Natural Light In Workplace Design

Cultivating a healthy indoor environment can begin with sound daylighting strategies.

By Brandon Tinianov
From the June 2018 Issue

Over the past two decades the green building movement has transformed the principles of good building design. First and foremost, it has driven wider adoption of energy efficient technologies and sustainable materials and methods. As the movement has grown, it’s also matured to address the building’s impact on the occupants.

natural light
Organizations can optimize building façade design so that the structure
provides occupants with continuous access to views (ideally of nature) and
regulates light levels for thermal comfort. (Photo: View)

Progressive organizations are taking note of the added value this more holistic approach can deliver in both operational and organizational excellence. They have a strong motivation to do so. People are a company’s largest expense category, comprising the vast majority of organizational costs. Therefore, facility improvements that also improve the health, comfort, and productivity of employees—even by a small amount—have a significant impact on the bottom line.

Impact Of Poor Workplace Design

Unfortunately, most workplaces are not designed to maximize the wellness and work-related performance of employees. Following architectural trends, modern office buildings employ large glass façades to maximize natural light. On the surface, research shows the additional natural light delivers a wide range of health and productivity benefits. But traditional windows lack the ability to properly manage the amount of daylight penetrating into the workplace, which contributes to a number of negative outcomes.

Windows can also increase the solar heat gain of a building, a negative for employees (who experience thermal discomfort and turn up the air conditioning) and for the employer, who loses employee focus and absorbs increased energy expenditures. Unwanted glare is also a common byproduct of offices with large glass areas. To manage heat and glare, employees or facility management teams often pull down window shades, potentially creating a new issue. This inverse condition—no exposure to natural light and views of the outdoors—can be just as detrimental.

Dark, artificially lit environments are all too common in workplaces today. A recent study found an astounding 64% of employees in the U.S. have no natural light in their working environment. Lack of access to daylight and views also compounds occupational hazards like Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), which results from extended computer use and affects up to 50-90% of computer users. CVS has a number of productivity-detracting symptoms, including eyestrain, blurred or double vision, and tension headaches.

A new study by Dr. Alan Hedge, a workplace design expert and professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, found a well-regulated office environment significantly improves health and wellness among workers, leading to productivity gains. In Fall 2017, Dr. Hedges studied 300+ workers in five locations across North America.

According to his research, the right amount of natural light can decrease eyestrain among employees by 51%, drowsiness by 56%, and headaches by 63%. Workers sitting close to windows that are capable of controlling daylight also reported a 2% increase in productivity—the equivalent of an additional $100,000 per year of value for every 100 workers (assuming an annual average salary of $50,000) or around $2 million over the life of the window.

The key takeaway: cultivating a healthy indoor environment starts outside. Organizations should optimize building façade design so that it both provides workers with continuous access to views (ideally of nature) and regulates light levels to ensure employees enjoy thermal comfort throughout the day.

Daylight And Views: The Prescription for A Better Office

It is clear that employee performance and outlook are connected to the environmental conditions in which they work. So, what can organizations do to promote office conditions that support the well-being of their workforce? Employee preferences point the way. Natural light is the most requested element within the workplace, but organizations must be strategic implementing this natural element to maximize its benefits and neutralize its unintended side effects.

Meanwhile, sunlight is not the only natural element to prioritize in workplace design. The benefits of nature within the workspace (e.g., plants, water features) and a bright office environment with nature-resembling accent colors (e.g., green, yellow, blue, brown) are also well documented.

Another advantage to incorporating a sound natural daylighting strategy is energy efficiency through reduced heating, cooling, and lighting costs. Further, green building rating systems such as LEED from the U.S. Green Building Council, the WELL Building Standard from the International Well Building Institute, and Fitwel from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also credit designs that incorporate daylight and other natural elements. However, the benefits extend beyond energy efficiency to also enable a healthier, more productive workforce.

Facility executives have a tremendous opportunity—and obligation—to create the ideal office environment for their most valuable assets. By approaching workplace design with a focus on natural elements, chief among them natural light, they can create a more healthy, empowered and productive workforce.

natural lightDr. Tinianov is vice president of industry strategy for View, a Santa Rosa, CA-based manufacturer of smart glass. In this role, he leads the company’s workplace research and industry engagement. Prior to joining View, Tinianov was the chief technology officer at Serious Energy and the building sciences platform leader at Johns Manville. Tinianov is Chair of the national Advisory Council of the U.S. Green Building Council. He has a Ph.D. in Engineering Systems, is a registered Professional Engineer, and LEED Accredited Professional. He has a doctorate in Engineering Systems from the Colorado School of Mines, and Master and Bachelor of Sciences degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas and Tulane University, respectively.

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