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[With Video] From the Design Quarterly: How can lighting design influence wellness?

March 12, 2020

By Rachel Fitzgerald

Ask an expert: Lighting design discipline lead Rachel Fitzgerald explains how new research is influencing our application of lighting for well-being

Lighting design is about more than just lights on or off. It’s about finding a balance between efficiency, aesthetics, and function. And, as we do more research, it’s about influencing our well-being. Rachel Fitzgerald, lighting design discipline lead, talked with John Dugan, editor of the Stantec Design Quarterly, about where lighting design is headed—and what it means for all of us. 

How did you get into lighting design and what made you want to pursue it?

Rachel: My dad was an engineer and really wanted me to choose engineering. I wanted to be an architect. So, the father/daughter compromise? I decided to pursue architectural engineering at the University of Colorado, which has a leading lighting design program. I connected with a couple professors who sparked my interest in lighting as a brilliant, happy medium between the math and the science of the engineering with the creative design aesthetic of architecture.

I like to geek out and know that the math and logic supports what we’re doing. But at the end of the day, it’s about the intangibles, the ambience and the experience of the spaces we create and how we use the lighting to help support the human experience.

A dynamic lighting visualization developed by the Stantec lighting team for the Central Services building lobby for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) project at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Key spaces at the AIMS project feature tunable lighting to replicate a natural daylight cycle.

How much does your work involve keeping up with research on how lighting affects humans?

Rachel: It’s only been really in the last 10 years or so that scientists and researchers have started to understand our nonvisual responses to light. Scientists are researching sleep and how light affects us mentally and physically. Until recently, that’s largely been unrelated to the design industry.

I find it fascinating to see our industry responding to the research on biology. Then you’ve got the physiology—the emotion and the experience and how can we use light to help influence people in spaces. The other side is the psychology of light and how it interacts with people.

The Lincoln Square expansion in Bellevue, Washington, included a pair of pedestrian bridges. This one connects a hotel tower to the development’s existing tower. A combination of linear cove lights and LED downlights reinforce wayfinding. (Architect of Record: HKS Architects)

Have there been any innovations in how you approach what you do now as a result?

Rachel: There’s been a lot of development around our circadian rhythms and light. A couple years ago, the prevailing idea was that you could manipulate the circadian system by tuning the color temperature, the perceived warm or cool characteristics of the light.

But that was a little simplistic.

Now we’re starting to understand that it’s the high spectral distribution, the spectral power of the visual wavelength, that influences humans the most. There are lighting systems being created that can manipulate that spectrum.

But then the question is how do we implement that in a space? How do you correlate that with the control systems? How do you allow individual users the ability to adjust those systems to not only meet visual and the aesthetic needs of the space, but to also positively affect the nonvisual, circadian system and sleep cycle of users? We’ve also got the more tech driven side of innovation. Everybody wants to control lighting like they use Alexa and Siri so the question is, can we have individualized control over lighting systems?

How can lighting influence wellness?

Rachel: Everything we do ties into wellness. How much light do you need at desks so people can work comfortably? How much light do they need in a corridor or a lobby space or a conference room? The goal is to be prudent with lighting design to make sure that it’s attuned to what the average human visual system needs in order to function well. If you have poor lighting environments, whether because of bad technologies and sources or spaces that aren’t lit well, it can lead to migraines, it can lead to discomfort, it can lead to a lack of visual acuity. We think about that daily.

We’re also designing with more evolved standards within the industry. The WELL Building Standard puts a lot of attention on lighting vertical surfaces. Historically, lighting designers focused on the horizontal, the floor or your work surface. But by looking vertical, you’re creating visually interesting spaces and variations that can reduce eyestrain and fatigue—and create more happiness.

Global tech company Xero’s Denver workplace.

What’s one of the most challenging environments you’ve designed for?

Rachel: One of the most interesting is a current project for AIMS, the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science. Designing at the South Pole, where either full light or close to no light prevails, is an extreme lighting challenge.

At AIMS, our team has designed key spaces with tunable lighting to help replicate the natural daylight cycle most of us flourish in. Computer modelling helps us simulate and understand the lighting levels and temperatures within these spaces over the course of a day.

There are trends toward automation and personalization through control. Is lighting a spot where those two could come into conflict?

Rachel: Very much so. On the AIMS project, we are coordinating the automation of those systems so that your sequencing is preprogrammed to create that standard daytime experience regardless of the sleep pattern of the occupants. Then, when you enter the personal space and living quarters, we’re maximizing occupants’ ability to control and influence their environment.

It’s a mix of control for preprogrammed elements, while giving individuals spaces where they have complete control flexibility. They can change the color, they can change the output, and the brightness to influence how they want their space to feel. We’re designing for maximum flexibility.

How does designing for daylight impact housing projects?

Rachel: We worked on the Lakehouse project in Denver, Colorado, which is pursuing the multifamily pilot of the WELL Building Standard and has features like a green roof deck with an urban farm. We ran calculations looking at available light, glare, and lumen outputs of the lighting to make sure they are appropriately located and specified.

We provided some additional tools and guidance regarding circadian needs that residents can choose to upgrade and self-implement. We’re highlighting the materiality of the space. We’re making sure the lighting is correlated throughout the whole project between the daylight requirements, the controllability of the lighting, the location of the fixtures, the specifications for glare and color, and performance of the sources.

At BPX Energy in Denver, Colorado, the lighting design helps support a homelike atmosphere for the employees.

How does lighting design help in the workplace?

As BPX Energy was looking for a headquarters for its growing onshore gas and oil business, they looked to Denver. The client wanted the project to speak to regionality of the Denver area, but at the same time feel like home for those employees that were relocating from Houston.

The lighting supports a warm and comfortable residential feel for the office. We’ve included some custom decorative pendant lights and nontraditional task lighting. Our lighting highlights different natural materials and textures like stone and wood that connect to biophilic design concepts. There’s a lot of glass, so we’re able to transfer daylight from the perimeter to inside the core of the building.

Is the lighting designer becoming more valued on design projects?

Rachel: I think it’s an evolution. Just 10 or 20 years ago you didn’t see many lighting designers in the industry and a lot of them were working on signature designs and projects. And now we’re seeing projects for standard workplace or multifamily projects that require lighting consultants.

The technology, systems, and the solutions have gotten more technical with ever-evolving energy codes and standards pushing toward net zero energy, LEED, and WELL building standards. It’s a benefit having specialists who focus on the emerging technologies and the changing standards with current design practices. I know as lighting designers we can add value to any project type.

We love what we do. Through our work we can educate and share the value of lighting. Lighting is complex from a procurement standpoint and is often considered a budget breaker. But lighting specialists know the ins and outs of the pricing and we can find effective lighting options for better costs. We can assess existing fixtures and properly reuse them to reduce capital expenditure. And with a compressed schedule, we’ve got relationships we can leverage, and understand which manufacturers can deliver on time.

There’s a misconception that we only design high-end spaces or specialty spaces—like museums or performing arts centers. Yes, we do design those. But we also love to contribute on projects of all types to improve human experience through everyday life.

  • 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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