Building the sky


A tall, wooden cone reaches to the skylight in the corner of the Art and Architecture South studio. A small building model lies on the floor of its
dimly lit interior.

Artificial skies are used to test models to see how light, dark and glare will affect the interior appearance of the final building, and architecture students at the University of Idaho have succeeded in creating the first artificial sky that doesn’t use electricity.

Architecture professor Bruce Haglund has worked on the project with his team of more than 30 architecture student researchers
since 2009.

“This is a day lighted artificial sky, and it’s the only one in the world I know of,”
Haglund said.

Traditionally, artificial skies are lit with electricity, and are not as sustainable as this one.

“This is different than any other one, so we got a seed grant,” Haglund said. “About $12,000 to complete this, build it and disseminate our results.”

Emilie Edde, Brenda Gomez and Daniel Flesher are all sixth year architecture students and second year graduate students. They are aiming to present the project at the Association of Architectural Research Consortiums Conference in Hawaii in February.

“We just turned in a paper about a week ago with information and different chapters,” Gomez said. “That’ll be published soon — it should
get published.”

Flesher said the idea of an artificial sky isn’t new, but the execution of this particular
one is.

“There’s nothing special about it … we didn’t require a computer or some special chip or material,” Flesher said. “It’s literally off the shelf parts found in every hardware store and students built it.”

UI’s artificial sky takes up a corner of the room in the Art and Architecture South studio.

“This is actually supposed to be a tool meant to help inform students’ designs and influence how to use daylight in their buildings,” Edde said. “But these are principles that need to be carried out throughout architecture.”

The idea of the passive sky was created by the students’ ability to ask better questions, Flesher said.

“In every other way we’re not blazing new trails,” Flesher said. “The artificial sky is an
old concept.”

And this is more than just architecturally focused, Gomez said. He said that for people who think that architecture is only coloring and putting things together, this artificial sky can remind them that it’s a lot more
than that.

“It’s a lot more thinking of lighting, and thinking of orientation,” Gomez said.

When the project began, student teams built scale models of the artificial sky and tested them.

“It’s not revolutionary, but it is at the same time, because no one else has done it,” Edde said.

Two of the four teams came up with structures that would meet the goal — one mirror box, and the cone-shaped sky that was ultimately built.

Haglund presented the project at the Professional Lighting Design Conference in Cophenhagen, Denmark, this month.

The Seed Grant that Haglund and his team received paid for the materials necessary to assemble the sky, and allowed Haglund and previous architecture students to present at the Passive and Low-Energy Architecture Conference in Lima, Peru.

This year, Edde, Gomez and Flesher will continue to calibrate and adjust the sky, while testing the instruments and gathering information from the
models inside.

Alycia Rock can be reached at



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