Light: the drug we're still not taking

The idea of lighting that makes us feel better or be more productive has been around for some time now; the science behind it has really shaped up over the past decade, and new lighting solutions for offices, schools and hospitals indicate that the market is catching up with our growing knowledge about the way lighting affects us. There’s just one thing still missing: an abundance of real-life case studies that we can show to our bosses to convince them that our classrooms, patient rooms or desk spaces need the benefits of biodynamic lighting too. 

Workplaces, schools and healthcare facilities are investing in LED to lower their energy bills, but there's currently no rush to invest in the benefits of heightened productivity or quicker recovery times"

While we often hear of workplaces, schools and healthcare facilities investing in LED lighting and controls that will lower their energy bills, there seems to be no particular rush for anyone to invest in the benefits that heightened productivity or quicker recovery times would bring to a company or a public facility. 

Such benefits are, of course, harder to quantify that concrete energy savings. So while there are plenty of funding schemes for LED upgrades, such as the Revolving Green Fund in the UK or the European Commission for larger, public projects in the EU, getting the green light for an investment in health and productivity is still a difficult task.

Wellbeing in healthcare
There are, however, a few purses starting to open up. At Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, the environmental strategy team is looking into biodynamic options for their next lighting upgrade. ‘If we can improve lighting in patient areas, that can only improve the healing process,’ says Alexandra Hammond from the hospital trust’s sustainability arm, Essentia. Hammond has a funding pool of around £1 million for energy-efficient lighting, but wants to reach some human-centric goals with that funding, too. ‘When we tender for the work – the idea is that we’ll be looking at everything, including biodynamic lighting,’ she says. ‘We have to see how we can work within the budget, but the wonderful thing about Guy’s and St Thomas’ is that it’s an organisation that thinks beyond direct paybacks. It understands that if you improve something like lighting in a patient area, it can improve the healing process, and that’s our fundamental objective.’

At the Maria-Hilf Hospital in Germany’s Sauerland, circadian light is helping patients recover more quickly.

In Hillerød in Denmark, a maternity unit in a hospital has been experimenting with lighting designed to help women in labour relax and breathe more calmly. The delivery suites are equipped with a large, lit canvas – Philips’ ‘luminous textile’ which can display patterns or images projected by colour-changing LEDs behind the canvas – and three lighting and sound settings have been developed by Wavecare Technology to help women settle in, breathe calmly and relax.

‘We have already witnessed that the couples are calmer in these rooms during contractions. The sound and especially the light seems to affect the women positively,’ says midwife Janni Lysgaard Bladt. 

Tests since the system was installed in 2013 show that 73 per cent of women felt the lighting had a positive impact on their experience of pain during labour. Ninety-four per cent of both women and men have said that it had a positive impact on their feeling of wellbeing and safety.  

Tunable LED light for patient rooms, mimicking the gradually changing light on a sunny day, have started to appear on the market. A study shows that patients exposed to one such system slept longer, took less time to fall asleep and scored lower on the depression scale than patients exposed to the existing light.

Alertness in classrooms
A secondary school in the far north of Sweden is currently experimenting with bright, intense classroom lighting to see if it can help students overcome the sluggishness that sets in during the dark, Nordic winter. ‘It might not make any difference, but then again it might, so why not give it a shot?’ asks Dragonskolan head teacher Stellan Andersson in a report by UK newspaper The Guardian

The there is plenty of research that suggests that lighting can affect students’ performance. Three Dutch studies have compared the performance of pupils working under 93 foot-candle, 1000 lux 6500K light with pupils working under lower lux levels and warmer colour temperatures. All studies reported fewer errors and improved performance among the pupils in the room with 1,000 lux and cold, white light.

Wide awake
Some offices have adopted biodynamic lighting schemes – like the installation at AstraZeneca’s building in Cheshire, England (pictured, left). But most of the work in biodynamic lighting focuses on healthcare and schools.

Pupils’ cortisol levels rose a bit faster with LEDs than with fluorescent. It’s probably because there is a peak of blue light in LEDs, but we don’t know that for sure"

Henrik Clausen, Fagerhult Lighting Academy

A study by the Fagerhult lighting academy in Denmark showed that the amount of cortisol, the hormone that keeps us awake, increased in students’ blood when they were exposed to high luminance in the morning and early afternoon. The study, undertaken in 2009 using fluorescent lights, showed an average performance increase of one grade in the dark part of the year.

The academy has recently repeated the study with LED lights and found the same results. Henrik Clausen, director of Fagerhult Academy, said: ‘Actually the pupils’ cortisol levels rose a little bit faster with LEDs than they did with fluorescent. It’s probably because there is an inherent peak of blue light in LEDs, but we don’t know that for sure.’

Headteacher Andersson at Dragonskolan in Sweden was able to launch his biodynamic lighting experiment because the energy company offered to provide the lighting, so he had nothing to lose. But for most schools, investing in expensive, new technology is not an option. Professor Reine Karlsson of Lund University believes that it’s time for public spending to be diverted from outdoor lighting to indoor applications so we can start benefitting from all the research and technology now available.   

‘Public spending on lighting development has primarily been on outdoor lighting, but to achieve better wellbeing, it’s indoor lighting we need to focus on. That’s where the melatonin and dopamine and the circadian cycle is most affected.’

Productivity in the office
Offices remain largely unconquered territory for biodynamic lighting, perhaps because most are commercial and it’s hard to prove that it works.

Research suggests that exposure to more intense light boosts employees’ feelings of alertness and vigour. At the very least it can counteract feelings of fatigue. Exposure to bright light (93 foot-candles, 1000 lux) helps employees fee alert after a short night’ sleep, while dim light below 0.5 foot-candles and 5 lux increases sleepiness. In fact, research shows that working under intense light during the day may ensure a better night’s sleep. Scientists have not yet agreed on the best intensity to create a wide-awake workplace.

The impact of bright lighting on employees’ productivity seems to depend on what they are doing. Some studies have found that exposure to light levels above 185 foot-candles (2,000 lx) may improve people’s capacity for visual scanning, short-term memory and mental arithmetic. But other studies contradict these findings, and more research is needed before bosses will have a full-fledged manual on how to dope their employees with light.

We can only hope that, just like LEDs and lighting controls have taken off as their benefits have become more widely known, real-life applications of biodynamic lighting will encourage more establishments to try to make their lighting healthy and pleasant. 

 

  • Lux is hosting a special webinar on Wednesday 11 May at 1pm (BST).
    'Metrics for human-centric lighting' will look at latest research on lighting that provides a healthful environment. The webinar is free to everyone involved in design of the built environment. 
    To view the details and to register for the webinar, click here
  • For more information on the Lux Webinar Series, click on the logo.

 

  • A special Lux conference 'Lighting for Health and Wellbeing' is taking place on Thursday 22 September 2016 at the Cavendish Conference Centre in London. Entry is free to architects, designers and specifiers, including lighting designers, facility managers, consulting engineers, and others responsible for the design and management of the lit environment. 
  • View the full programme and register for your free place by clicking on the logo