Last weekend, anticipating seeing the latest examples of workplace design, I visited several recently completed high profile workplace projects – opened up for the public during the Melbourne Open House weekend. And I saw some spectacular spaces.
But I was really disappointed by the staggering number of examples with really bad lighting design.
While workplace design evolves at a fast pace, I’m confused to see that lighting design is lagging behind (and sometimes even moves backwards).
So what is done wrong? Down-lights … spotlights and fluorescent tubes everywhere, mounted on black ceilings. (The photos above are examples.)
This is such a common way of lighting up offices, we may not even question it. Here are some of the problems with it:
1. This type of lighting creates glare: visual discomfort resulting from a strong contrast between bright and dark surfaces. Glare is distracting and puts a strain on our eyes, and as a result, it not only makes us uncomfortable, but seriously inhibits productivity.
2. Downlights make it difficult to see well the things really need to see in a workplace. They are great for lighting up horizontal surfaces like table-tops. But when was the last time you spent most of your working days looking down? What we really need to see well are, for example, other people’s subtle facial expressions – so that we can communicate and relate to each other better. (But that would require more diffuse lighting.)
3. Down-lights combined with dark ceilings create a completely unnatural lighting effect, confusing our body and mind.
The only time in nature when we see bright light coming straight from above is at the peak of the summer, in the middle of the day. This is siesta time. This type of lighting lacks ‘spirit’, perhaps this is why it’s avoided in photography. (Just think about the time when the light is most appealing in nature: morning and evening, when the sun is at a low angle.)
At the same time, a dark ceiling with bright spots resembles the night sky with stars. (And even if the ceiling is white, downlights do make the ceiling look dark.)
We humans have evolved to be in tune with nature and to be sensitive to our surroundings. So lighting that resembles the lights in nature helps us feel and function better.
Spaces with dark ceilings that look like the night sky mess with our body-clock: they make us slower and sometimes even drowsy, since the body’s biological response is to go to sleep once the sun is down.
And how do we subconsciously interpret a dark ceiling (i.e. night sky) combined with the lighting shining vertically from above the top (i.e. midday sun)? This effect is really odd – like experiencing a permanent a total eclipse.
Of course, this sort of lighting has many advantages:
- Painting everything black is an easy way to disguise the messy services pipes and to create a ceiling that looks acceptable without installing a suspended ceiling. So this is a cheap option. (Installing a dark mesh or slats underneath the services pipes has similar effect.)
- Using downlights pretty much everywhere – apart from the occasional feature lighting – is common practice, so designers don’t risk too much. They know that it ‘sort of’ works.
- This type of lighting can be very energy efficient, since no other surfaces are lit up than what is required by the minimum building standards.
- Bright lights on a dark surface look somewhat ‘cool’, from a design perspective.
But do any of these benefits warrant a design that is unnatural and confusing, causes eye-strain, makes us drowsy, and makes it difficult for us to see well?
Here are a few suggestions for creating a well-lit space that is not only visually attractive, but is also more supportive of wellbeing and performance:
- Make sure that not only the floor and desk tops, but also the walls and the ceiling are sufficiently lit. Make all the surfaces look a bit like the outdoors, with a bright sky and horizon. This will create a much warmer, more natural and engaging atmosphere, compared to lighting that is only directed towards the floor.
- Use some indirect lighting such as uplights, wall-wash lamps, or pendants with an uplight component to create the effect of an ‘indoor sky’.
- You may still create darker spaces that resemble, for example, the shady areas under trees, but these should be features, not the norm. (You don’t want your teams to work in a cave.)
I can’t offer a step-by-step guide for good lighting design, nor I am qualified to do so. You need to engage specialists who are willing to go beyond business as usual to design a lighting system that works for people.
You may try to save money by going for the cheap options, but consider the impact of a permanent ‘total eclipse’ on the human capital.