Biodynamic lighting: facts and fiction

Sponsored by Waldmann Lighting

Jim Ashley-Down 
UK Managing Director of Waldmann Lighting

As the dust settles on LuxLive 2018, Lux Review talks to Jim Ashley-Down, UK managing director of Waldmann Lighting.

Lux Review: We’re just out of LuxLive 2018 and it feels that we still have contradictions in the industry about the state of biodynamic lighting. What are your feelings about this?

Jim Ashley-Down: It’s interesting to see where the uncertainty is coming from. Most schemes that we’re involved in are not being driven by lighting designers. The majority of Swiss and German schemes are being driven by the end users. In care homes, one of our major marketplaces, projects are often practitioner-driven – from the people doing the actual day-to-day work in these buildings. These projects are then spoken about at professional conferences where there is the opportunity to expand the awareness of biodynamic lighting across the care sector. The lighting design community almost never engages at this level.

The recent project at the perinatal clinic at University Hospital, Bonn, was championed by its chief consultant, Dr Soyhan Bagci. Through his academic links he knows the work of Professor Herbert Plischke (professor for light and health at the University of Munich), and out of that connection developed the biodynamic lighting brief to Waldmann. Such professional individuals work at a national level and are not necessarily engaged only at one clinic. This means there is the opportunity for them to assess, albeit crudely, comparisons between biodynamic and non-biodynamic schemes. It makes it easier to see where the benefits accrue.

LR: Do you see more of the lighting designer in commercial projects?

JA-D: Commercial biodynamic projects are typically driven by the end user or the architect. Again, rarely is there a lighting designer involved. However, although I think that the manufacturing companies may be chasing the wrong people (lighting designers), there is still a requirement for the lighting designer to know how this works because the biodynamic framework still needs to function within an overall aesthetic design. It’s the manufacturers that are working out what the framework looks like, not the design community, and that’s where we need to improve our communications across the sector.

The traditional lighting designer is protective of their design skills and don’t want to feel that their design judgment is being compromised, whether by ‘standard’ practice or, especially, a manufacturer. You can’t do a ‘bit’ of biodynamic lighting – you either do all of it, or none of it. Lighting designers may be happy to hand over small percentages of a project to ‘specialisms’, but when it’s the overwhelming majority of the design, that’s a very different thing. On the other hand, the consulting ‘lighting engineer’ is better used to working with manufacturers in this way. After all, historically, it’s often the manufacturers who produce the detailed specification on behalf of the consulting engineering team. But it’s the scale of the task that’s at issue here.

JB: We’re seeing a leap forward in the technical performance of LED technology. Is this a help or hindrance when it comes to promoting biodynamic lighting?

JA-D: I think the recent developments in LED technology, such as Seoul Semiconductors’ Sunlike LED, are a good thing. It means we can all apply better technology at the core of our system design.

But we’re still faced with the basic issue that much human centric lighting comes down to tunable white light. And even referring to that technology as ‘human centric’ is wrong. Without engaging with biodynamic principles, which require a proper performance strategy, these products just offer tunable white light – that is all. Just making it cool in the morning and warm in the evening does not make it biodynamic. The technology behind it has been around for a long time; it’s just another version of colour changing, when all’s said and done. We used to do it with fluorescent and now with LED. The technology improvements have made it easier, but they are not the driver behind it.

We’ve also seen recently a new emphasis on vertical illuminance. There’s nothing new in this. We’ve worked on the principle of 250 lx+ at the eye for a number of years. But from the design point of view, establishing vertical illuminance metrics can be a style-changer and that might upset a few people. But we really should remember that performance metrics aren’t unique to biodynamic lighting; we have very similar requirements within LG7 criteria (SLL Lighting Guide 7: offices). The only real difference is that we would say biodynamic lighting works best when the light is produced via uplighting from suspended or freestanding fixtures.

And the argument that biodynamic schemes can’t be guaranteed because the designer has no control over room colours and furniture finishes also has to be challenged. These are factors that are fundamental to the make-up of any lighting scheme, not just in the biodynamic environment. If the client brief requires a biodynamic environment, then the effort required to produce that needs to come as a result of a team effort, especially regarding the surface colours and reflectance. It’s not satisfactory to consider ‘biodynamics’ as an individual specialism, within lighting or otherwise; a holistic design approach means a much better chance of success.

