Light Pollution within our Workspaces by Sarah Dodsworth

October 5, 2023

When we look at lighting in the UK, especially compared to other European countries, it’s hard not to think we have an obsession with over-lighting. From the proliferation of motorway and streetlights to the chaotic myriad of illuminated building signs, we seem to believe more is more at every stage. Then, when we get inside buildings, the mania reaches a whole other level. 

There’s obviously a wider discussion to be had here about light pollution, human health and the impact of over-lighting on wildlife and the environment, especially seeing how much wildlife returned to our built environments during lockdown. Some areas of the UK are notably starting to introduce measures right now to protect the environment through a dark skies policy. From the point of view of an interior designer, however, I’d like to focus on how we use light in building interiors. The workplace is especially moot as a subject area, given hospitality offers a much cleaner canvas in terms of freedom to design around the creation of mood and ambience.   

My greatest frustration, as a specialist in the workplace arena, is how hard it is to influence schemes when there’s already a huge trail of custody in place before we even get to the briefing stage. What we’re always looking to achieve overall is a unique, tailored and special office environment that expresses the precise culture of a particular client or business. When it comes to lighting, we seek to layer schemes with fittings of differing visual styles and types that address all planes of an interior space – the ceilings, walls, floor and surfaces. Our focus is on lighting the actual workspace rather than the whole space, not only as a practical response to how and where light is needed, but also to embody a sustainable approach. Excess is simply not justifiable at any level! 

As our understanding of people at work evolves, we also now look to deliver schemes that support agility, work missions, personality types and neurodiversity. All of which takes us in the same direction – towards specific designs offering specific solutions to specific challenges. Social and high energy spaces need to be punchier in terms of illumination levels, for example, while quiet, focussed areas should be more subdued, with neat integrated details and more often than not a task lamp the user has the choice to use – or not. It all sounds rather simple, doesn’t it? And yet we are still at the mercy of so many factors that limit our ability and imaginations. 

What lies in our path? First, the fact that building technical lighting design solutions in Cat A projects remain heavily influenced by engineers who design solutions that conform to building regulation standards and CIBSE guidance. Not their fault, of course. These are the standards developers and clients are advised to adhere to – and statutory ways always seem to win out. We acknowledge totally that there are a huge amount of technical considerations to resolve, but often the end result is over lighting, with too many fittings in a strictly regimented format, leading to a stark, flat and generally uninspiring interior. Not only is this uninviting, but it can create an overwhelming experience, visually and sensorially. As a person who suffers from migraine auras, this is particularly pertinently-felt. 

If building regulations clip the wings of possibility, ceiling heights are the compounding frustration. When we start on a scheme in a new-build environment, it’s incredibly difficult – not to mention very off-message commercially and sustainably – to suggest a complete strip-out of perfectly good, recently-installed CAT A interior infrastructure, which unfortunately often includes built-in ceilings. 

Where is the space for change? The biggest change needs to come in the domain of building regulations, so this is our call-out first of all for amendments in favour of a clearer understanding of progressive, creative solutions that reflect contemporary thinking around wellbeing, sustainability, ways of working and creative excellence. 

Secondly, we need more comprehension and willingness to experiment on the part of developers. The good news is we are beginning to see just that, especially in London, where, in spite of my Northern pride, I have to admit the waves of change often begin! Of course, developers need to show potential Cat B clients something a little more literal and indicative than a shell and core environment sometimes, just as a show flat sells empty residential apartments. If a developer only fits out one or two floorplates of a larger building, however, they can still achieve this, while at the same time creating a freer creative canvas for interior – and lighting – designers to work their magic and fulfil a huge variety of micro interior workspace briefs. 

A clearer vision of how natural and artificial lighting can work together in an optimal way can be seen by taking a trip elsewhere in Europe – particularly to Scandinavia. Having viewed a number of excellent schemes there recently, most particularly in Copenhagen, I was struck by the subtlety and balance of workplace lighting designs, with 50% of light outputs shining upwards to bounce off the ceiling plane, allowing the required amounts of light across the workplace to be implemented in a much more diffuse way. When a pendant is introduced to define a breakaway setting – or an attractive linear fitting suspended a little lower over a coffee island unit – the impact is really effective, defining the space as somewhere a little different and not competing with an already-over lit and visually-fussy space. 

We love nothing more than working with amazing decorative lighting designers to respond to culture, function and mood – and being able to use portable task lighting to individualise space even further in a move away from generic and mass effects too. The only problem when task lighting is too good, however? People steal them! Darn – there’s always something, isn’t there?