Light volumes, dark matters: patterns for sustainable lighting
Megaman Charity Trust Fund
There is more to light than enabling us to see. Light affects our mood and has an impact on our biology. In the commercial workplace, our offices, shops and showrooms tend to be lit in an indiscriminate way that is all about the quantity of light. Little or no attention is paid to the qualities of artificial light and their effect on the productivity and stress levels of the individual. Not only is this mechanical approach – which is enshrined in UK lighting codes that specify minimum levels of illumination – unsustainable, it is also detrimental to the wellbeing of workers.
‘Little attention is paid to the qualities of artificial light’
This project, supported by the charitable trust of the lighting company Megaman, set out to investigate an alternative approach to how commercial interiors are lit and make the argument for a more sustainable and inclusive lighting agenda. The research was broadly divided into two streams: perception and application. Under perception, cultural ideas of light were investigated using language and linguistics as a research tool; and physiological and behavioural issues of light were looked at through scientific and medical publications and attending conferences.
The application phase of the project entailed study of the lighting codes, the building of a simple spectroscope to analyse the spectral content of light sources, a workshop with University of Brighton students and a series of expert consultations. User research was carried out in three London offices: at Arup, where ‘blue-enriched’ white light had been installed to test circadian lighting patterns; at Building Design Partnership, where ambient light levels had been reduced; and at CB Richard Ellis, where no special lighting intervention had been made.
Three guiding concepts emerged from the early phases of the study: topography – how light interacts with surfaces such as floors and ceilings; skiagraphy – the degree to which light is allowed through or shaded out; and choreography – how the hue and colour temperature of light contribute to a person’s sense of comfort or time. These principles informed the later phases of the study – such as a series of lighting experiments at full scale with user participation – reinforcing the view that light not only reveals the characteristics of architecture but architecture reveals the qualities of light.
What has emerged from the project is that brighter is not always better in lighting. Bright light can be useful at different times to synchronise the body clock but most commercial interiors do not change their lighting over the course of the day. This undynamic aspect is not only unappealing visually, but it is actively damaging to human health. Employees who are not in good health or a good mood are hardly likely to be at their most economically productive.
This study will now go into a second year to conduct further research and test the core hypothesis with low-energy light sources in a further variety of ways. At the end of the first year, research findings have been crystallised in a light box installation of mini-workspaces at 1:20 scale exploring the different qualities of light and giving people the opportunity to change the ambience.
At the end of the second year, a major publication will be produced that challenges current practice in commercial lighting, embodied in the lighting code for the industry and based on engineering measures rather than people’s real needs.