A History of Bad Office Lighting Must Make Way for a Human-Centric Future

“Every office I’ve ever worked in has had lighting that’s made me feel varying degrees of insane and depressed. To be clear, I’m not speaking specifically about the New York Magazine office lighting — our combo of LED overhead and natural light is not uniquely bad, but it is definitely bad in the way that all office lighting is bad, i.e., uncanny, freakishly bright and yet also not bright enough,” writes Rachel Handler, author at New York Magazine. “LEDs — which are still the primary office-lighting source in the U.S. — can slowly drive people insane by flickering at an imperceptible level, giving them headaches and, in my case, the lingering suspicion that reality is a subjective experience.”

It might sound a little extreme but lighting can have a huge impact on health and wellbeing. Research from the National Headache Foundation demonstrated that 80-90% of those who suffer from regular migraines experienced photophobia as a key element of their headaches. In a clinical study where regular migraine sufferers wore FL-41 tinted glasses, participants experienced 74% fewer migraine attacks per month. Furthermore, the research found that photophobia is actually associated with more than 40 different health conditions.

Firstly, there is flicker, glare, and sheer brightness that can stress the body and cause immediate short-term impacts such as headaches and reduced ability to concentrate. Secondly, the human circadian system depends on light to trigger various bodily functions such as sleep, digestion, and healing, but science has discovered that we are biologically tuned to the natural light rhythms of the sun. So, the hours we spend in offices full of artificial light and staring at bright computer screens are disrupting that natural rhythm and causing a wide variety of long-term health conditions. It is a major problem in offices but better than it used to be.

“I lived through the ’80s, and it [the lighting situation] wasn’t good. Back then, you had a black background on a computer with green lettering — and it was only Bill Gates and the development of Windows that changed everything,” Ray Molony, the managing editor of Lux Review, told Curbed. “LEDs have continued some of the sins of fluorescence. If the lighting installation isn’t well designed, they likely haven’t addressed the two big baddies: glare and flicker. I don’t think the lighting industry can congratulate itself for office lighting over the years.”

The dire conditions of lighting in the 1980s played its part in the initiation of research into the human biological response to light levels and wavelengths with investigations into the effects of lighting on mood, productivity, alertness, and visual acuity, as well as the circadian system. This research led us to the understanding that not all white light is equal, that cooler white vs. warmer white not only changes how we perceive our surroundings but also affects our physiological responses. In the last 30 years, chronobiology has moved from its somewhat obscure scientific corner to a high-impact mainstream field of research that is fundamentally changing office lighting design.

“People are not getting the boost of bright light that they need for their sleep-wake cycle to work properly. We’ve only learned in the past 20 years or so that bright lights, especially the blue component, set our sleep-wake cycle,” says Molony. “Artificial lighting in the office is not normal, to have the same amount of light all day every day is not normal. There’s now a trend, which is to think about lighting that increases in intensity and is more in tune with what we expect as humans. The future has arrived, but it’s not evenly distributed.”

That future is called Human-Centric Lighting (HCL) and embodied by lighting systems that seek to realign us with our natural rhythms by mimicking the progression of sunlight throughout the day. In doing so, it can improve occupant’s health and wellbeing, and therefore their ability to heal, learn, or concentrate, leading to improved recovery rates, exam results, and productivity. HCL applications have already arisen in healthcare, offices, retail, hospitality, residential, and many more verticals, creating a global HCL market worth $849 million in 2019 according to Memoori’s dedicated HCL report.

“HCL goes beyond simply providing illumination for the built environment. It manipulates the light output, triggering biological responses in humans according to the objectives of the environment. HCL has demonstrated its ability to make workers more productive, to help patients heal faster, and enhance student learning, simply by tuning into our evolutionary link to the natural rhythms of sunlight,” reads our in-depth HCL report. “HCL is part of a wider human-centric movement sweeping across almost every building system. This movement has been facilitated by technological advancements in sensing and connectivity, as well as the rise of big data processing and data analytics.”

HCL is an inevitable reality for the future of lighting. Results of ongoing and future HCL pilots and installations have continued to demonstrate the wide-ranging benefits of the technology and highlight the negative health and productivity impacts of non-HCL solutions. It may take some time but as the cost of tunable lighting comes down, the lure of health and productivity benefits will make HCL a standard feature in lighting for all kinds of buildings. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has focused the world’s attention on health in our shared indoor environments, and after the short-term attention on social distancing and disinfecting surfaces, HCL promises to finally solve the office lighting problem and provide long-term health benefits for building occupants.

“Some of the more tactile elements of building technologies are more front and center to boost confidence in staff that the owner/employer is being seen to take the [COVID] risk seriously,” smart buildings consultant, Roger Woodward, told Memoori. “However, things like the benefits of HCL are not as obvious even though they are now being recognized as enhancements to human performance, comfort, health, and well-being by balancing visual, emotional, and biological benefits of lighting for humans. It also improves alertness and concentration during learning by providing a better light environment. These benefits are for the long-term.”

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