Light & Cognition
Light has become a unique point of interest within the built environment on three fronts; sustainability, mental health, and cost. It is the element that, can create a win/win/win situation, allowing an organisation to enhance the mental wellbeing of people in a particular environment, reduce electricity usage and save on building costs. However, this not the complete picture, there is one more missing component.
Science has been researching the effects of light for over 15 years in which time we have come to understand that light is significant factor in our sleep patterns, metabolism, immune system, and overall health. In the last 5 years neuroscience has also been investigating how light affects cognitive process such as attention and memory. However, despite the abundant knowledge on light, quality of light is still something that is missing from the conversation. In other words, how much light does one need according to a physical environment and task?
These questions are now being asked across the built environment supply chain, from software producers, technology companies to architects. In a recent article featured in Archdaily, software company, Sefaira raised similar questions from a rendering perspective. They are using a software programme that can illustrate the use of light in a space with a goal to " shape a building according to daylight".
Another company that is starting to look at this factor from a technological side is Sage Glass, which is a subsidiary company of Saint Gobain. They have developed a high tech window that allows the user to have "tint on demand". As a company they are seeing light as a comfort, which already intimates that there are different levels or qualities to light. It is not enough to have a room flooded with natural light, it is about the comfort of light. They are specifically looking at controlling light from a physical perspective in order to "prevent excessive heat gain and disabling glare", which would affect how a person experiences and uses a space.
In a study from 2011 used fMR to assess how light affects non-visual brain responses. It showed that light can optimise brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention or what is commonly known as focus. Furthermore, this study also showed that effects of light rely on "properties such as dose, duration, timing, and wavelength." This was particularly poignant when it came to the effects on sleep-wake cycles. For example, the longer a person was exposed to certain types unnatural light the more the effect on their quality of sleep. This is a crucial discovery and detail that has been omitted from other light studies. This would indicate that the quality of light a person is exposed to has affects post exposure.
As light has many non-visual effects on people, understanding how people experience and are affected by light is crucial to the value of a building. Here is where there is a potential hidden cost for owners, occupiers, and users of spaces. If the productivity or wellbeing drops due to how a building is lit, this could have potentially a significant effect on the company from sick days to drops in the quality of work. Two things that have economic losses attached to them.This can also trickle up to owners of buildings that are proving to be harder to let in a more informed market where well- being and experience are starting to drive demand, and thus value.
Through the intersection of neuroscience and technology, we have the opportunity to elevate the experience of a building. Technologies like Sage Glass allow users to control temperature and glare without the compromise on the access of natural light. Now with neuroscience we can go even one step further, we can now put metrics based on cognitive affordances to assign the best light for a particular task and environment. For example, if the desired cognitive affordance is sustained attention, neuroscience can set the metric for the duration, type of wavelength, or dose which best influence such affordance.
With major occupiers of buildings now more than ever opting for buildings and spaces that enhance experience and well being, components such as the refined quality of light are no longer considered just a management cost but become a direct link to demand and thus value.