Client: Diocese of Kericho

Architecture: John McAslan + Partners

Executive architects: Triad Architects Ltd

Lighting design: Arup

Stained glass and artwork: John Clark

08. Jun 2018

Meaningful daylight design in the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho/KE.

Text: Jo-Eike Vormittag
Photos: Edmund Sumner

The climate in Kericho County in the southern part of Kenya is warm but temperate, and the county is known for its agriculture, and above all for its tea plantations. Kericho is the biggest town in Kericho County and is located in close proximity to the equator, where blazing sunlight and heavy rain clouds take it in turns almost day by day to determine the weather. As a consequence, the luminous intensity of the sunlight varies substantially. A real challenge for the designers responsible for the architecture and lighting design of the new Sacred Heart Cathedral, which is located in the Highlands close to the Rift Valley, natural light playing a decisive role in the project from the very beginning.

In the Christian faith, light from the heavens is of especially high symbolic significance. This is a well-known fact. We will not go deeper into this aspect at this point although it was, and is, part of the overall concept. We will take a closer look at the remarkable architectural design and how this is truly brought to life through the daylight design. And what is more: the material quality of the structure, which features concrete and a large amount of wood, also thrives on the incident daylight, which in turn triggers interaction and response in a way that makes perfect sense for the users of the space. But how does the natural light penetrate the place of worship, given that from the outside the building gives the impression of being pretty much closed since it has very few windows? Plus the fact that the roof, too, appears to be a standard gable roof consisting of two roof sections sloping in opposite directions and placed so that the highest edges meet to form the roof ridge.

The new cathedral provides space for a congregation of around 1500. It is located in the Highlands of Kenya with grand views of endless tea plantations and the surrounding hills. Approaching the building, one is immediately fascinated by the structure and form of the huge tiled roof. The 1375 square metre roof is reminiscent of a bird that has perched on the low walls and spread its wings to weigh gently but impressively on the apparently small building, its wings arching upwards slightly at the tips. A further striking feature is the tremendous ascending interior volume. To maximise the congregation’s engagement with the celebration of the Mass the nave becomes wider the closer it gets to the altar. The building opens up completely along both transepts to promote natural ventilation and allow the congregation to leave the building at multiple points via the landscaped areas and gardens.

Architecturally speaking, the structure initially comes across as being angular and marked by straight lines. This impression dissolves as soon as one enters the building. The space is dominated by the ascending vaulted volume contained under the vast roof and features timber-ribbed vaulting to conceal the supporting substructure. Depending on the time of day, the wooden cladding gives rise to a wonderful interplay of light and shadow.

And now comes the real highlight: the special gable roof is not closed along the roof ridge but comprises a glazed gap through which sunlight can stream into the space. Should the light be too strong when the sun is high in the sky – as a rule the services in the cathedral take place in the daytime – the light-diffusing ribbed wooden cladding and the glazing distribute the natural light throughout the space. There is a further vertical window set high in the end wall above the altar. Natural light forms the core of the design and the functional concept, as mentioned above, the relevant openings being integrated into the building fabric. The skylight that runs the length of the cathedral interior is complemented by the window above the altar and the openings along the side walls. This combination of natural light from different angles ensures that the light-coloured wooden pews and cladding and the sections of Nairobi blue stone flooring receive adequate light to generate the intended effect – rather than simply being illuminated via the continuous linear skylight.

To complement the daylight design effects and underscore the atmosphere in the space, a small number of artificial light sources have been applied. These include track-mounted spotlights positioned high in the space beneath the skylight and a series of downlights incorporated into the wooden clad ceilings in the peripheral spaces as well as in the canopies above the terraces.

The project – which has received a number of awards for the architectural and engineering design, and the lighting design – is purposefully designed to consume less energy and to keep maintenance costs low. This sustainable approach is naturally closely linked to the daylight design, but is also evident in the choice of building materials applied, which were locally resourced and fabricated.

At first glance, the building and the architectural concept appear to be simple, albeit visually stunning. And yet on closer inspection it becomes clear that this is exactly the reason why it works so well. Creativity lies in simplicity, at least in this case, and above all with regard to the integral daylight design and its effect in and on the space. Architecture and light go hand in hand, with care and precision, neither of them wishing to acquire more attention at the cost of the other. There is no place for the prince of darkness in the Sacred Heart Cathedral. The architecture opens up to the heavens: Let there be light. And there is light.


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