Bearable lightness of being

30 December 2020



The role lighting plays in well-being is under renewed focus because of how much more time we spend indoors than out. Will the pandemic prompt a rethink of illumination in architecture? Mariana Figueiro, director of Lighting Research Centre, Arup’s Richard Morris and Clementine Fletcher-Smith of Speirs+Major tell Natalie Healey what they think.


If you have insomnia, blame Thomas Edison. While the inventor’s incandescent bulb is synonymous with innovation and societal progress, artificial light isn’t always good news for human health. For millennia, our body clocks were dictated by sunrise and sunset. But now we can be exposed to brightness at any time of day, whether that’s from a lamp, mobile phone or computer screen. Scientists now realise light at night messes with your internal clock, fooling the body into thinking it needs to be awake. When the blue glow of a smartphone screen is the last thing we see before we turn in, it’s no wonder many of us have trouble sleeping.

Too much light at night isn’t the only problem though. There’s a good chance you’re not being exposed to bright enough light during the day, says Mariana Figueiro, director of the Lighting Research Centre (LRC) – now based at Mount Sinai medical centre in New York. Most indoor illumination can’t even rival the light intensity outdoors on a cloudy day. For years, Figueiro has studied the effects of light on human health. Her 2017 research in Sleep Health, the journal of the National Sleep Foundation, found that office workers who were exposed to bright morning light fell asleep easier at night, and were less likely to report depression or anxiety than those who experienced low levels of light during the day. She says the negative effects of low light exposure are seen keenly in shift workers.

Research suggests a link between working odd hours and a greater risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. “Shift workers are awake at night when they’re supposed to be asleep,” she says. “That leads to a lot of health issues. If you have disruption of your circadian rhythms for long periods of time, the consequences become more and more serious.”

Lockdown darkness

Indeed, our sleep-wake cycles may well have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, suggests Figueiro. Insomnia has been a common complaint during the crisis. Spending more time indoors due to lockdown rules and working from home could be to blame. “During the pandemic, we asked people how much time they were spending outdoors,” Figueiro reveals. “We’ve seen a very nice relationship between brighter light during the day and better sleep and less depression.”

Clementine Fletcher-Smith, associate partner at lighting design designers Speirs+Major has also been thinking about the possible biological consequences of home working.

“Even things like the lack of commute could mean less exposure to proper daylight,” she says. “Now, people might not go out at all. But the morning stimulus of natural light is so fundamental to getting your serotonin levels up and setting your mood.” Who’d have thought the morning rush might have had some health benefits after all?

When we tentatively return to the office, Figueiro believes architects and designers will need to think more about the impact that lighting can have on a person’s well-being. It’s not enough to ensure there’s sufficient illumination for our eyes. “The built environment became dark,” she says. “Now you have these deep core buildings where there are no windows, and the electric light is designed on how your visual system reacts to light. But you need a lot less light to see than you need to affect your biological clock.”

Richard Morris, associate lighting designer at Arup agrees that lighting has to do more than make a space functional. “Lighting isn’t just a tick-box exercise,” Morris says. “Ultimately, you’ve got to try and create something that is humanfocused for an environment you can enjoy and appreciate.”

In the circadian wheelhouse

Of course, while making the most of natural daylight is a bright and lofty ideal, doing so hasn’t always been attainable in practice. New illumination technologies, however, are now giving architects and lighting designers more flexibility to create an environment that works with, rather than against, human circadian rhythms. As Morris says, LED-based light sources are increasingly enabling designers to use colour and light intensity to control the feel of a space.

In 2019, Morris’s colleagues at the Arup London office conducted a nine-week experiment to better understand whether an approach called ‘light sculpting’ could impact human biology and psychology. Windows were blocked off to avoid people being exposed to sunlight during work hours. A daylight sensor on the building’s roof fed information to an LED system inside. “The sky outside was completely created with artificial lights,” says Morris. Workers taking part in the study preferred the variability and tunability of lights, especially in areas with minimal daylighting.

