Lighting: Improving Wellness and Productivity at Home
Read what tips and products lighting designers recommend to keep remote offices productive—and to look your best on video calls.
This article originally posted on 12-09-2020 in Architect Magazine and was written by MURRYE BERNARD, AIA, LEED AP
Prior to the pandemic, Rachel Fitzgerald, a senior lighting designer in Stantec’s Denver office, was “never a work-from-home person.” She enjoyed the chance encounters and collaborative nature of working in an office. At the onset of the lockdown in March, she worked from a desk in the corner of her guest bedroom-cum-exercise room. This arrangement lasted only a few weeks before she took out the bed, purchased a larger desk, and embarked on lighting upgrades: removing curtains to maximize daylight; repainting walls to a brighter, lighter color; and adding a new light ledge to provide soft, diffuse illumination above her work surface.
Fitzgerald’s experience likely resonates with anyone who is grappling with new routines and working styles while carving out spaces at home to accommodate it all. But by applying best practices from commercial lighting to the residential realm, you can achieve a lighting scheme that can improve not only productivity, but also your mental and physical health.
Daylighting and Circadian Rhythm
Exposure to daylight regulates our circadian rhythm, which is key to our health and well-being. Circadian lighting research and recent technological developments have focused on commercial spaces, where many of us spent the majority of our waking hours prior to the pandemic. But these lighting principles also apply when you’re working at home. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute advises that people should have exposure to bright light in the morning and should take a 30-minute walk or run outside at the same time every morning.
During working hours, individuals should face a window and open the curtains or shades to maximize daylight. “Get a lot of bright light every day, especially every morning,” advises former LRC director Mariana Figueiro, who was recently appointed director of Rutgers University’s Center for Healthy Aging at the Institute for Health and chief of the new Division of Sleep and Circadian Medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Ideally, work areas will receive 60 to 80 foot-candles—more than other rooms in the home. Multiply the square footage of your workspace by the desired number of foot-candles to determine the number of lumens required. For example, a 100-square-foot space should get 6,000 to 8,000 lumens total. Then look for light sources with color temperatures between 3000K and 3500K. Investing in a system with dimming capabilities will enable you to control and adjust electric light levels in response to fluctuating natural light throughout the day.
Lighting Research Center
In the evening, Figueiro suggests switching to warmer-toned, low-level lighting. This not only signals a transition from the workday to personal time, but it also helps gear your body down for sleep. She also recommends turning off screens one to two hours before bedtime. As studies have shown, these practices can help reduce depression and anxiety and boost the immune system—basically everything we need right now.
Electric Lighting Strategies
Access to daylight is not equal. Many of us reside in small apartments or crammed spaces with few windows. In the absence of adequate daylight, add more fixtures—and then a few more. If you previously had only one fixture near your home desk, Figueiro suggests adding three more. The goal is to achieve layers of lighting: general, task, and natural.
General lighting typically comes from an overhead fixture that casts diffused, uniform light in multiple directions. Task lighting casts localized light on work surfaces, but it can also cause glare. Fitzgerald, a fan of indirect light, suggests aiming task fixtures at the wall and ceiling. For residential applications, her “go-to recommendation” is the Philips Hue line of products. “They are widely available … and easy to install,” she says. “You can add switches or use the app to control [the fixtures].”
~courtesy Philips Philips Hue Lightstrip
To alleviate eyestrain, she emphasizes placing a desk in a location that offers options for both the near and far fields of view. “Just as we need to get up and stretch from time to time, we need to be able to look out and see something distant to give our eyes a break,” she says. This can mean wall art or a view through a window.
The LRC has a website detailing lighting patterns for homes with helpful tips on lighting equipment and techniques.
Lighting designers should consider all the ways “in which lighting interacts in a space, taking into account reflectance values and surface finishes, and even the tone of a painted surface,” Fitzgerald says. For Lakehouse, a multifamily residential development in Denver that opened at the start of the pandemic, Stantec’s design team focused on “evaluating daylight and right-to-light concepts—getting good usable daylight into regularly occupied spaces,” Fitzgerald says. The project has achieved pre-certification from the International WELL Building Institute.
Anticipating a future in which people continue to work from home, Stantec is exploring a model for high-performance, affordable housing that accommodates remote work. Rather than assuming the occupant can work from a dining table or spare bedroom, the firm is examining how to create a dedicated workspace within a small footprint. This may take the form of a built-in counter in a nook equipped with lighting on par with commercial products to promote productivity.
~courtesy Stantec Lake house residence, designed by Stantec
Lights, Camera …
Let’s be honest: During this time of increased remote work, the most important function of lighting is to make us look good on video calls. According to Jennifer Brons, director of design demonstrations at LRC, first you should light your face, which means facing a window or aiming a fixture toward your face. Second, avoid harsh overhead light, which can emphasize facial and skin imperfections. Third, turn off fixtures behind you that are visible on camera.
Diffuse light acts like a skin-perfecting filter. Many fixtures offer built-in diffusers, such as lamps with translucent shades or torchieres that cast light onto the walls and ceiling. If your work-from-home space receives too much daylight, add light-colored, translucent drapes or shades to diffuse it or move farther from the window. Be sure to balance daylight with electric light sources to fill in any shadows.
Figueiro predicts the future of lighting in both commercial and residential environments will include brighter spaces with significantly more daylight and operable windows. She anticipates at least 350 lux at eye level (metered facing straight, perpendicular to the floor). “That is generally about three to four times more light than one normally gets at home. Use indirect lighting or any portable lights that deliver light at the eye [level].” But watch out for glare, she cautions.
“Brighter spaces tend to feel like they are healthier,” Figueiro says. “They convey the perception of health and cleanliness.” But Figueiro predicts the future of lighting in both commercial and residential environments will include brighter spaces with significantly more daylight and operable windows. She anticipates at least 350 lux at eye level (metered facing straight, perpendicular to the floor). “That is generally about three to four times more light than one normally gets at home. Use indirect lighting or any portable lights that deliver light at the eye [level].” But watch out for glare, she cautions.
“Brighter spaces tend to feel like they are healthier,” Figueiro says. “They convey the perception of health and cleanliness.” But more than that, good lighting can improve our waking and working hours, wherever we are spending them.