Natural light in workplace design

Cultivating a healthy indoor environment can begin with sound daylighting strategies
Thursday, May 2, 2019
By Brandon Tinianov

Over the past two decades, the green building movement has transformed the principles of good building design. First and foremost, it has driven wider adoption of energy-efficient technologies and sustainable materials and methods. As the movement has grown, it has also matured to address the building’s impact on occupants.
Progressive organizations are taking note of the added value this more holistic approach can deliver in both operational and organizational excellence. They have a strong motivation to do so. People are a company’s largest expense, comprising the vast majority of organizational costs. Therefore, facility improvements that also improve the health, comfort and productivity of employees — even by a small amount — have a significant impact on the bottom line.

Impact of poor workplace design
Unfortunately, most workplaces are not designed to maximize the wellness and work-related performance of employees. Following architectural trends, modern office buildings employ large glass facades to maximize natural light. On the surface, research shows that additional natural light delivers a wide range of health and productivity benefits. But traditional windows lack the ability to properly manage the amount of daylight penetrating into the workplace, which contributes to a number of negative outcomes.

Windows can also increase the solar heat gain of a building, a negative for employees who experience thermal discomfort and turn up the air conditioning, and the employer who loses employee focus and absorbs increased energy expenditures. Unwanted glare is also a common byproduct of offices with large glass areas. To manage heat and glare, employees or facility management teams often pull down window shades, potentially creating a new issue. This inverse condition — no exposure to natural light and views of the outdoors — can be just as detrimental.
View Inc., a maker of auto-tinting ‘smart’ windows, recently conducted a long-term study of employees at Canada Lands Co., a tenant of Oxford Properties, located in Toronto’s financial district. The research findings linked the integration of optimized and controlled daylight and views to significant improvements in the tenant’s overall employee experience and productivity.

After moving from an office with regular windows to another in the same building with smart windows, employees reported significant reductions in vision-related health incidents, including a 78 per cent reduction in eye strain, an 80 per cent reduction in headaches and 91 per cent less drowsiness. At the end of the five-month study, employees also reported being three times more excited to come to work, four times prouder of their office and five times more likely to rate their office as healthy and productive.

From a cost management and building efficiency standpoint, the study found the technology led to a significant reduction in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) demand and usage, reducing interior temperatures by up to 12 F, and saved between 21 and 32 per cent of HVAC costs over similar floors.
The key takeaway is that cultivating a healthy indoor environment starts outside. Organizations should optimize building facade design so that it provides workers with continuous access to views (ideally of nature) and regulates light levels to ensure employees enjoy thermal comfort throughout the day.

Daylight and views: The prescription for a better office
It is clear that employee performance and outlook are connected to the environmental conditions in which they work.
So, what can organizations do to promote office conditions that support the well-being of their workforce?

Employee preferences point the way. Natural light is the most requested element within the workplace but organizations must be strategic when implementing this element to maximize its benefits and neutralize its unintended side effects.
Meanwhile, sunlight is not the only natural element to prioritize in workplace design. The benefits of nature within the workspace (for example, plants and water features) and a bright office environment with nature-inspired accent colours like green, yellow, blue and brown are also well-documented.

Another advantage of incorporating a sound natural daylighting strategy is energy efficiency through reduced heating, cooling and lighting costs. Further, green building rating systems such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the WELL building standard and Fitwel also credit designs that incorporate daylight and other natural elements. These benefits extend beyond energy efficiency to also enable a healthier, more productive workforce.

Facility executives have an opportunity and obligation to create the ideal office environment for their most valuable assets. By approaching workplace design with a focus on natural elements, chief among them natural light, they can create a more healthy, empowered and productive workforce.

Brandon Tinianov’s 25-year career has been dedicated to product innovation and commercialization in the field of energy efficiency and building technology. As View Inc.’s vice-president of industry strategy, he leads its value-based product strategy and industry engagement. Brandon has managed multiple nationally accredited laboratories for acoustic, fire testing, heat transfer and physical properties.

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