Invisible Benefits – The Human Impact of Good Daylighting

18 June 2019 Kingspan Light + Air
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If you have ever spent any amount of time in a poorly lit room with no fresh air, you will know how draining and demoralizing it can feel. Even in less extreme conditions, the amount of light and air in a space can have a notable impact on our health, our productivity and our general wellbeing. It is therefore vital that this is taken into consideration by architects, and that every building is designed to safeguard these elements.

Educational facilities are a clear context in which well-considered daylighting and ventilation strategies have proven benefits for occupants.

Lighting the Way

In 1999, Heschong Mahone Group conducted a comprehensive study analysing the connection between daylighting levels in classrooms and the academic performance of over 21,000 primary school pupils in the US. It found that students who worked in spaces with high levels of daylight progressed 20% faster in maths tests and 26% faster on reading tests. 

There are several reasons for this:

  • Daylight through windows and skylights is more diffused than artificial ceiling lights, providing a more even illuminance of objects and people.

  • Natural daylight contains all the color wavelengths visible to the human eye. It is the ideal lighting source for color rendition, allowing pupils to identify colors and shades more clearly and engage better with educational resources.

  • Access to high levels of natural light will reinforce the children’s natural circadian rhythms, making them feel more awake and ready to learn during the day and to sleep better at night.

  • Artificial lights, particularly those containing fluorescent tubes, can have a noticeable flicker that is distracting. This can also result in headaches and eye strain. 

Of course, it is not a case of simply flooding the space with as much daylight as possible. Excessive levels of sunlight can cause disruptive and even disabling glare and increase the room temperature beyond what is thermally comfortable. These issues need to be managed by designers through careful consideration of the maximum and minimum light levels a room will receive, and implementation of shading measures or the selection of diffusive materials such as nano-prismatic polycarbonate glazing.

Breathe Easy

Increasing the amount of fresh air in classrooms can also positively impact students’ learning. A 2012 research program improved the ventilation rates of 16 classrooms, monitoring over 200 pupils’ performance on computerized tasks before and after. It showed a marked improvement in the speed and accuracy of responses for Choice Reaction, Color-Word Vigilance, Picture Memory and Word Recognition at the higher ventilation rates compared with the low ventilation conditions.

Poor indoor air quality due to airborne pollutants from both in and outdoors can cause a range of issues. These include symptoms from headaches and itchy noses, throats and eyes to lethargy and difficulty concentrating, as well as potentially aggravating more serious issues such as asthma. Children are particularly vulnerable to these concerns as they have a higher breathing rate, resulting in them inhaling more pollutants per body weight than adults. This issue is compounded in classrooms, which often have a high occupancy density. A study found that every 100 parts per million increase in CO2  resulted in school attendance decreasing by approximately one-half day per year.

There are several ways architects can help to ensure good levels of natural ventilation, such as:

  • Considering different types and sources of ventilation. Windows are an obvious inlet for fresh air. Openings that are high in the room, such as skylights, allow for the hottest, stalest air to escape more efficiently. 

  • Allowing for these inlets to be user-controlled as far as possible. This enables teachers to manage the classroom environment under different circumstances. For example, varying numbers of students or colder weather.

  • High ceilings can also help to absorb stale air. However, this is not the only effective solution, and good ventilation is still necessary.

  • While natural ventilation is preferable, mechanical ventilation may be necessary in some cases. Utilizing mechanical ventilation with a heat recovery system can help to increase energy efficiency.

​An Expanding Approach

The lessons of effective daylighting and ventilation are, of course, not just restricted to educational buildings. Various studies on the impact of daylighting in healthcare buildings suggest that patients with greater access to daylight feel more positive and recover quicker after operations, are under less stress and need less pain relief and can be discharged much faster. Meanwhile in the workplace, workers in environments with optimised ventilation have been found to score 31% better in crisis-response questions, 299% better on information usage, and 288% higher in strategy

There are also financial incentives. In addition to natural systems reducing reliance on artificial lighting and ventilation, the World Green Building Council found that building owners consider healthy buildings to be worth at least 7% more than standard ones, as well as being easier to let and earning superior rates.

Wider Impact

There is a mounting body of evidence that shows our buildings have a huge impact on our health and wellbeing. By designing spaces with ample light and air flowing through them, architects can not only create properties that are more desirable to people but, in the longer-term, make a real impact in the communities they sit within: students are given the best environment for learning, patients can heal faster, workers are more productive, and society as a whole can live happier and healthier.

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