Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or you are anything other than another architect who reads this site), you would know that there are few things I enjoy in a project as much as a proper oculus. While I don’t try to stick them in every project (I’ve only done two in a career that is currently 27 years young), there are very few projects that an oculus* couldn’t improve. So for the second time in my career, I’ve got a project under construction that has an oculus as a primary design feature. For that matter, I’ve got a bunch of skylights in this project as well and I can’t remember the last time I put a skylight into a project. I only tell you this because I don’t want you going around thinking that all I do is stick skylights and oculus’ into my project … I’ve got some restraint and there is a time and place for everything.
Let’s start by taking a look at the oculus, shall we?
*An oculus is basically a round opening that is located in the center of a dome or wall. The most famous oculus is in the Pantheon, and while everyone who has ever been to the Pantheon remembers the oculus, few probably knew what it was called, other than “the coolest thing that was probably ever built”
So here is just one of a handful of details we created to convey our design intent. It’s important to know some basic parameters of this project so you can further appreciate why this project was worthy of containing Oculus 2.0 as well as the first 6 skylights of my career. (yes, I’m just as surprised as you to learn that I haven’t been carpet-bombing my designs with skylights for the last 2 decades).
I enjoy including some technical details in these sorts of posts because I love the feedback I receive [sarcasm]. The real reason I include technical details like this is that nobody else will do it and I always think that there are probably a bunch of people like me out there that want to see how something like this might come together. Here is some background:
This is a project I have in San Marcos, Texas. The overall building is around 20,000 square feet and my clients are the developers of the entire project AND the tenants of 12,000 square feet of this space. They are ophthalmologists and this is for their brand new clinic. As you can imagine (assuming that you’ve been to the optometrist at some point in your life and have had your vision checked), there are several examination rooms and the need to control the light in these spaces is constant. This typically means that there are few windows and even less natural light being brought into the offices.
During the schematic design phase, we concluded that natural light should have a central role to play in the execution of the design
Considering that this practice focuses on services such as cataract surgery, oculoplastic surgery, dry eye therapy, and glaucoma, you could reasonably conclude that a fair number of the people coming in for services are not responsible for driving themselves to and from their appointments. To help facilitate this drop-off/pick-up experience, we felt that there would need to be a covered space that could accommodate leaving someone at the curb while the person responsible for their transport could go get the car and pick them up at the curb. This meant a fairly large covered space right at the main entrance but we didn’t want this space to be cast in perpetual shadow.
Enter the oculus.
Construction is far enough along that I thought I would share some design renderings AND construction progress photos to help you imagine what we are doing here.
The top image is the current construction progress and the image below is one of the design renderings we created for our own use during the initial design process. It would have been helpful had we included a scale figure in either of these images but I can tell you that this covered “porch” is about 20′ deep from front to back. There is an irregularly shaped opening in the roof (our “oculus”) with a geometrically matched concrete form down at the ground level which will act as a planting bed as well as a raised seating area.
We want the entry experience to be just that, an “experience” and we think that the procession the guests who visit this clinic go through from the moment they leave their vehicles up until the moment they check-in will be unlike anything else they’ve experienced before.
In case you were wondering, and it probably could have received its own dedicated blog post, are the lights that are at the ceiling in this space – a pattern I refer to as “starry night”. The dark cylindrical objects you see at the ceiling are surface-mounted lights and I can promise you I had a fun time laying out that pattern.
Here are a few photos looking up at the structural framing of the oculus. This is an evocative shape and I can only hope that it will affect people in the same way it affects me … hypnotically. There was a reason I didn’t move forward with a straight-up circular shape. While I love the simplicity that a circle brings (here’s some proof – ‘Everyone Should Have an Oculus‘) I wanted a bit of irregularity to this shape since so many people would actually be interacting with it rather than seeing it from a distance. I felt an additional level of complexity would be a good thing and would add another level of interaction to this space so that visitors would rarely if ever experience the same light patterns twice.
But that’s just the front door … let’s take a look at the interiors where the programmatic requirements exclude the use of windows in 95% of the spaces.
More details – hopefully, they help set the table for what I am doing with these standard, off-the-shelf skylights. There are 6 in total and every single one of them is located in a corridor – in fact, there are 3 main corridors in this project and each corridor has two skylights.
Until the interior framing and sheetrock are installed, you’ll have to use a bit of imagination for this one. The largest cost-effective off-the-shelf skylight we could use was approximately 2′ x 6′ … which wasn’t anywhere near large enough. To visually maximize the areas associated with these skylights, we decided to angle all four sides of the walls that extend the ceiling up to the skylight. For what it’s worth, I will readily admit that I was influenced during the design process by La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier for the oculus and Ronchamp for the skylights- and if that doesn’t mean anything to you, spend some time in the near future and Google image search those projects.
Here is a design rendering of one of the skylights – effective enough for our design purposes but far short of conveying the sort of power and experience the final product will demonstrate. The actual exposed glazing portion of the skylight is fairly minimal but as the drywall opens up and extends down to the ceiling, the perceived size of the skylights will enlarge to 5′ x 18′, which will allow the light to diffuse and fill these corridors with natural daylight. If you look at the details above, one of the things we are doing is to extend the gypsum board all the way past the curb of the skylight so that it appears that the sky begins exactly where the walls ends without the actual skylight getting in the way (think of some of the work by Macarthur Fellow James Turrell – an American artist whose work is primarily focused on light).
In almost every single project I have ever designed, there is always one or two details whose execution has me the most excited. This project actually has 4 things I am extremely excited to see and I will definitely share those with you when the opportunity presents itself. I haven’t spent much time talking about this particular project – things have been a bit slow getting this one past the initial phases that include site work and foundation. Now that the building is starting to emerge there will be more things I can share. In the meantime, if you are a bit more curious about this project, I have actually talked about it before but as part of the “Architectural Sketch Series” I have occasionally here on site (….note to self, write some new architectural sketch series posts, it’s been too long)
This was the post that introduced the Architectural Sketch Series and the focus in on the front elevation of this project and a cantilevered window we were exploring. As it turns out we eliminated that particular feature at the front but we did keep it in the project at the rear of the project. This would be one of the areas I would focus on as the project develops.
This was the second entry into the Architectural Sketch Series and it’s really more about plan evolution and the iterative process I go through to not only answer my own questions but to demonstrate to the client the impact of some of the decisions they were making along the way.
Hopefully, this post has helped convince you of two things:
- You should consider including an oculus in one of your own projects (but only if it makes sense), and
- Don’t wait 27 years to start putting skylights into your projects.
Cheers, have a great day!
PS – if you are in the general San Marcos area and need a proper eye doctor, check out Central Texas Eye Center, not only are they excellent physicians, they have an adventurous spirit and I consider them my friends.