The Healing Sun



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RICHARD HOBDAY


Background

Sunlight was prescribed by the physicians of Greece and Imperial Rome. During the 19th century the health benefits of exposure began to be investigated scientifically and during the first half of the 20th century sunlight therapy was widely practised. Sunlight was used to disinfect and heal the wounds of casualties during the First World War and in the years that followed heliotherapy - to use the medical term - was a popular treatment for patients suffering from diseases such as tuberculosis and rickets.

Since the 1940s sunlight therapy has declined in popularity in Europe and North America. Although it is still used for arthritic and psoriatic complaints in a number of countries, the benefits of exposure are not as widely appreciated as they once were and sunbathing is now undertaken largely for cosmetic reasons. Health campaigns warn of the dangers posed by solar radiation, yet the public appears to be at risk from the dangers of inadequate exposure: the residents of modern cities spend a large proportion of the daylight hours indoors, or in transit, and are deprived of the biologically active component of sunlight. As a consequence, vitamin D deficiency is widespread and poses a significant threat to health.


Solar Architecture and Health

Buildings used to be arranged to admit sunlight to prevent infections and other health problems. As we now live in the era of `superbugs', the lethal SARS virus and widespread vitamin D deficiency, a little sunlight could save a lot of lives. Unfortunately, the health benefits of solar architecture are not widely recognised and there is little guidance available on the subject. In the UK, the NHS plans to have 100 new hospital schemes open to patients by 2010. On current form few, if any of these hospitals will be arranged to admit direct sunlight for the benefit of patients.

Also, tall buildings are back in favour with politicians, planners and architects, and so there are going to be a lot more of them. High-rise buildings first became fashionable during the 1920s when the architectural elite concluded that they were the healthiest and most efficient solution to the problem of providing homes in overcrowded city centres. Yet tall buildings cast long, unhealthy shadows and, historically, the principal means of protecting access to natural light has been by restricting the height of buildings. No one who fully appreciated the importance of sunlight to health would countenance their construction.

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