Putting people first: lighting for wellbeing

How do we balance wellbeing, efficiency and cost when designing and commissioning commercial lighting? Whitecroft Lighting’s Tim Bowes says cutting carbon shouldn’t be at the expense of occupants’ welfare

Buildings are here for one reason – people. Lighting in commercial buildings should balance a range of priorities to deliver comfortable, stimulating, and welcoming spaces that put people first.

New lighting standards are moving away from task-based design towards a more space-orientated approach, but project decisions are still often dictated by capital cost, energy efficiency and carbon reduction, rather than by the welfare and productivity of people.

Calculations by the World Green Building Council a decade ago found that, on average, a typical business spends 9% of its revenue on rent, 90% on salaries and benefits, and only 1% on energy. However, I regularly see businesses with the sole focus of reducing that 1%, which can inadvertently impact the wellbeing of staff.

This has been driven in part, perhaps, by guidelines and industry priorities post-Covid, which have shifted the focus from health and wellbeing to reducing carbon.

End-user engagement is important to achieve buy-in because people are often averse to change

New legislation

For existing buildings, this decision-making process has been exaggerated recently by changes in legislation, which will force thousands of businesses, schools and universities to source alternative lighting. The quality and effectiveness of that new lighting, however – and its ability to embrace comfort, safety and productivity – will be determined by the questions asked upfront by the people specifying and designing the lighting system.

I regularly speak to businesses about how best to make this transition. Some organisations have grasped it as an opportunity to not only switch to LEDs, but also to consider a range of long-term benefits from their new lighting, such as controls to deliver low-energy solutions.

Others have taken a more conservative approach by choosing lighting solutions that satisfy the lower end of the compliance spectrum and seeking only to reduce that 1% of revenue dedicated to energy. This short-term approach has the potential to cause issues later.

Making people part of change

I recall a conversation with a facilities manager at a large local authority, who felt that current guidance wasn’t fit for purpose and was responsible for the negative response to a recent office refit. Fluorescent lighting was upgraded to LED, resulting in staff complaining of excessive brightness and flicker, which caused headaches, loss of concentration, and even absenteeism.

The lighting refit had been guided by just two principals: improving energy efficiency and achieving 500Lux. No thought had been given to factors such as glare, colour temperature or the regulation of lighting levels via the use of controls. Crucially, no effort was made to tell employees in advance about the change, its rationale, and what to expect. 

End-user engagement is important to achieve buy-in, because people are often instinctively averse to change, and without adequate information they are more likely to push back.

Whitecroft regularly suggests producing information cards for workstations before a refit, to explain what is going to happen, why, and what to expect. For example, the lighting may feel different and may be cooler, but it is in line with best practice.

Take control of change

Another option open to clients is to make gradual changes using lighting controls, to give people time to adjust. While this used to be complex, there are now freely available apps and control systems, such as Whitecroft’s Organic Response, that allow the owner to take much greater control of adaptations.

By managing the change in this way, the owner can fine-tune the solution for users’ comfort while also helping to satisfy carbon targets, energy costs and the bottom line. These factors are important and should be used to drive change and innovation, but not to the detriment of people.

The savings an organisation can achieve by reducing its 1% energy cost should be an important part of a business case for change, but must always be balanced with wider considerations, such as the long-term welfare of employees – which is where 90% of costs are incurred.

A great example of this in action is the Cundall office, One Carter Lane, London, which became Europe’s first Well-certified office. This people-centric approach has contributed to a 27% drop in staff turnover and 50% lower absenteeism. Like many of the best buildings, One Carter Lane demonstrates lighting that is resilient and adaptable to the shifting priorities of today, so that it can continue to be fit for purpose for tomorrow.

About the author
Tim Bowes is head of academy for Whitecroft Lighting, light concept adviser for the Well Standard, and chair of the Education and Membership Committee for the Society of Light and Lighting.