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Buildings, lighting and wellbeing

The effect of light on office workers is a key consideration in a new building standard that prioritises the health and wellbeing of occupants.

Environmental factors are known to have an impact on health, well-being and productivity in the workplace, from air quality and

Nathan Stodola, IWBI’s Vice President of Product Development
Nathan Stodola, IWBI’s Vice President of Product Development

temperature to the type of seating provided. Light is another important consideration – and it does more than just help you see.

A report by the World Green Building Council, Health Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building, references a number of studies that show a link between lighting and the health and satisfaction of office workers.

One, published in the Journal of Sleep and Sleep Disorders Research, demonstrates a strong relationship between workplace daylight exposure and the sleep, activity and quality of life of office workers. Those with windows received 173% more white light exposure and slept an average of 46 minutes longer per night, while those without windows achieved lower scores on key quality of life metrics.

Architects and designers are increasingly taking account of such research and designing office buildings in accordance with a variety of standards developed to promote sustainability and wellbeing.

One such is the the WELL Building Standard introduced in 2013 by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation that believes people’s health and wellness should be central to building design.

As the first professionals accredited to the programme start to influence design in their organisations (see box), Business Info spoke to Nathan Stodola, IWBI’s Vice President of Product Development, to find out more about the WELL standard and, more specifically, about how light affects the performance and happiness of office workers.

Business Info (BI): Please could you tell me more about the WELL Building Standard and what you hope to achieve with its development?

Nathan Stodola (NS): People spend more than 90% of their time indoors – in homes and offices, schools, retail stores, fitness centres, healthcare facilities and more – which means that buildings, and everything in them, can have a profound effect on human health and well-being.

The WELL Building Standard (WELL) is the first building standard to focus exclusively on the health and wellness of the people in buildings. It marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research, harnessing the built environment as a vehicle to support human health and wellbeing. WELL sets performance requirements in seven categories relevant to occupant health and wellbeing: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. WELL Certified spaces can help create a built environment that improves the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns and performance of its occupants. Through this, WELL Certified spaces can generate a meaningful return on investment to the tenant and building owner.

BI: How does it differ to other certification schemes such as LEED or BREEAM?

NS: When we look at LEED, BREEAM, Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS) and the other green rating systems out there and compare them to the WELL, there is some overlap. Green building begins the conversation about people, but primarily focuses on environmental impact. WELL really advances it; WELL involves entirely new protocols in and around human health, with very limited overlap between LEED and WELL measures. LEED and WELL are therefore very complementary to address both environmental and human health.

BI: How does light impact the health of building occupants?

NS: Light serves three primary functions for the human body. Most importantly, and obviously, we need light to see.

Lamps providing light with poor colour quality can make it difficult to differentiate shades and colours. Proper designs must also distribute the light correctly to avoid causing glare.

Light is also the primary driver aligning our body’s biological clock, our circadian rhythm, with the sun’s 24-hour day. During the day, brighter white lights can inform our body that it is daytime, while at night, warm lamps with a lower blue component can provide illumination for visual purposes while minimising disruption to our circadian rhythm.

Finally, light has direct effects on parts of our brain and can act as an acute stimulant, making people more alert and able to perform better on some cognitive tests.

BI: In what ways can lighting be used to improve employee wellbeing, comfort and productivity?

NS: The explosion of tunable LED lighting systems in the last fie years has made it easier than ever to create custom lighting schedules that provide appropriate levels and colours of light at different points in our circadian cycle. This allows us to maximise lighting’s effects as a stimulant when it is appropriate for employees to focus during the day, while also taking into account our body’s internal clock.

BI: Can you give examples of buildings in which light was a crucial consideration in the design or was used in a unique way?

NS: Light from the sun and sky is great for use in workplaces because of its excellent colour quality and higher intensity in the blue part of the spectrum. Many of the projects most engaged in designing for wellness have really used daylight in innovative ways.

One project opened up its stairway to a central skylight which would distribute light throughout each of the floors in an otherwise dim space. Another eliminated all the executive offices around the perimeter and instituted universal flexible seating, meaning that sunlit offices were no longer restricted to the elite few.

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