Where Do Humans Fit into Lighting Standards and Regulations?

It's true, my beard is full of grey and I'm not as young as I once was. The following opinion is largely formed from observations made while being engrossed in the lighting industry for the past twenty years.

I began working in the lighting industry as a specification sales representative back in the 1990s, or what I now sometimes refer to as the dark ages. For those who don't remember (or are too young to remember), it was a time when almost every office lighting fitting had a CAT 2 Louvre. These egg-crate like fittings were an industry response to standards designed to stop veiling reflections on the newly adopted computer screens which had green text on a dark background. Unfortunately, while these standards were great for the boxy computers and their reflective CRT displays, the light fittings designed to conform to these standards were not so good for the people who sat at desks inside the buildings as the top third of walls were left dark. These offices were aptly termed the worker's cave.

These fittings continued to be commonplace well into the early 2000s, certainly many years after Microsoft released Windows 1.0 which basically solved the reflection problem in computer screens, as screens no longer had a dark background. Even though the industry acknowledged that the heavily louvred fittings were a disaster, They were still widely used for over 20 years.

The office cave was a direct result of standards put in place by well-meaning people to solve a real problem, but it unintentionally created an environment that was (as we now know), bad for the health and wellbeing of the people who spent their working days in those spaces. Despite these types of fit-outs never being popular with office workers, they became the industry go-to. No one really thought about the people. As long as it complied with the standards, it was good to go. 

Since then, extensive research has shone a light on the importance of light in regulating our circadian rhythm. Furthermore, advancements in technology have given us better tools than ever before to maximise human wellbeing using light. In spite of this progress, I see evidence that we are continuing to mandate standards that fail to unequivocally put human health to the forefront.  We instead prioritise what I would argue to be much less important goals than human health.

For example, let's look at energy efficiency; putting regulation in place that sets the maximum target for energy use. This must be good right? Saving money while also helping save the planet. Who would dispute that saving the planet is good? Ok, maybe climate deniers… But I think that rules that limit our ability to design for well being need challenging.

In May 2020, a revised version of Section J6 will be introduced to the National Construction Code (NCC). The NCC is a set of mandatory regulations that all newly designed buildings in Australia must meet. These new energy efficiency regulations effectively halve the watts per square meter (W/m2) in office buildings from 9W/m2 down to 4.5W/m2. Apparently, you can get some dispensations for more energy use by using controls and warmer colour temperatures etc. But J6 still mandates very strict energy usage. What I am asking is, ‘at what human cost?’ As I watch this unfold from New Zealand, I fear similar regulation could soon spread here too, as standards like these will severely limit the possibility of circadian lighting design and implementation.

Research suggests it would be beneficial for us to light up the ceiling during the day to simulate the sky. This is because the bottom third of our eye has a concentration of melanopsin containing receptors. These receptors are adapted to detect the light of the sky during the day, which in turn helps us to synchronise our circadian rhythm. I have been informed by lighting designers in Australia that it will be very difficult to deliver direct/indirect lighting designs that comply with the J6 regulation. 

Evidence also indicates that boosting light levels higher in the morning for a time (notably well above the 320lx horizontally at desk level we currently prescribe), may further help regulate our circadian rhythm. When combined with the right spectrum, this can also increase alertness and be beneficial to eye health. (DIN SPEC 67600) The new Section J6 regulation would make this pretty well impossible to implement. 

Poor lighting has been shown to contribute to  disruption of the circadian rhythm, increasing the risk of a host of chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and various forms of cancer. I believe this is the biggest challenge we face in lighting in the foreseeable future. Considering J6 will prescribe and form the basis of thousands of lighting design decisions for decades to come, I believe the regulators have an ethical responsibility to take the research of human health and light into consideration before mandating any new lighting standards and/or regulations. 

Since the 1990s there have been massive changes in our occupational health and safety (OHS) laws. Believe it or not, New Zealand only banned smoking indoors at the workplace in 1990, which is about the same time we should have banned Cat 2 Louvre light fittings*. But this has been primarily focused on reducing injuries. Considering New Zealand and Australia's largest killers are now all chronic diseases, I think it is time to not just make a safe place to work, but a healthy place to work. I think lighting can play a huge role.

*Surprisingly while researching for this article, I noticed that you can still order cat 2 fluorescent fittings online,  I am also seeing LED fittings being promoted with louvres with similar cut-off to the cat -2 louver today. Good lighting design can overcome louvers inherent deficiencies but that means different types of fittings being added to the design and more energy use. 

Have you ever noticed that history has a habit of repeating itself?  ‘Sick building syndrome’ refers to illnesses and symptoms that affect multiple occupants who live or work in a particular building. The term rose to public prominence in the 1970s following a huge spike in the price of oil which sparked a push for energy efficiency. Well meaning building designers, managers and owners  began sealing air ducts and permanently closing windows in an effort to prevent heat loss. This caused a rise in the cases of sick building syndrome of epidemic proportions. In 1984, a report from The World Health Organisation suggested up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings may have been subject to complaints related to poor indoor air quality.

Are we really be about to make a mistake again? Is energy efficiency really more important than human health? I believe lighting standards and regulations should start by ensuring that human needs are met, before focusing on secondary priorities like energy saving. 

We should be careful to mandate standards that limit lighting designers choices especially so at a time when research is providing clear guidance that we should consider providing enough circadian stimulus, or effective melanopic vertical lux as recently introduced private enterprise, evidence-based standards like WELL building require.

I predict that we are heading for an interesting time, where antiquated standards and regulations will meet head on with the current research based metrics. I’d like to leave you with a quote from Dr.Octavio l. Perez, adjunct researcher, Mount Sinai Hospital. NYC,NY,USA.

“There is an urgent need to develop metrics beyond traditional photometry and colorimetry (that are derived from 1924 and 1931 standards). Photometry and colorimetry are solely focused on the visual aspects of lighting, not considering the non-visual stimulus and potential effects for health and wellbeing. Energy evaluation is particularly critical in this field. The lumen is not appropriate for this purpose, and therefore the lumen/watt is not be a valid unit anymore.” 





Leave a comment