS POINTS

Together with sun angles, each direction on the compass gives a type of light (and heat), that contribute to comfort levels inside your home.


NORTH

North light is your fried. It’s where we get most of our daily light from, providing moderate heating and lighting for spaces throughout the day. It serves best in the spaces where you spend most of your time, including living rooms, dining rooms, entertainment spaces and bedrooms.

EAST  
This is where the sun begins its daily journey, giving sharp morning light and some heat to start the day. Being creatures of the day, placing bedroom windows in this direction jumpstart our internal clocks, with gentle heat encouraging activity. Kitchens, dining spaces and living spaces also benefit from East light and heat, and is often used with North and South light.

SOUTH 
South light is soft, giving little heat, and is best employed in spaces where only moderate amounts of time during a day are spent, or spaces that don’t need much light. These spaces include bathrooms, storage, entrance halls and garages, etc. NOTE: South light can also be used with North and East light to create, airy, light spaces that aren’t too warm creating great study and kitchen* spaces (*when combined with other directions).

WEST 
The sun ends its journey here, carrying with it the heat of the day, baking building surfaces. It is an enemy if used incorrectly, so windows on the West are generally limited in number and size. This side of the building is also more likely to make use of shading devices where necessary. Rooms found on this side often include storage, bathrooms, service spaces and movement routes.

3. PLACE

This is where it all comes home … literally. Sun angles and compass points all relate to place. Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town may share the same country, but in terms of climate they are very different. To help with these differences, South Africa has been divided into climatic zones, giving us guidelines on aperture placement, number, size and building orientation overall. 

NOW, LETS ADD SOME HEAT

We’ve all been told that hot air rises, but in truth, that’s a bunch of hot air. Heat goes to where it is cold, which is why it rises in the atmosphere, and this is the basis on which the aircon industry thrives. We consider two main types of heat transfer when looking at orientation:

RADIATION : the heat we feel from the sun on our skin, and thus the building’s skin.
CONDUCTION : heat moving from one solid to another

Both contribute to heat movement within a building, the most obvious link being between orientation and radiation. If spaces are placed without consideration for orientation and the heat gained, you may end up with spaces that feel like an oven during the day, or a freezer at night … or both!

THE QUESTION REMAINS…

With an understanding of the above, WHY NORTH?
Let’s bring it all together… Here’s a (simplified) example from a recent project:

Any building should be designed so as to face North wherever possible and practical, thus optimizing orientation.

By concentrating living spaces such as lounges, dining rooms and living rooms in predominantly North facing spaces, moderate lighting and heat throughout the day can be achieved and enjoyed. Careful introduction of openings ensures cross-breeze, bringing fresh air to spaces used heavily.

By facing bedrooms NE, each day is started off on the right foot with gentle heating and lighting to jumpstart the body. As the day heats up, users generally move from bedrooms to living spaces. If more time is spent here, including afternoons, lighting softens and with it, the potentially overwhelming heat of the afternoon.

Kitchens fall between service and living spaces, but also tend to be warmer due to cooking. South facing Kitchens are generally not so great, but with the addition of Eastern or high-level window light from another direction, a light, cool space can be achieved.
Also remember that Kitchens have evolved over the years to be included in our living spaces as homes move from compartmentalized (multiple closed off rooms), to open plan spaces.

This leaves West facing areas to places where lingering is not encouraged, including storage spaces, bathrooms, garages, etc. These spaces often do not require ample sunlight, thus enabling limitation of West facing windows and the overall buildup of heat within the building.

The above is given as a best-case scenario when, in reality, most sites don’t afford the freedom to perfectly orientate the proposed structure. Some hurdles include site slope and size of both the building and site to name a few.

I use ‘hurdles’ here, because regardless of site limitations, a good Architect will be able to overcome any limits and produce optimally orientated buildings as far as the site allows.

RELAX!

look, as the client, you are not required to know the absolute science behind spatial arrangement, that’s our responsibility. However, knowing the basics is helpful to ensure that your Architect is providing the best possible design solutions. It’s all good and well to have a beautifully designed home, but if the overall orientation is wrong, you may end up with a nightmare investment you’d prefer not to linger in.

Knowledge is power, so the more you know about the nitty gritty affecting the design of your home, the better the overall result will be.

  Hopefully this resource has given you some helpful tips and useful info as you work towards your dream home!