Shade, daylight and plantings. Top Marks!
Daylight is important.
Despite what our alarm clocks may chirp at us, we are conditioned to rise with the growing of the light, actively use that radiance to carry out daily tasks, then wane with the settling of dusk to a dormant state of reflection and rest.
Try a weekend of under-stimulation. Unplug, switch off, and avoid inputs. Stay near the windows, or outside where possible. Take it as slow as you can and see how aware you become of the lull to sleep as light fades, or the sensory awakening through the emerging dawn.
Light means many things to us, but perhaps it symbolizes the positives the most. Hope, vital energy, and its conversion into meaningful work and relationships. It’s no coincidence that the perceived dip in collective cultural wisdom in Europe following the departure of Roman rule came to be known as the Dark Ages, for it was the general absence of a culture of wisdom (looking back) that extinguished the light of progress.
Without further drama, let’s consider that by voluntarily spending the majority of our working lives within our built environments, we are potentially stemming the influence of daylight in the work we create while depleting our physical health at the same time.
Daylight as Therapy
In Australia, the effects of sunlight have become synonymous with prevention and prudence. However, to instead understand how those effects may be beneficial is important so we can use light in the right ways to enhance the workplace. Vitamin D production is greatly incited by sun exposure and some daily rays help keep the body’s factory lights on. And the benefits of D? It is absolutely critical in regulating over one thousand different genes that manage cellular processes in every part of the human body.
A marked incidence of chemical or biological contaminants, poor ventilation, bad air quality and inadequate access to daylight are all symptoms that lead to increased employee absenteeism due to sickness or stress. In this sense, though SBS alludes to the people problems, it is really the building that is unwell.
An unhealthy techno centre environment.
The more we start to think of our interior design as an opportunity to create wellness, the more we can envisage architecture as a living constant we inhabit, as opposed to an inertly manufactured space we need to use.
Science Stuff + Solutions
Cortisol is the ‘stress hormone’ produced with high values during the day and low values at night. Likewise, it also spikes in summer more than winter. However, this isn’t confusingly bad news for daylight. On the contrary, we need cortisol at certain levels to fight off disease and stay vital. Light influences cortisol secretion and helps us wake up in the morning. Employees sitting near windows exhibit higher cortisol levels and are thus more alert.
Employees relegated to the dark crevices of an office environment probably need more espresso to get through the day.
What’s certain is that avoidance results in problems of deficiency, we need some degree of constant, careful interaction with the sun to promote bodily functions.
Heliotherapy is the study of how light benefits health. The term was coined via advances in medical thinking during the early 19th century toward the treatment of tuberculosis and rickets-ridden troops. Think Florence Nightingale and the sterling work she did to recuperate the wounded in dramatically airier, lighter hospital conditions, ushering patients out of convalescence faster instead of relegating them to languish in fetid conditions. Sunlight was understood to fight off certain ailments, leading to a cultural acceptance of ‘healthy tanned skin’ before we knew where to draw the line.
However, access to naturally lit spaces doesn’t have to mean direct sunlight, rather a more constant, ambient connection to the rhythms of the world. Seeing and feeling daylight keep us tuned in to the day’s progress, putting structure around our workflow and sense of timing.
Daylight in interior architecture has also been shown to enable a ‘contemplative perception’ of space, the positive, relaxed frame of mind that allows focus in prayer or physical restoration alike are aided by it. This is not to say we need to treat the workplace as an architectural place of worship, but the instantaneous calm of spiritual space that comes from a natural blend of exultant light and pensive shadow is something to keep in mind if we want people to be productive.
The ability to reach a flow state, or focused calm in which we can concentrate our mental energies on a task, is the aim of much of modern ‘agile workspace’ theory. Access to natural stimuli grounds us and promotes the introspection required to shed distraction.
Not So Smart Buildings
The introduction of fluorescent lighting and the mighty air-conditioner in the 1930s changed the way architects considered design. A greater degree of specific environmental control meant they could design deeper and therefore further away from the natural influence of daylight at the edges of the building.
Technology has allowed us to recreate a facsimile of the natural and shield ourselves in ever more unnatural surroundings. The stark, pallid overtones of the cubicle office layout in The Matrix illustrate the perverse degree of separation from the natural world that was accepted in the workplace in the name of efficiency and focus.
We’re past that. Treating our workspaces as extensions of the natural world is a logical request to make if we’re to spend 8 hours a day in them. Also, with the option to work mobile or remote, employees need to feel that a workspace is a place they want to spend time. It needs to be restorative and enriching.
Light therapy for people is just as important for your building. Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a real architectural ailment, a term that describes how an ill-considered approach to interior design can manifest in the general ill-health of a building’s occupants.
Equally, light regulates our internal clocks through the production of serotonin and melatonin, the ‘daylight and nighttime’ hormones, respectively, that keep us in balance. They elevate us and tamp down depression. And yes, although interior designers can specify ‘full spectrum’ lighting to emulate the outdoors, the effects are simply incomparable. Illuminating an interior at a level between 2500 – 10,000 lux is practically blinding, yet simple access to real daylight in the form of adequately designed architectures provides a free, readily available solution that forms the most effective antidepressant out there.
Literally, out there.
Building for People
This all barely skims the surface of heliotherapy and our instinctive, atavistic need to stay connected with natural rhythms. However, it does raise the point that whatever your latitude, daylight is utterly essential as a working constant and not as a luxury.
It sounds so simple, yet so many interiors fail to acknowledge the benefits of natural light. This is based on the conceit that we can adequately emulate nature within manmade architecture. Instead, imagine that considerate workspace design starts with the notion that the interior and exterior are not mutually exclusive, and that occupants need to access both to experience a diverse and healthful day. Design that includes crossover points where occupants can access light will benefit. This can be exterior access for mobile working, and interiors designed with an adequate window or skylight inclusion. The ambient weather doesn’t matter, it’s critical to have mental access to exterior light whether that light is radiantly bright or moodily subtle.
Ultimately, we are solar powered beings. Our architecture should reflect and embrace this need, and workspaces should allow occupants the benefit of daylighting to ensure they can attain the same levels of wellbeing they would expect to access at home.
Here’s to you sunshine.