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How can we optimize evolving lighting design to enhance health and well-being?

August 06, 2019

By Rachel Fitzgerald

In an industry disrupted by changing technology, designers must take a holistic approach to integrate innovative concepts without compromising fundamentals

When it comes to lighting, the future is bright. Every day, our industry is advancing, and we are learning more about what it means to design lighting that supports human health, enhances our experience of a space, and regulates our sleep/wake cycles. In projects spanning the globe, we’re applying cutting-edge technologies to improve energy efficiency and give users greater control over their environments. New metrics and trends are emerging all the time, making disruption the new norm in commercial lighting design.

I share in the excitement and enthusiasm for where our industry is headed. I also see how the flip side of all this progress and focus on the “new” can cause the fundamentals of quality lighting design to get lost. The essential question we should be asking at the onset of every project is not, “How can we fit all the best new stuff into this project?” but instead, “What does the design call for?”

BPX Energy in Denver, Colorado, where the design goal was to create an office space that feels like home.

I recently examined this question as part of a continuing education course for I delivered for the Pittsburgh chapter of the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES). The experience got me thinking about the importance of balance in our profession—balance between innovation and basic principles, between aesthetics and function, performance and budget. Achieving the right balance calls for a more holistic approach to lighting design.

Getting back to basics

Approximately 80% of human perception of the environment is visual perception. As we enter a room, our eyes use the direction of light to tell us about the space, its colors, shape, architecture, interior design, etc. Lighting quality significantly contributes to our visual perception, influencing both our physical and emotional reactions to our environment.

To put it simply: lighting matters.

Good lighting must be human-centric. It’s essential when considering the lighting design for a project to first understand how the light will affect the people who use it. How should each of the individual spaces within a project make people feel? How will the lighting affect their perception of their environment? How will it influence how they move through the space?

For example, on the BPX Energy project, the challenge was to make their new office space feel like home for the employees, who were being relocated from Houston, Texas, to Denver, Colorado. At the same time, the environment had to be conducive to work (most of us can’t work productively under the lighting we have in our homes). The goal was to achieve a balance between warm, comfortable, and inviting lighting that accentuated the textures and materiality of the interior design, while providing energy-efficient and productive working illumination. 

An office at BPX Energy in Denver, Colorado, where the design goal included providing energy-efficient and productive working illumination.

Consider the standards

Once we have a good understanding of who will use the space and how they’ll use it, we can turn to our trusty standards. I can open my IES Handbook, which will tell me that given ‘X’ type of space with ‘X’ age of users, it is recommended that the design incorporate ‘X’ amount light and ‘X’ ratio of uniformity of bright to dark within spaces.

Similarly, I can look at the energy codes and see the prescriptive controls and lighting power density allowances I need to work within. All of these provide a helpful framework for the design. If I just have a good understanding of the basics, the recommended lighting standards and the code requirements, I can put together a perfectly acceptable lighting design.

Or I could take it to the next level.

Good lighting must be human-centric. It’s essential when considering the lighting design for a project to first understand how the light will affect the people who use it.

Beyond the basics: Next-generation lighting design

Once the fundamentals concepts and prescriptive requirements are met, lighting design has the potential to strike the right balance once again between innovation and utility. This is where the true art in our profession emerges.

Taking everything we know about who will use the space and the standards, codes, and metrics we’re designing to, we can use the latest and greatest research in lighting to create a design that enhances the human experience of a space and strengthens the impact of the overall design.

For example, when designing the lighting for the Utility Administration Building for the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, the design called for daylit office space and highly energy-efficient lighting solutions to complement the available daylight. 

In this phase, we look at daylight integration—how we can control the admission of natural light, direct sunlight, and diffused skylight into the building and support a comfortable transition between naturally and artificially lit areas.

New research increasingly points to the positive mental and physical impacts that a strong connection to nature provides, so we may incorporate elements of biophilic design, bringing natural elements such as plants, water, and fresh air into the lighting plan.

The Utility Administration Building for the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, where the design called for daylit office space and highly energy-efficient lighting solutions.

Likewise, we look at how the pattern of lighting impacts what we know about our natural sleep-wake cycle as humans. Research in this field indicates that a disrupted circadian system can cause long-term health and behavioral problems, including cancer, obesity, depression, and much more. As lighting designers, we can mimic a more natural light cycle with a circadian lighting system designed to mitigate circadian disruption, enhance mood and visual experience, and improve occupants’ sense of well-being.

Finally, evolving technology is creating several exciting new options for lighting designers. From automated systems that integrate with movement and other sensors to app-enabled controls that give users greater control over their lighting and allow for more interaction with the environment, technology-enabled possibilities in lighting design are growing every day.

No matter the project size, scope, or location, the key to great design will always be striking the right balance between the fundamentals of good lighting design and the innovation that is driving smarter and more creative solutions for human-centric design. We’re on an exciting path. We just can’t lose sight of how we got here.

  • Rachel Fitzgerald

    A senior lighting designer with our team in Denver, Rachel has over 15 years of experience providing exterior and interior lighting designs for hospitality, mixed-use, retail, corporate, civic/government, religious, and recreation facilities.

    Contact Rachel
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