times are changing — and it’s time to change how we light our homes.
BY DAVID K. WARFEL, CEL
DO YOU HAVE LIGHT SWITCHES ON YOUR WALLS?
Do you have a nice even grid of recessed downlights above you? Or a single fixture in the middle of any of your rooms? Or light above a vanity?
Did you choose warm, neutral, or cool light for your home?
Sadly, if you answered yes to any of the questions above, light is hurting you every day. But do not despair. Light can help you live a happier and healthier life, if designed properly.
We know more about ourselves than ever before and we have tools that did not exist until after the turn of the millennium. An incredible acceleration of scientific revelations continues to rapidly advance our understanding of how light plays a critical role in our health and wellness. Continuous technology revolution provides us with unprecedented abilities to respond to the science. Yet even the most luxurious of homes have the wrong light in the wrong place at the wrong time. If we want to live and age in place, we need light. If we want to laugh, love, and live in place, we need the right light at the right time in the right place.
It is time to unite design and technology to get us there. Here’s how to get started.
the right light (the right color temperature is wrong)
An architect recently asked me to specify 2,700°K warm light throughout the home, with perhaps 3,000°K in the garage. He had learned from past experience that cold blue light would destroy the welcoming and comfortable feel of his homes. He was right…and he was wrong.
Why would his choice (and my specification that followed) miss out on many of the benefits of light? Because the right light for living well is not 2,700°K. Or 4,000°K. Or any 0000°K. Our focus on color temperature and color rendering was a first feeble attempt to quantify light in a useful way, but our fixation on the metrics made us forget that most of our projects are for humans.
So what is the right light, and how do we get it? We must first set aside what we think we know — our opinions on color temperature, our desire for neat and tidy lines of downlights, our insistence that lighting is more of an architectural element than a human right.
The right light is the light that fully supports our health and wellbeing, not just the task at hand. It is light that balances our understanding of natural light and human sight with our requirements to stay indoors all day and stay up long past dusk. It starts with biology, a subject my degrees in architecture and lighting did not include in the slightest.
Light is fundamental to our biology in ways we never expected. We have known for a century that light enters our eyes and triggers responses in our retina. We’ve known for just as long that light is filtered through a layer of cells before hitting the rod and cone cells that allow us to see.
Yet it was only 15 years ago that we learned what these filter cells do. They receive light and send signals to a part of our brain completely separate from vision or sight that itself regulates and influences a host of hormonal functions. They also send light-triggered signals to other parts of our brain that influence emotion. Light, as it turns out, works on our bodies exactly like drugs and medicines. Most of us, including myself, have been consuming this “light medicine” as prescribed by the design and construction industry without ever questioning its validity. As it turns out, our absorption of electric light in regular daily doses is having a negative effect on our health and well-being. In many cases, we’re feeding our bodies other drugs to compensate.
Our careers and modern lifestyles often result in many more indoor hours, where steady electric light keeps our bodies in a state of perpetual twilight. We live most of our lives with not as much light as the sun can give, yet far more light than we experience under the moon and stars. We end up with too much at night and too little in the day.
The quick fix is to spend all your time outdoors, where natural light and our bodies are in perfect synchronization. This won’t work for most of us. I chose to reside in a colder part of the United States and I would be rather uncomfortable if I lived in a tent year-round. A roof and walls are nice to have.
We can have the right light when we take a human-centric approach to design and enable it with carefully curated technology. We need light that comes up in the morning, changes throughout the day, and goes down at night even if we live indoors around the clock. And it isn’t just about blocking blue If you were looking for an easy recommendation, such as “always use 2,700°K light with a CRI of 90+”, then I am sorry to disappoint. That’s what we’ve lived with for 130 years, and we can do better.
the right place (layout vs. design)
I am asked on a weekly basis by prospective clients what my team of professional lighting designers can do that is different than the lighting already shown on their plans. The answer is everything. In most cases, we will change nearly every single fixture on the drawings. Even if they have the right light as discussed above, it is often in the wrong place.
The typical lighting layout is not a lighting design. It is riddled with choices made that result in a nice clean reflected ceiling plan but poor lighting. We see multi-million-dollar homes with recessed downlights between the kitchen counter and island, perfectly placed to cast shadows on both work surfaces.
Getting it right has not been as important to us as getting it to look good, or getting it done. That began to change with the concept of Aging in Place and the subsequent evolution to Living in Place. Both revealed that we need to adapt as our bodies change, that we need light for all types of eyes and all types of situations.
Human-centric lighting solutions began to catch on in special cases, such as outlining bathroom doors in amber lines of light to reduce nighttime falls by the elderly while preserving sleep to reduce the symptoms of dementia. Living in Place was just for the old and infirm, or those with the foresight to see they might become so.
