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Seeing the light

Research has shown the effects that the brightness and colour of indoor lighting can have on personal wellbeing and performance, which could impact on the way interior architects are expected to approach new designs. 

Architects know only too well the importance of designing buildings that make the most of natural light. Whatever the building’s use, interiors that draw in daylight, are well-ventilated with access to views, and employ well-designed artificial lighting at appropriate light levels, will generally result in happier and healthier occupants. However, there are still examples where these design features are largely ignored. Stephen Heppell, a professor at the Centre for Excellence in Media Practice at the University of Bournemouth, has studied the learning environment for many years and is still shocked by what he sees.

“I’ve visited 56 examination rooms in the last 10 months and I haven’t found one that wasn’t damaging the prospects of the children in them,” says Heppell. “The lights are too low, the CO2 levels too high and the vibrations from the fans are too fast, it’s genuinely terrible. Children are stuck in rooms where they couldn’t possibly learn, behave or remember.”

Through his research project, Learnometer, which combines hardware, software and analysed data, Heppell is helping schools to understand that by designing better classrooms, pupil’s achievement can be increased in measurable ways. One of the key factors for improvement are light levels.

“Almost all classrooms are under-lit,” says Heppell. “I was in an exam room recently where the lighting was 90 lux in the corner and there were children trying to do a test”.

Given Heppell’s extensive experience with schools, he is now adept at spotting the warning signs. “I could go into a classroom and tell you where the children are going to yawn and which children will misbehave, just by going around the room and measuring a few things.”

Heppell says recent research confirms that good lighting significantly influences reading, vocabulary and science test scores. In classrooms, he recommends lux levels of above 250 lux for engaged conversation and above 450 lux for close work, like writing or computer use. He also suggests that immediate improvement can be achieved by simply painting classroom walls with highly reflective paint to lighten the space, removing paper from windows and putting in better lights.

But longer term, Heppell recommends that architecture courses should include a module on learning in schools and teacher education curriculum should incorporate a module on design. “Architects and teachers should have that conversation,” he argues.

Jonathan Rush, a partner at Hoare Lea who runs the practice’s lighting group agrees with Heppell that good lighting can make or break a space with a significant impact on the users’ wellbeing.

“The question of whether good lighting can increase people’s productivity goes back to how much light and the quality of light is needed in spaces, which was a determining factor for most of our standards,” says Rush. “There is a strong case now, which is backed up by the British Council of Offices guidance, that says offices need a background illumination level, but to light spaces for individual tasks and avoid a flat, generic across-the-board illumination level.”

Rush argues that in office design there’s a lot of research on the importance of individual users control over their own environments.

If you’d like GA Electrical and Mechanical to advise you on how to improve your working environment through best use of lighting, drop us an email or phone 01491 835875.

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