Iowa Lutheran Hospital, in Des Moines, IA, a unit of UnityPoint Health, unveiled a dramatic architectural illusion of sky over their main lobby. The new virtual skylight replaced a leaking skylight of equal dimensions. The hospital chose a Luminous SkyCeiling to maintain the comparable wellness benefits of a visual connection to the sky while mitigating the risks of water damage, a common problem with real skylights.

Sky Factory Luminous Virtual SkyCeiling installed in Iowa Lutheran Hospital Lobby as a replacement to a leaky Sky Ceiling
A credible sky illusion above the lobby opens up the space. Photo by Sky Factory.

The leak-proof open view of blue sky and white clouds replaced the original skylight seamlessly, leading visitors to assume the real skylight remained intact. The Luminous SkyCeiling traverses the lobby’s ceiling in a sleek, 54-foot long line—2-feet wide, that creates the palpable illusion of a deep blue sky speckled with white clouds.

The illusory sky generates a palpable sense of vertical volume that can be felt as visitors walk along the first floor, which overlooks the main lobby below. The skylight’s elevated view, set at the highest point of the second story, runs parallel to a first floor corridor, inviting visitors to lift their eyes and enjoy the perceived proximity to the clear blue sky.

Even though the overhead illusion uses a high resolution photograph of the sky, the image composition, which utilizes Sky Factory’s design framework, causes observers to experience perceived movement in the cloud cover. This phenomenon is generated by our hard-wired habits of perception, which are cajoled into expecting movement in a perspective of the sky that is deeply ingrained in our neurophysiology and memory. This unconscious expectation also facilitates the visceral sense of depth that onlookers experience under the SkyCeiling.

In fact, imaging studies have shown that seeing, imagining, and remembering all activate the same areas of the cerebral cortex. Therefore, at the cortical level, visual-spatial illusions can take advantage of these neural pathways to generate an experience that feels natural and genuine. That is because our sensory processing centers associate the current sensory stimuli with previous experiences of similar stimuli, particularly when the contextual cues appear to be a bone fide match.

Hence, the closer the staged illusion resembles a real skylight’s point-of-view (without lens distortion), the more difficult that it becomes to distinguish between remembrance and real observation, imagination and what you see overhead. Biophilic illusions of nature feel real because our neurophysiology recognizes the structural and contextual cues that endow the faux skylight with the look and feel of a genuine skylight structure. Among the salient cues that facilitate the illusion are well calibrated color temperature and LED brightness to mimic daylight-quality illumination, plus architectural reveals (patented elevators) that recess the image over the ceiling plane.

A side by side comparison of Iowa Lutheran Hospital Lobby with the old Sky Light and the new Sky Factory Virtual SkyCeiling
LEFT: original skylight with ceiling water damage. RIGHT: New Luminous SkyCeiling. Photos by Sky Factory.

The arrangement of the compositional elements within and around the image also closely resemble the most credible point-of-view for a skylight opening into unencumbered skies. Our eyes look up at the skylight and our brain remembers what the sky looks like from this vantage point.

In the process of recollection, the real and the imagined mingle in our cortex and sensory processing centers where one experience easily suffuses the other—illusion and memory coalesce in a felt perception of beauty and expansion.

This is the therapeutic magic of bi-sensory illusions of nature at work, which has been documented through research and earned international accolades for its impact on practice-based design, including EDRA CORE recognition.

Skylights: To Patch or Not to Patch

Facility managers are often torn between the costs of replacing/repairing the leaky skylight or giving up the skyward view and simply patching up the roof. While the former often comes with labor-intensive roof repair work that can be challenging in unforgiving weather and no guarantee that will not happen again, the latter forgoes the established health benefits of a skyward view, usually cherished by visitors and staff alike.

Iowa Lutheran Hospital Lobby with a 54ft Sky Factory Revelation SkyCeiling above the information desk and hallway
A beautiful overhead sky, a biophilic illusion of nature, uplifts visitors in the main lobby. Photo by Sky Factory.

Can facility managers eat their cake and have it, too?

More and more of them are finding that they can. While leak-free skylights might often turn out to be wishful thinking, turning to Luminous SkyCeilings, which are installed within a sealed ceiling and generate a very natural feeling of vertical volume, are the most cost-effective solution.

In large deep plate hospitals, few architectural features are appreciated as much by occupants and staff alike as access to natural daylight. While commercial skylights can bring daylight into the often sterile interiors, giving occupants a biophilic connection to the sky, these are features not amenable to retrofit projects, unless costly roofing reconstruction is involved.

Rainwater beading up on traditional skylight

Furthermore, seasoned commercial facility building managers often mention that skylights, particularly on flat roofs, come with a number of maintenance challenges. At the top of the list, they list their propensity to leak. Often a dormant issue, leaky skylights are difficult to catch before they have already created noticeable or significant damage to the surrounding ceiling areas.

Skylight leaks are caused by a number of issues, including, 1) faulty installation; 2) weather-related damage, corrosion, or gaps in the flashing (the metal components between the skylight perimeter and the roof itself); 3) deficient or worn insulation materials, and 4) condensation build up that compromises installation joints, corners, or weather stripping.

In this context, research-verified Luminous SkyCeilings offer an effective solution to the common issues associated with real skylights while safeguarding the wellness benefits gained from perceived proximity to open skies.

SkyCeilings are also energy-efficient, powered by Sky Factory’s in-house manufactured and calibrated LEDs (rated for +40,000 hours) and feature an industry-leading 10-year warranty on both ceiling tiles and the light box system.

And last, but certainly not least, Luminous SkyCeilings do not generate seasonal thermal loss or gains, nor do they suffer from periodic glare from the sun’s position vis-a-vis the skylight as real installations tend to do.