Invariably, a designer’s approach to lighting will always depend on the type of building they’re illuminating and its intended purpose. Fletcher-Smith reveals she is currently working on a new office for a city bank. Here, people will be working at their desk for long hours, and the large floorplan means many employees will not be near a window. For this project, Speirs+Major is exploring how internal light of varying colours and intensities might promote well-being and productivity.

A different plan was needed for a Maggie’s Centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland, an organisation that provides support, information and practical advice for people with cancer. Here, the incorporation of natural light was especially important to promote a sense of well-being. Open lattice brickwork brought dappled light into the building. Speirs+Major also worked with architects Reiach and Hall to develop a gold light reflector for the centre’s courtyard, meaning it could reflect natural light and bring views of the surrounding scenery. This created a “beautiful chandelier with a calming effect” says Fletcher-Smith.

When designing Hide restaurant in Mayfair, the team found itself with an altogether different dilemma. The client wanted lighting that promoted relaxation, but the most obvious approach wasn’t the best for showcasing haute cuisine. Warm coloured light gives faces an attractive glow but can illuminate food in a strange way. The solution, Fletcher- Smith reveals, was to find a light source that used a more accurate colour, rendering quantification to give the best hue and saturation for the food while enabling a candlelight warmth for people’s faces.

Far from simply helping citizens stay more positive during lockdown, good lighting is also an important way of drawing in customers when it ends.

Shock of the light

When it’s safe to go back to restaurants again, people may need a confidence boost, says Morris. He believes lighting could provide gentle encouragement to help people get out and about, particularly during the dark days of winter. In the spring, many towns implemented temporary solutions to encourage walking and cycling. But these might not be as appealing in the colder months. Clever lighting could make outdoor spaces more attractive, improving perceptions of safety and ultimately increase footfall and economic activity.

“My thinking is: how do we draw people out again in a safe manner? What mechanisms can we put in place to enable social spaces that people will actually use?” says Morris, who has recently authored a report on the role of lighting in supporting town centre regeneration.

He thinks lessons can be taken from the Sheffield University concourse project that Arup completed in 2019. Dead space beneath a brutalist concrete flyover was transformed from a bicycle dumping ground to a buzzing community hub. Coloured LEDs define the concourse boundaries and create an increased sense of safety and security.

“The lighting team got together and thought, ‘What can we do with it?’” Morris says. “Now, there’s an outdoor, all-weather venue that has given a renewed, positive response to the university.” The viaduct has since been used to host all sorts of events, from gigs to ‘pop-up’ markets. It’s a success story that chimes with society’s mass realisation that outdoor socialising is safer than sitting in poorly ventilated rooms for reducing the spread of Covid-19. Spaces like the Sheffield concourse have, therefore, become even more valuable community assets, and will likely remain so post-pandemic.

Artificial light may be keeping us up at night but Figueiro believes more spaces will exploit the technology to promote well-being in the near future, especially as we come to understand more about light’s effect on the body. Her vision is a system that, similar to the Arup experiment, automatically adjusts the lighting throughout the day to the exact intensity and temperature needed to support health and restful sleep. More personalised lighting, she argues, could be of particular help to those who can’t easily get outside to reap the benefits of natural light. “Now that we’re learning how impactful the light/dark pattern is,” she advises, “a lot must be accomplished inside the built environment to ensure it’s giving people what they need.”

“NOW [IN LOCKDOWN] PEOPLE MIGHT NOT GO OUT AT ALL. BUT THE MORNING STIMULUS OF NATURAL LIGHT IS SO FUNDAMENTAL TO GETTING YOUR SEROTONIN LEVELS UP AND SETTING YOUR MOOD.”

Clementine Fletcher-Smith

The golden courtyard at Speirs+Major’s Maggie’s Centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland.
Arup’s University of Sheffield concourse lit up at night.
An interior shot of the Maggie’s Centre designed by the Speirs+Major studio.


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