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Tune up your lighting choices

October 16, 2015
by Kevin Turner
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Breakthroughs in lighting are very likely the most exciting thing happening in design right now. Science is giving us all kinds of new information about the impact of lighting on our emotions, moods and actions—at the same time, the commonization of LED lighting is making it possible for us to act on that research.

I am so excited about this opportunity, I want to share it with all of you before you install another compact fluorescent light bulb.

In our practice, we are just completing a psychiatric hospital where we used primarily can lights in the patient spaces instead of 2x2 fixtures we had typically used. The 2x2 lights distribute light evenly from the ceiling to the floor and allow for maximum consistent lighting levels, while can lights distribute lighting unevenly. With a can light, the floor receives the highest intensity of light with the intensity decreasing upwards on the wall and with the least light distribution on the ceiling.

It might sound counterintuitive, but can lights make for a more comfortable space. It feels warmer even if the same type of fluorescent lighting is used in each fixture type.

My colleague Eve Edelstein, PhD, is a neuroscientist working with Perkins+Will to research evidence based design in behavioral healthcare. She has also done an extensive study on circadian rhythms, which are worth learning about.

Circadian rhythm

The sun’s light changes wavelengths throughout the day. Morning and evening light produces a redder wavelength, while the mid-day light is of a bluer wavelength. We humans are genetically programmed by evolution to respond to this effect. The simple version is that bluer light triggers a chemical response that makes us think it is daytime and we should be hunting. Redder light triggers a response that slows us down for sleep. Our bodies are meant to respond to this natural shift in light throughout the day.

As you can imagine, spending so much of our time indoors and looking at computer screens (blue light) really messes with this natural system. Research has shown that in some cases, getting out of cycle with your circadian rhythms can have negative consequences.

At the same time that this research is becoming firmly established, new LED lighting is finally becoming more accessible. LED lighting isn’t new. Being able to install it on a typical project budget is.

Consider that LED lights can be manufactured at any wavelength. Some can even be tunable so that you can vary the wavelength according to time of day, level of daylight, user input or any other factor you can think of.

We see this as an amazing opportunity. We now have enough information to start to design lighting that can help naturalize people’s moods and emotions by connecting them to their genetically programmed rhythm at the same time that we have the technology available to implement that design. What could be better?

 It is important to remember that this is not a simple idea and should be implemented only with the help of someone fully knowledgeable in the research. More to come. I was just so excited, I couldn’t wait to share.

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Kevin Turner

Principal, Perkins+Will

Kevin Turner

Kevin is a recognized leader in the design and operations of behavioral healthcare facilities. ...