Modular Skylights Brighten College Space

Reconfiguring third-floor space in the iconic 19th-century Sibley Hall at Cornell Univ. involved the use of a modular skylight system from Velux America. Reconfiguring third-floor space in the iconic 19th-century Sibley Hall at Cornell Univ. involved the use of a modular skylight system from Velux America.


As an iconic college structure, the 19th-century Sibley Hall dome has been a visual reference point on the Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY, campus for 122 years. East Sibley Hall is home to the school’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (Cornell AAP), whose department of architecture provides one of the world’s most prestigious architecture programs. Originally constructed in the late 1800s, by the early 2000s Sibley Hall had undergone numerous transformations. The third floor, having served as an engineering lab, design studio, and home to the university fine arts library, was in great need of attention.


On the roof of Sibley Hall were two skylights that were decades old and had frosted over and faded with time, significantly reducing the amount of natural daylight entering the building. The building’s exterior steel frame was in extremely poor condition and leaked. After many years of housing the weight of the fine arts library, the top of the building had begun to spread apart and the exterior walls were cracking.


“The existing space was in pretty bad shape,” said Andrew Feuerstein, architect with Levenbetts Studio, New York. The challenge was how to modernize East Sibley Hall’s third floor in line with the college’s goals of collocating faculty offices adjacent to student studios and creating a collaborative, multiuse space; maintaining the integrity of the designated historical building; and satisfying the discriminating needs of the Cornell AAP architecture faculty. The renovation also needed to satisfy deferred maintenance issues including structural repairs, window replacements, and a new roof.

Four of the skylight modules open to allow airflow and natural ventilation. The modules have rain sensors to monitor and control the skylights during inclement weather. Photo: Sabin Design Lab at Cornell AAP, funded by National Science Foundation


A significant design element to modernizing the repurposed third floor space was the intelligent use of natural interior daylight. A modular skylight system from Velux America, Fort Mill, SC, was chosen to replace the existing skylights. The company supplied a custom-designed, pre-engineered, all-in-one modular skylight window system that snapped together in six module sizes and configurations. All six designs were made with LowE3 tempered glass. To reduce thermal transfer between outdoor and indoor environments, the skylights used a proprietary pultruded fiberglass polyurethane frame.


“We wanted to have as much daylight and visibility as made sense,” said Feuerstein. “We were looking for the best-looking, high-performance, most minimal skylight.”


“There were many ways in which the modular system was advantageous,” said architect Stella Betts, partner, Levenbetts. “That we could actually pop out one of the modules was really appealing to everybody. And it also made for a much easier installation.” A single skylight panel can be easily replaced, if necessary, by simply sliding in a new panel module.


“It’s a really well-built, well-detailed, high-thermal-performance skylight,” said Feuerstein. “And it’s quite affordable because it’s modular.”


The first view when entering the long, rectangular third-floor area is the natural light from the two new windows, each of which runs a length of 50 ft., by a width of 5 ft., with 25 panel modules. “There’s a beautiful, even light,” said Betts.


Supplemental electric lighting was integrated with the daylighting for use when there was little or no contribution of light from the skylight windows. An automated system controls the electric lighting zones and is integrated with the HVAC control system.


Four of the skylight modules open to allow airflow and natural ventilation. These venting modules have rain sensors to monitor and control the skylights during inclement weather. Because wind gusts are often a precursor to storms, sensors also detect high wind changes and close automatically. Windows close during winds in excess of 20 mph or at the first drop of rain. They can also be opened and closed manually.

As home to the school’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, the project involved collocating faculty offices adjacent to student studios and creating a collaborative, multiuse space, all while maintaining the integrity of the designated historical building. As home to the school’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, the project involved collocating faculty offices adjacent to student studios and creating a collaborative, multiuse space, all while maintaining the integrity of the designated historical building.


The completely redesigned space includes faculty offices, a studio pin-up area, and an open studio space for students. Glass doors and walls between the faculty offices and studios create transparency and a sense of activity on either side, and also bring borrowed light from the office windows into the student space.


The entire project was driven by Kent Kleinman, and Gale and Ira Drukier, Deans of Architecture, Art, and Planning, with a mandate to maintain the historical character of the building.


“Adaptive reuse is a large part of our urban future and what we teach at AAP,” said Kleinman. “With this project, we took the time to consider preservation versus reconstruction versus new construction and whether architectural authenticity resides in the material itself or in the design and specifications.”


Because of the age of the building, adding skylight windows to the roof required special vigilance for thermal tightness and water tightness. The skylight manufacturer was closely involved in every step, from planning to installation. “Once we started working with Velux everything went incredibly smoothly,” said Feuerstein.


A space plan was created by Architecture Research Office (ARO), New York, with a focus on preserving the existing historical envelope of the building. The university hired ARO to perform a conceptual pre-design study and framework for the space that Leven Betts ultimately created.


“We tried to be as flexible as possible in the planning of the space so that the design studio could be configured differently in the future,” said Adam Yarinsky, FAIA LEED AP, principal with ARO. The plan, spearheaded by Yarinsky, looked at how to accommodate the program and organize the offices, studio space, and support space with a basic organization of the floor plan. Yarinsky used daylight to open up the space as much as possible. Although the university did not pursue LEED certification, Cornell’s design contract stipulated a LEED Silver equivalent had to be delivered.


datacache— Learn about modular skylights.


— View a range of skylights.


— Visit the Cornell AAP program.


— Learn about the ColorFolds project.

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