Enhancing workspace design with creative office lighting

17 November 2017

As technology advances and workplace designs become more flexible, office lighting is entering an exciting era. Elly Earls speaks to Laura González Fierro of +ADD; director of Fagerhult Lighting Academy Henrik Clausen; Clive Wilkinson of Clive Wilkinson Architects; and Benz Roos, senior designer at lighting design firm Speirs + Major to find out what the latest systems are capable of and what challenges remain.

You walk into your office and the workspace adjusts precisely to your preferred level of brightness. It’s a sunny day outside, so there’s automatically less artificial and more natural light. When you pop out for lunch, they dim to conserve energy, amping up again for your afternoon brainstorming session after a quick adjustment on your smartphone.

The latest LED and control technologies mean that all this is possible in office environments today. Although it hasn’t yet become commonplace, forward-thinking employers like Tesla, Twitter and Fifty Three have started treating lighting just as they do ergonomics, realising its potential to boost productivity, creativity and comfort. Energy efficiency is a pleasant – if required – byproduct.

“People are obtaining from technology what they need and desire to produce healthier, more sustainable environments and lighting, which has seen amazing developments in the past five to ten years. This is just one example,” says Laura González Fierro, founder of New York and São Paulo-based architecture firm +ADD. “It’s no mystery that daylight or a warm light produces more positive effects on someone’s humour than a colder light. Today, with LED technology, it’s possible to provide these warm temperatures with incandescent qualities while satisfying all electrical codes and budgets.”

Daylight saves

No matter how far technology advances, nothing beats daylight.

“We all agree that it’s absolutely the best light source; it’s the best quality and studies show its positive impact,” stresses Henrik Clausen, director of Fagerhult Lighting Academy. “Because of this, we’ve changed our attitude over the past 15 years to accept that our role is to humbly fill in electric light when daylight fades away. It’s more of a supplement than a replacement.”

That said, rarely is an office environment so replete with natural light that artificial supplements aren’t required to play a substantial role. The goal, therefore, becomes creating an adaptive lighting system so that you can’t tell where the natural light ends and the artificial begins. “We can achieve this now by having great LEDs and adjustable colour temperatures,” notes Clausen.

Sensors ensure that LED light sources can be adjusted according to the level of daylight outside – which has the twin benefits of creating a pleasant working environment and saving energy – and switched off when the area isn’t occupied.

“You’re out of the game now if you don’t deliver on sustainability and energy efficiency,” Clausen says. “There is a very tough limit and you can only reach it by having the latest technology.”

Atmospheric variation is also essential, according to Clive Wilkinson, founder of architecture and interior design studio Clive Wilkinson Architects.

“A corridor is lit differently to a workstation. A combination of direct and indirect lighting is desirable. It’s also important to avoid glare from direct fixtures. The answer is to create variety in light conditions using a variety of sources. We promote concealed indirect light sources and up-lighting to ‘lift’ room environments. LED sources have become universal due to their incredible energy efficiency, and they offer extremely compact options to minimise glare sources.”

Generally speaking, says González Fierro, the optimum specification is 2,700–3,000K for an entire project. “This gives an incandescent quality that makes the space and the users look beautiful but also makes people feel great and, most importantly, alive and comfortable in the space,” she explains.

Maintain natural rhythms

Research shows that disrupting a human’s circadian rhythm – the physical, mental and behavioural changes that roughly follow a 24- hour cycle, responding mainly to light and darkness in our environment – can cause significant emotional and physical disruption. Yet, in the past, lighting designers forced more light into the office environment in order to give workers a productivity boost in the morning or after lunch.

“This has changed a bit over the past four or five years because, as research evolves, we’ve realised that lighting needs to not disturb your rhythm but maintain it,” Clausen explains. “I believe we should try to mimic what’s happening outside instead of trying to administer a cortisol boost in people. Again, it’s a more humble approach. It’s great to know about these circadian rhythms so that we don’t destroy or alter them. Instead, we should follow the daily and seasonal rhythm.”