LR: Visual Timing Light (Leben Braucht Licht, by Carolina Heske and Derungs Licht AG, part of the Waldmann group) was published in 2013.  Have recent developments altered any of the guidance in the book?

JA-D: Visual Timing Light was aimed at lighting in care homes for the elderly. If anything, we’ve since learned that it’s really important that biodynamic design principles should run throughout the building, not just within discrete spaces. Also, we’ve come to better understand that there are two user groups in this type of environment – the residents and the staff. There will always be a conflict between the two groups and this means we have to seek an acceptable compromise. There is far more to take into account, but you can’t design a single lit environment for both groups. Staff need lighting that suits their shift patterns, and the residents need reinforcement of their circadian cycle to ensure a good night’s sleep. These two things can’t both be done at the same time in the same place.

But we also have to remember that the ‘go to sleep’ indicators are not just being given by the lighting – lighting only supports the message. There are other things in play – physical activity in the evening, meal times, room temperatures, for example, are all relevant. It’s a 24-hour controlled environment for the residents but not for staff, who go home after their shift. Shift working is an enduring problem. We can try to support it with biodynamic lighting, but the external factors will always have an influence.

LR: There’s a growing argument that good daylighting removes the need for biodynamic artificial lighting.

JA-D: Apart from shift workers, most people who work conventional hours need to be supported by biodynamic lighting. We have to remember that in the urban environment, even with large expanses of glass, there is often limited access to daylight because of surrounding buildings and deep floorplates without even a direct view of the sky from the lower floors. And there is no lighting designer who can influence the placement or orientation of a building. Consequently, we have to work with the buildings that we’re given – and I’ve never come across a building that was designed with lighting in mind, apart from an idealised conception of what daylighting design can achieve.

LR: The lack of real research into biodynamic lighting is often used as an excuse not to engage with it. In your view, what constitutes real research into biodynamic lighting?

JA-D: Evidence from the perinatal clinic showed that identifiable shifts attributable to biodynamic lighting only occurred after day three (compared to a control group where no changes were indicated). What it suggests is that some recent research, such as an overnight analysis based on a voyeuristic environment, enclosing its subjects in a glass box on the street, open to the view of passers-by, is simply pointless. No validity can be read into any results that may come from that kind of exercise.

We also have anecdotal evidence from other care homes going back as far as 10 to 12 years, where improvements in the sleeping and other behavioural traits of the residents were noted by the care home workers and medical practitioners after the installation of the biodynamic lighting.

Property companies not feeling confident about pursuing biodynamic solutions are probably not really looking for the evidence and data to make them feel confident. There is so much conflicting information in the media, even in the lighting media. The negativity around biodynamic lighting is a consequence of ignoring the results of the real trials that are taking place. Perhaps manufacturers need to be more proactive in promoting the results of the trials and studies, but so many in the design and construction community feel the manufacturers have a ‘commercial’ interest more than a ‘best practice’ interest, which is a shame, as this really isn’t the case with so many good manufacturers.

LR: Biodynamic lighting is expensive. Is it realistic to expect an acceptable return on investment for such schemes?

JA-D: Yes! It’s entirely about the money. Make a 10 per cent improvement on your energy use and make a 0.1 per cent improvement on your overall costs. Make a 10 per cent improvement on your staff wellbeing and make a nine per cent improvement on your business costs. And that nine per cent improvement can pay for ALL of your energy costs and then some. We’ve been chasing the wrong metrics recently – the energy-saving story is old hat now. Besides, we’re only asking people to perform at their optimal best – their individual 100 per cent. The role of the biodynamic environment is to help people achieve that 100 per cent, not to push them beyond it.

It’s not just the lighting. Ergonomics, VOCs, visual environment, temperature, diet – they all contribute to the wellbeing of a building’s occupants. Producing buildings to the WELL Building Standard is an expensive exercise, but these buildings would not be built unless there was already a sound cost case to make for them. Less absenteeism, optimum productivity, staff retention are all positive factors in justifying a healthy building, in which biodynamic lighting is a significant contributor.

The WELL Standard is the benchmark to which we currently have to aspire. The more of these buildings that can be built, the lower the cost will become. And that is something to which we should all look forward.