Making the Marvin Awaken Skylight

Learning how people engage with natural light around the world informed Marvin’s development of the Awaken Skylight.

February 14, 2022

It was grounded in a thoughtful exploration of light. Lead designers and product engineers at Marvin were ready for a challenge, and curiosity drove one persistent question: What’s next for product innovation in the window and door industry?  

The question led to a partnership with IDEO, a California-based global design and innovation company that’s considered the best in class when it comes to human-centered design and design thinking. A hybrid team, representing both Marvin employees and IDEO consultants, began collaboration by asking even more questions. Broad questions like, how do people experience natural light in their homes? How do different cultures harness light and bring it indoors? What can we learn from patterns in human behavior and how people live and interact with natural light? The questions would ultimately lead to the creation of the Marvin Awaken Skylight, the first-ever smart skylight designed to support well-being.

Haemi Chang, formerly a design director at IDEO, joined Marvin full-time in the winter of 2019 to lead the Marvin Design Lab, whose mission is to fuel Marvin’s innovation pipeline and drive future growth by creating offerings that further enable happier, healthier living. Reflecting on the process of designing Awaken, Chang said, “This project was really about what’s coming next. We asked, ‘What can we do differently with light?’” 

Learning about Light Around the World 

As part of the exploration of light, Chang and other Marvin team members went out into the world to study how other cultures experience natural light. It was a time to observe, to think, to imagine. Essentially, the seeds of innovation were being planted and watered.  

First, the team traveled to Japan, where access to natural light is considered a basic human right for homeowners and apartment dwellers alike. As such, there are light ordinances for homes and multifamily units, which are designed to allow the sun’s rays to reach as many windows as possible—whether those windows are installed vertically in a home’s walls or more horizontally on the rooftop. Additionally, houses are often sited north-to-south, with the main rooms facing south, all in service to maximizing sunlight throughout the day.  

“In Japan, we learned so much about the impact of light and how people think about light,” Chang said. “There are actually codes that govern every home’s access to direct sunlight coming in. We saw the importance of natural light and how other cultures value it, as well as connection to nature, and we were so inspired. We do this research not just for validation but to think differently about the ways we live our lives. When our team returned from Japan, we had a more informed design inspiration perspective.” 

The team also traveled to more extreme climates, where sunlight is scarce at certain times of the year. In Denmark and Alaska, for example, the winter months can be so dark that natural light is limited to only a handful of hours each day. In the darkest times of the year, Copenhagen watches the sun set at 3:30 in the afternoon. Marvin experts asked how these conditions affected circadian rhythms and well-being.  

“We sought out extreme stories as a source of inspiration to help us think outside the box and to spark new, bold ideas,” Chang said, who also spearheaded conversations with sleep scientists and astronauts as part of the research process.  

When the team finally began prototyping a product, the ideas that kept sparking were centered around a skylight that could improve your well-being in many ways.

Awaken Comes to Life 

“Skylights are part of an old industry that needed new thinking and new design,” said Levi Geadelmann, Product Portfolio Strategist. “Light from above is a beautiful quality of light that you don’t get through vertical windows, but the products hadn’t evolved much.” 

The opportunity was there to create a new kind of skylight—one that could give ample access to natural light, as any skylight does, but additionally to embed new technology to support circadian rhythms when natural light is absent. Thinking of the people they met in Denmark and Alaska, the decision was made to embed dimmable LED lights (tunable from 2200k to 5500k, or sunlight at dawn/dusk to sunlight at noon) into Awaken units, simulating the effects of real sunlight. So that, during those dark winter months, people could still experience the positive effects of natural light, as mimicked by the LEDs lining the skylight overhead. This addition not only evolved the impact of skylights on people’s well-being, but it also evolved technological possibilities.

“Integrating the LEDs was pretty amazing,” Geadelmann said. “It was the next step of what light does and what a skylight can do. With Awaken, a skylight doesn’t become a black hole at night. It becomes an element at night in the home. We’re redefining what ‘skylight’ really means in the modern day.”

Technology embedded in Awaken didn’t stop with LEDs. It extended to the skylight’s venting capability. Controllable with smart home systems, like Alexa or Google Assistant, homeowners can use a remote or a smartphone or tablet to operate the skylight’s lights, shades, and venting. So, at the touch of a button, homeowners can open their skylight to enjoy fresh air circulation, close room-darkening or light-filtering shade, or turn on the LEDs to extend their access to the effects of natural light. What’s more, the Awaken skylight can sense when there’s rain and will close accordingly if it’s open.

This is what makes Awaken remarkable, according to Geadelmann.  

“Awaken is a pretty neat step in participating in what future homeowners can expect from their windows and doors when it comes to smart homes,” Geadelmann said. “People have a desire for direct connection between indoor and outdoor, and that’s the space Marvin plays in. We can control light, air, and views, and Awaken is a nice first step into automating that.” 

Awaken made its debut at the 2020 International Builders’ Show where it won the Best Window and Door Product category and was also recognized as a finalist in the Best Home Technology Product category. It was an exciting product to reveal because it’s the largest operating skylight on the market.  

And so, what began as an exploration of light led to one of Marvin’s most innovative products to date.

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