Then the pandemic began and millions — no, billions — of us began living and even working in place. Suddenly, with little warning, our homes needed to adapt along with us. Spare rooms became the global headquarters of businesses. Living rooms saw more living than ever before. Our kitchens became restaurants, our utility rooms became storehouses. Does the term Living in Place mean the same thing today? Perhaps. But it applies to all of us now. And our lighting practices need to change.
When we take a hard look at typical lighting plans we see that they do not reflect our needs. You might see, for example, recessed downlights directly above the vanity sink like those I encountered recently at the Venetian in Las Vegas. They made the sink sparkle and the polished brass faucet shine – and they cast harsh shadows underneath my eyes that made me look tired and darkness under my chin where I needed to shave. That is not human-centric lighting, it is magazine-centric lighting.
We commonly see the most beautiful spaces illuminated with what we have taken to calling Gas Station Lighting, or evenly spaced recessed light fixtures on a strict geometric grid that fill the space with lumens but empty it of comfort.
We see entire modern homes illuminated with beautiful indirect light and sharp linear lines of light that completely ignore the biological reality that the direction of light matters. Light on the ceiling affects us differently than light from below the horizon line. Light in our near field of vision — where we can see without looking up or down — affects us differently than light in our periphery. Why does it all come from above?
We see a complete lack of night lighting that allows us to move safely after sunset without disturbing our sleep cycles. We see pendants hanging that introduce more glare than useable light. We see recessed downlights placed in grids that illuminate the floor exceptionally well but leave us feeling cold.
We continue to design light so the house looks good according to some current fashion trend. It need not be a binary choice — human-centric lighting and great looking architecture can work together when the design team includes the right talent. When we get it in the right place through design, the right technology will then enable the complete solution.
the right time (task, age, daytime)
It may be difficult for most of us to see that our light is in the wrong place, but it is easy to see light switches in nearly every home. Switches still exist because it is cheaper to have light in a binary setting (on and off) than to put that same light on a dimmer that can adjust to our eyes. Instead, we make our eyes — the iris, to be precise — adjust to the light. It is a clear indication that the variable of time was not considered.
Time is inevitable and with it, change. If we are to live and work in place, if we are to age in place, if we are to shelter in place comfortably and well, time and change must be included in our design thinking.
The most visible conversation in this arena lives under the moniker Circadian Lighting. This approach typically includes light that changes color temperature over the course of the day to parallel natural light, but that is simply the beginning. Much more of biology and geometry need to influence our decisions.
Age, a key factor in many Living in Place conversations, figures heavily into light. In my mid-forties, lighting standards suggest that I need twice as much light as my teenage sons to see with the same level of visual acuity. It gets worse when my parents, both in their upper 70s, come for a visit and require roughly four times as much light as my sons. Most of the rooms of my current home came with “on” and “off,” two options that do absolutely nothing to respond to the needs of the users.
Color temperature and intensity need to be adjustable based on the time of the day and our ages as well as tasks. Preparing for bed at night needs different light than packing a suitcase at noon. Angle of light should also be considered, as light above the horizon line or below affect us differently and should be used at different times of day.
There are two ways to achieve light that responds to us: constantly monitor your lighting and make tiny adjustments all day long or let technology do it quietly in the background. Advanced controls now allow users to customize their wake and rest times and let the computer take care of all the mathematics for in-between. Shifts are imperceptible and smooth, mimicking natural light and responding to our needs subconsciously. These are elegant solutions for elegant homes that get us closer to light that allows us to live well in place.
Savant controls and USAI lighting teamed up to create Daylight mode in their software to seamlessly shift color and intensity over the course of the day.
How do you recognize a good effort of what is often called Human-Centric Lighting? What makes a complete solution for Living in Place? Everything in the home should feel dif¬ferent. Light will gradually wake you in the morning and fade out gently to help your body move to rest in the evening. Light will be brighter than usual throughout the first half of the day. Light will slowly shift color temperature at dawn and dusk and mimic daylight in-between. Switches won’t exist. Light will be distributed throughout the home in layers, not just from the ceiling. Light will support your natural rhythms every day.
Properly designed lighting will adjust as you age. Lighting will help us maintain balance at night by providing visual cues of vertical and horizontal lines. Light will provide a sunny day when your mood needs it, even if it is cold and rainy outside.
We do not need to imagine this idyllic world of professionally designed lighting spaces. We can achieve this now. We can unite design, technology, science, and product to get the right light in the right place at the right time. All the time. We just need to design it into every home, luxury or custom or production.
It’s time to flip the switch on lighting and design.