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Office life is in an important transition phase

An interview with Ellen Kathrine Hansen, the Double Dynamic Lighting research project manager

Published: 22 Dec 2020
“We can never recreate natural light, but we can understand some of the qualities of natural light and we can try to translate them into design parameters”, said Ellen Kathrine Hansen, director of the Lighting Design Master Program at Aalborg University in Copenhagen and head of the Double Dynamic Lighting research project on lighting in the workplace. “In the DDL project we tried to get inspired by the beauty and functionality in natural light, and tried to meet people’s need to connect to nature”.
Office life is in an important transition phase

Ellen Kathrine Hansen, Head of Lighting Design Master
program at Aalborg University in Copenhagen and head of
the Double Dynamic Lighting research project on lighting
in the workplace.

There is a word that describes that need: “biophilia” (from the Greek words: βίος or life and ϕιλία or friendship). It is a term that was first used by the philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and then taken up and reshaped to suit the meaning that interests us by the naturalist Edward O. Wilson. This bond between human beings and their natural environment is often deliberately blocked by architecture and urban planning. Biophilic design, on the other hand, is an approach that seeks to combine the artificial with the natural in order to improve the wellbeing of the people who live in or cross these spaces. In Lighthinking we have examined, on numerous occasions, the effects of light conditions on people’s circadian rhythms and, therefore, also on their health. Over the last three years, Double Dynamic Lighting has conducted several experiments in order to achieve the goal of “aligning” indoor and outdoor lighting in the context of a work space.

“When we talk about connecting to nature we look very much at the sky, at how it changes with its different colors and different sky types. There is a lot of research that shows us that we need some dynamics during the day. If we are outside we experience these changes all the time”. At work, however, we tend to underestimate the consequences of light on our health, wellbeing and motivation. We are used to offices that are all lit in the same way (non dynamic, with even light level and distribution) and we take it for granted that there is no alternative. Perhaps we even think that the rear lighting of our computer screens renders all other forms of light superfluous. In fact, the exact opposite is true, as we all need to feel that we are a part of the natural environment and the day’s cycle.
At work, however, we tend to underestimate the consequences of light on our health, wellbeing and motivation.

Double Dynamic Lighting research project

“We can track the sky and make an ambient lighting that follows the rhythm of the day. At the same time we have a direct light on the task area for each person. This direct light should be personalized so that you can adjust it to meet your needs or mood of the day or the task you’re working on”.

But a once and for all lighting design is not enough. Neither is a computer that will analyse the external environment at any latitude and adapt the internal lighting conditions of any building to suit it. The range of possible contexts is too great to find a single solution for everything. Given the complexity of the issue we are facing, the best way to tackle it is to go back to its roots and study the effects of the atmosphere on the people who are experiencing it. It is easy to see why this kind of research cannot be limited to collecting measurements and quantity data. “We’re very advanced in doing research within lighting technology with an engineering approach, we are very good at making lab experiments, isolating the factors and testing one parameter at a time. To me it’s very important that we also do parallel research on the qualitative effects of light: so we draw on other scientific methodologies, such as psychology and anthropology”.
Office life is in an important transition phase

Different combinations of artificial and natural light.

Hansen believes in a holistic or interdisciplinary approach to this issue and she does not try to hide the difficulties involved in a research project that is based on the active and eloquent collaboration of its participants: “It’s very difficult to actually find out how people feel in a space and how it affects them and to make them talk about how they experience light. In order to ask about the perceived atmosphere it’s not enough to make a questionnaire where you cross out multiple answers, you have to help people express themselves about how they feel. One way we developed that we’re very fond of was that we had 30 cards with different words on, and we asked people to choose 3 cards for each lighting scenario they were exposed to. Then when we started interviewing them we had a very good starting point, because we could ask into those words: why did you choose "cheerful" or "dull" or "clinical" or "natural"? I even took the test myself and experienced the drive to talk about light in a new way”.

The goal of the Double Dynamic Lighting project has been to examine, not just visual comfort and perceived atmosphere but also the motivation of the people who work within it. Hansen is cautious. She says that the project has not produced any decisive scientific evidence, but she does underline its vast scale and the range of information collected from participants by asking them questions like “Do you feel like working for longer? Do you feel more awake? Do you take more days off sick than normal? How do you sleep?”. What is at stake, in fact, is not just the chance to go home with your eyes a little less red: “We are in the middle of a very important transition; it’s not a matter of being able to see what you are doing; most of our jobs are from self illuminated screens. The future of the workplace is in being together, being creative. This is definitely the way to go as a company to show that you are serious about your employees and want to create the best conditions for people working there. I think it’s very important that the research environment and the industry help each other to communicate this to the end users and the customers. I believe that we need to keep on developing research methods and even though we find just a little every time, it will take us further”.