González Fierro agrees, with the caveat that humans are unpredictable beings and may not always need the same amount of light at the same time every day.

“Lighting systems need to be flexible and understand that we have mood swings; light conditions should adapt to that,” she says, adding that the office +ADD created for technology company Fifty Three in New York provides a good example of how this balance can be struck.

“[The office] has a fantastic west orientation, which makes it really nice in the afternoon for the sunset and all the natural qualities that come with it; but there is also a dimmable system everywhere, so the user has the option to decide the intensity of the light throughout the entire day,” she says.

“At night, when they are using their lounge space for projections, they can soften the light to create a cosier feeling that makes people feel almost at home. People feel alive from getting this sunset exposure, plus the Hudson River and Freedom Tower views are magnificent, so they add to the romanticism of the space.”

What about personal control?

While the idea of walking into your office and the lighting precisely adjusting to your preferences sounds appealing and is possible, it’s a controversial one among architects and interior designers, largely due to the trend towards open-plan, flexible office design.

“In terms of technical solutions, it can be done by pre-programming your preferred lighting settings such as colour temperature and intensity through an RFID tag or an app. We’re on that track right now,” says Clausen.

On the other hand, if your ‘office’ is a desk in an open-plan space, and the lighting above each desk is at a different intensity, the overall effect is unlikely to be the one the architect envisaged. “It makes it look like a Coney Island amusement park if everybody has different intensities and colour temperatures,” Clausen laughs.

For Benz Roos, senior designer at lighting design firm Speirs + Major, the solution at present is that task lighting can be personalised but architectural lighting cannot.

“It’s very tricky because technology is not the problem,” he says. “It’s how to get the right overall experience within the workspace when people start to change their light themselves.”

Light design is finally able to be conceived as an art form.

Clausen adds, “We also discuss with our clients the possibility of having a master control system so that if someone has a migraine and wants lower levels of light, they can adjust it, but when they leave their desk, it gradually fades back to a preset.”

A great era for lighting designers

As office environments become more flexible and dynamic, incorporating everything from hot-desking spaces to break areas, canteens, libraries, and formal and informal meeting spaces, lighting designers are only going to face more challenges, balancing personal with architectural lighting and providing systems that can illuminate different areas of the office in different ways.

According to Wilkinson, the opening up of the office has overall impacted his job in a positive way.

“Transparency within the corporation shifts culture towards honesty and accountability, and is fantastic for knowledge-sharing. It has brought daylight into the interior, making the total environment more healthy and flexible,” he notes. “I think this is a great era for lighting designers as they can compose in a much more symphonic way than ever before. Light design is finally able to be conceived as an art form.”

González Fierro agrees. “There is freedom in form and function, more adaptability to people’s desires – freedom from concepts, from standardisation,” she says. “In terms of cost-efficiency, it’s worth investing in dimmable systems, given that it’s a flexible method to incorporate the new office, which is composed of open work areas, impromptu and formal meeting spaces, canteens and libraries – all with different lighting needs.

“This tendency will continue without any doubt in the near future, and I expect to see more seamless and clean design at affordable prices. Technology enables these possibilities and will only make it more cost-effective to customise and tailor-design.”

In the meantime, the architecture and lighting design industries will continue to raise awareness of the links between productivity, creativity, comfort and a well-designed lighting scheme.

“It’s hard to measure whether you are happy, energised or creative, and that’s the biggest challenge we are trying to push,” Clausen admits. “Of course, employers want their marketing people, for example, to be more creative in the new facility than they were in the old one, but that’s hard to do scientifically.

“Interest is definitely growing. Where I used to have five or ten people at one of my lectures, I now have a hundred listening to me talk about what lighting can do for people. The trend is there, there’s genuine interest and people are curious. Now, we need to deliver what we promise.”

The Fifty Three office in New York, designed by +ADD, has a dimmable light system that can create a cosy atmosphere.
The Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners main office, with lighting design by Speirs + Major.
Open-plan offices make it challenging to implement personalised lighting.

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