Trick is to get light just right for our health - and wealth
Biologists, light physicists and architects are collaborating to make your day at the office less of a drag.
As the relentless desert sun beats on the façades of UAE skyscrapers, millions of dirhams are spent to keep office workers cool and their workspace well lit.
But science tells us that we may be cool but not necessarily comfortable, well lit but probably not healthy. Extended periods of working in artificial air and light conditions can lead to sick building syndrome: depression from lack of sunlight, irritated lungs and increased sickness from air-conditioning.
These uncomfortable conditions lead to increased absenteeism from work and a downturn in productivity. Research-driven solutions made easily accessible to architects could be the cure.
Simply put, architects face an environmental and health conundrum when building in the Middle East. Too much sunlight causes glare, reduces comfort, and can lead to overheating. But blocking out the sun increases the need for artificial lighting.
There are biological mechanisms to take into consideration too. The recent discovery of new non-visual sensors in the eye has shown how experiencing daylight helps synchronise our circadian rhythms - our innate biological clocks - with the day and night cycle of the world around us, a cycle that we have adapted to over millions of years.
Getting a building's light exposure just right is like trying to square a circle, but research shows that it comes with many rewards, ultimately in the form of financial savings.
Although everyone wants a room with a view, minimising the heat that enters the façades facing the sun can significantly cut a building's energy tab.
Solutions include redirecting the sunlight deep into the buildings, either with innovative lenses on windows or with lighting tubes that filter light from the roof on to ceiling lights.
This cuts the reliance on artificial lighting, leading to greater employee satisfaction and reduced absenteeism.
Designing buildings that respond to the environment as well as the needs of the users is picking up traction in the architectural world.
To better understand the effects of daylight on biological rhythms and to develop design interfaces that respond to these results, a research team at EPFL in Switzerland is using the UAE climate and the architectural heat/light conundrum as a case study.
Marilyne Andersen, a professor at EPFL, is aiming to offer tools for architects to create attractive sustainable buildings that respond to users' comfort.
A major challenge lies in translating the findings of physics, biology, and materials science, as well as technological developments into a language that architects can easily understand and make use of.
By combining this information with biological data on how people are affected by light at home or at work, she is developing an interactive online tool to help architects design buildings that are better adapted to the local climate.
Many of the eye-catching skyscrapers in the UAE could have been built anywhere in the world. And while this lends an unmistakably 21th century, cosmopolitan atmosphere that we are simultaneously drawn to and alienated by, it begs the question: "Should the same type of architecture be used in Chicago as in Dubai?"
Dr Franco Vigliotti is dean of EPFL Middle East.
Updated: September 16, 2012 04:00 AM