I recently visited a shared office space in Melbourne while travelling for business. Before I had even opened my laptop and begun working, I was struck by just how poorly lit the space was. As with many office spaces, there was effectively no natural light. The few windows were small and shielded by adjacent buildings, as well as being tinted (don’t get me started about windows, tints and people calling it natural light). The lighting was what one would expect to find inside a sweatshop on an exposé news story, not a modern office.
It had exposed surfaces with no suspended ceiling and a height of around 3.5m. In this space was hung 5m long glary narrow (30mm wide) wire suspended extrusions spaced at least 3 meters apart. There was at least some up light, to lessen the contrast but not nearly enough. The colour temperature was 4000K, light levels were probably sub 300 lux on desk. The partitioned offices were even worse and had a floor area of around 5m x 5m and have up to four desks, these offices had one pendant drop fitting with metal spun reflector with one BC lamp!
After spending some time working there it got me thinking; how was this space affecting my circadian rhythm and ultimately my health? What was this space doing to the people who work here week after week? The relationship between light and health is not a new interest of mine. I’ve been in the lighting industry for over 20 years and I’ve been interested in the way light impacts our health about as long. My first foray into lighting that promised to deliver health benefits was when I spent an evening Installing, OSRAM Skywhite Fluorescent lamps into our office back the 2000s.
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I do not expect many people to remember these types of lamp’s as the 8000K colour temperature was not so popular, but once installed they seemed to make our winters a little more bearable. Back then I did not even consider the consequences of that blue rich spectrum at night, as we often did work late into the evenings, but we can only make the best choices that we can with knowledge we have. I guess that is why I am writing this blog.
During my career there have been huge changes in the lighting industry such as the transition to LED technology, but little has been done to put human wellbeing at the forefront of design. In spite of the progress made in both research and lighting technology, I seem to stumble across lighting disasters like the Melbourne office at a frequency that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in other industries.
It was observations like these that led me to a conclusion that was rather confronting; the lighting industry, the industry which I have built my business and career is failing. And ultimately, I realised I was part of the problem.
WHY ARE WE FAILING?
I think we all accept that circadian lighting has the potential to radically improve the lives of many people, so why hasn’t it happened?
The most common response I receive when expressing my concerns about the lack of circadian lighting in the workspace is cost. But if we take a more long term view then this argument fails to hold up. Over a 30 year period, the upfront building cost only accounts for only 2% of the total cost. The maintenance costs make up a further 6%. The remaining 92% is the human cost, the cost of the humans inside the building. If one considers the cost of sick days or loss of productivity that circadian lighting could help prevent, then investing in circadian lighting isn’t just the right ethical decision but the best business decision too.
We need the right light at the right time to entrain our circadian rhythm. Light that conventional lighting lacks.
For the majority of us, spending significant time indoors is a non-negotiable. In fact, people in industrialised nations spend 90% of their time indoors. Sure, we could sneak an extra walk here and there, but that won’t solve the problem. We need our indoor spaces to adapt to better fulfil our needs. We need to have lighting with the right spectrum at the right time.As our understanding of light’s influence on the circadian rhythm, so has our knowledge of the deadly effects of circadian disruption. In 2007, the World Health Organisation recognised circadian disruption as a probable carcinogen due to the strong causal link to various types of cancer. More recently, Denmark has begun paying compensation to breast cancer patients who had to work night shifts following the same research.
So, is it really a lack of evidence holding us back? Or does circadian lighting have a marketing problem? I don’t recall anybody demanding the evidence that stand-up desks would provide real health benefits, and yet in the blink of an eye has become common place in offices everywhere. Contrast this circadian lighting, which despite all the evidence, has had very little success. A stand-up desk is easy to integrate and has a relatively low upfront cost, and most importantly you can see and feel the difference straight away. Circadian lighting on the other hand, is far more complex, yet most people would struggle to even notice it has been installed. Like a healthy diet, the benefits of circadian lighting manifest over time. And this presents a challenge for us, the people making the critical design decisions, while working within the building centric framework we’ve all become accustomed too. But how can we continue what we are doing, knowing the thousands of lives we are likely to impact? If people’s health isn’t worth changing our focus for, then I ask you, what is?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we are failing. Although this transition is likely to shake up the entire industry. I believe we have a responsibility to do what is best for people. So today, I am making a personal commitment to do better! Does anybody want to join me?