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Lighting conditions affect our health and wellbeing in more complex ways than we assumed

The disruption of circadian cycles on a regular basis by light conditions can increase the likelihood of certain diseases, writes Paul Finch

It wasn’t environmental or aesthetic considerations which led to the embanking of the Thames and indirectly to the creation of modern London: it was stench and the fear of cholera. Similarly it was not the principles and theory of town planning which led to the end of a fog and smog-bound capital: it was the Clean Air Acts, introduced to combat death and disease.

So architects and planners should be ever-mindful of the health implications of what it is they are proposing, and on alert for research in the fields of both physical and mental health, which may influence the way we design health buildings and our entire built environment.

I was reminded of this at two half-day seminars (which I had the pleasure to chair) at the Building Centre, part of the recent excellent London Design Festival. Sponsored by Cantifix, the specialist architectural glass manufacturer, the events accompanied the construction of an extraordinary all-glass pavilion outside, part of an experiment called the Photon Project.

The four-year programme, which is being conducted with researchers from the University of Oxford, is investigating the effects of daylight on the human body, in particular relation to circadian rhythms. These cycles are controlled by light conditions and are part of our biological make-up. Their disruption on a systematic basis can increase the likelihood of certain diseases and conditions; the phenomenon of jet lag, for example.

There could easily be political, financial and practical outcomes stemming from what we are finding out; the Danish government has already accepted that health staff doing shift work have become more likely to suffer greater levels of ill-health (and therefore should be compensated financially). Understanding why is part of the experiment, but we already know that the way light affects us, by constantly adjusting the resetting of our body clocks, is more complex than we recently assumed.

Until a few years ago we believed that light affected us via the eye, specifically via the rods and cones behind the retina. However, experiments on blind people showed that their body clocks still respond to light via the skin, but the clock sets itself slightly differently to sighted people for reasons still unknown.

Talks by experts including professors Steve Lockley (Harvard Medical School) and Marilyne Andersen (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) provided fascinating details on work being undertaken to further understand what the body does - for example how it keeps circadian cycles in play during space flight, or the implication of major traffic accidents on sleep patterns.

Much of the Photon Project work is about natural light, explaining the interest of Cantifix and other glass-related companies such as Velux. But photons created by electric light are no different to those created by sunlight. Philips’ chief design officer Sean Carney described products to help keep circadian cycles in rhythm that can be controlled by your iPhone.

This sounded very useful for people living where daylight is either near-perpetual or rare, the critical thing being to generate significant contrast to trigger resetting of the body clock at appropriate times, and understanding what sort of light stimulates (blue) and what calms (red, counter-intuitively).

We don’t have to despair if lighting conditions are poor, we have to plan and design. But the replication of natural light, apart from being technically difficult to achieve, does have significant financial implications: why not use what nature is providing for free? And, as the architect Brent Richards beautifully demonstrated, the cultural and experiential context for the experience of light lie deep in our individual and collective psyches.

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