Posted by: BayAreaComRE | January 20, 2010

Education: Lighting Systems 101

What are the components of an office / commercial space that you typically don’t notice, but have a major impact on the place you spend nearly 30 – 50% of your living time?  Bay Area Com RE is going to give you some insight on what we think is important when evaluating new office space, the products and bones within it, and how that effects employee morale and productivity.

One such topic is lighting in the workplace. Task and ambient lighting, in an ideal world, should come from natural sunlight, however not all offices can afford such a luxury. Below we’ve detailed the various types of lighting systems in an office and their effects on the workplace.

Prismatic – It used to be common to use a prismatic lens in a troffer (light holder) to spread the light out evenly and slightly reduce glare by refracting the lamp image over greater surface area, rather than having the bare lamp visible. Studies found that glare from prismatic lenses was distracting and caused headaches because of the contrast of very high and uneven brightness above the eyes and much lower light levels at the task.

Parabolic – Prismatic lens fixtures were supplanted by polished aluminum parabolic louvers in recessed fluorescent troffers. The idea was to push the light down while eliminating excessive brightness. In fact, the louvers were so well-designed that they eliminated all fixture brightness and became dark holes in the ceiling. This allowed offices to reduce the light levels required to complete a task. With the parabolic louvers, occupants’ pupils didn’t need to contract to compensate for very bright fixtures, so they could take in more of the light available at the task. After years of using very low brightness louvers, studies discovered that occupants were actually more comfortable when they were able to identify a light source in the room. People’s primary experience of light begins with the sun and a sky. The perception of a space lighted with highly reflective parabolic louvers was repeatedly described was “cave-like” due to the dark walls and the dark ceiling (from
Indirect – Indirect lighting ostensibly makes space more comfortable and appear larger than if the openings were closer to the ground and only allowed light in nearer to the floor. But purely indirect lighting often emulates an overcast day and can have a flat and dull effect. Without the addition of brightness or points of sparkle, employees may tend to be lethargic and find it harder to work efficiently. Without access to daylight and exterior views, this effect will be exacerbated and may contribute to increased absenteeism and low morale. This situation can be helped by adding points of sparkle to a space and other points of interest that offer brightness. Replacing indirect pendants with semi-indirect (perforated housing that allows fixtures to glow) or even direct/indirect lighting (allows some light to exit the bottom of the fixture) will help mitigate the problem. Direct source lighting approximates the sun on a cloudless day; points of sparkle are like streams of light passing through branches of trees. Art work or other focal points around the perimeter to replace the ever-changing natural horizon can complement the lighting design, just as the lighting complements use of the space. The result supports productivity two ways: by providing the proper amount of light and by taking advantage of indirect but psychologically powerful effects of light on people.

It’s important to be educated about your options and also be wary of the costs of upgrading lighting to an indirect / natural combination, and whether a landlord is likely to pay for these systems or if it’s prudent to install in a building you own / operate. There’s also a lot to be said about the removal of old systems and their eventual impact on the environment when thrown in landfills. The most sustainable way to operate in commercial real estate is to utilize whatever systems are already in place, that has the smallest impact on the environment in the near term. So if your office has received the gift of great lighting, you’re already doing your part to be green.


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