A Healthy Building Demand: Opportunities for ECs in human-centered lighting

The leaves of the shameplant curl up when touched. | Shutterstock / AJAYTVM
The leaves of the shameplant curl up when touched. | Shutterstock / AJAYTVM
Published On
Mar 15, 2022

Americans spend more time inside buildings than some whale species spend underwater, according to Rich Corsi, dean of engineering and computer science at Portland State University. Imagine that.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that percentage has likely increased.

The subject of healthy buildings leads us to identify a business opportunity in the installation, service and maintenance of one type of control system, which deservedly belongs in electrical contractors’ portfolios. It goes by various names, including biocentric lighting and circadian lighting.

We prefer to call it human-centered lighting because we feel this term does the best job of suggesting its contribution to people’s health and well-being in buildings of nearly every size and type. More of the scientific literature is also integrating the human experience with technology development, making it human-centered in its design and engineering.

It also reminds us how the healthy building movement is a leading edge of the green building movement. Electric lighting accounts for 15%–20% of the energy consumed in the built environment. Fittingly, the green building movement has concentrated on energy conservation. However, it has concerned itself with the effect of energy conservation on the people inside those buildings.

Human-centered lighting is one of many checkpoints in the healthy building movement, but it is the only one that is entirely electrical. For a thumbnail perspective on it, we must recount a little bit of history and travel back nearly 300 years.

It’s 1729. French astronomer Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan is intrigued by the shameplant, appropriately nicknamed the “sensitive plant” or “touch-me-not” because of the way its small leaves immediately curl up as a defensive measure whenever something touches it. More to the point of our story, the plant folds its leaves after the sun has gone down each evening and reopens them at dawn. This everyday occurrence led de Mairan to experiment as to whether the shameplant would continue its routine if it were kept in total darkness. Inexplicably, it continued to open and close each morning and night even in 24/7 darkness. Today, we credit de Mairan for having identified the basic notion of circadian rhythm and commencing a centuries-long questioning of its biological explanation.

Debates continued for decades about the science behind circadian rhythm, which owes its name to two Latin words: “circa” for around and “dia” for day. Scientists found evidence of it in more plants and animals.

Its importance soared to a peak when three researchers in 2017 were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for having uncovered the mechanism at the molecular level that makes circadian rhythm work. They had found the tiniest of gears that makes our body clocks tick. At the most fundamental level, they could explain how flora and fauna on a planet that makes a full revolution on its axis every 24 hours had developed biological timepieces that anticipate a regular day-and-night cycle.

This nearly 300-year saga could happily end here, were it not for the fact that many of today’s sources of artificial light can wreak havoc with people’s circadian rhythm. For example, blue-light blocking glasses coatings are needed to lessen the strain on our eyes from computer screens, a similar human-centered lighting problem. On the other hand, if the color, hue and intensity of LEDs are tuned and timed properly, light landing on the human retina can produce positive effects all day long.

The opportunity here for electrical contractors, especially in service/maintenance activities in existing facilities, is in knowledgeable delivery of human-centered lighting that improves the environment of people’s workspace—or any place that it will make a positive difference—delivering an essential component of a healthy building. In the future, we can address practical ways to market and implement human-centered lighting solutions.

The label “healthy buildings” can easily be mistaken as the designation for countermeasures against the COVID pandemic. Of course, it is not. The healthy buildings movement began many years ago. But it may benefit from the pandemic in an unanticipated way. Just as the experience of people coming of age in the Great Depression produced a generation of penny-wise savers, the COVID-19 era may give us a new generation possessing a profound sense of the questions and answers surrounding physical and mental health and wellness. That’s when human-centered lighting will really shine.

About the Author

Andrew P. McCoy and Fred Sargent

SARGENT is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com. MCCOY is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and department head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson...

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