Let There Be Light: Lighting & Psychology in the Built Environment

Whether we’re designing classrooms, conference rooms, or community gathering spaces, there are countless elements that go into creating the “perfect” space. Square footage, room layout, building materials, window and door placement, acoustics, furniture, paint color and décor—all of these play an important role in designing an environment that is comfortable, functional and in line with the overarching aesthetic. However, all of these elements are somewhat at the mercy of lighting, which can drastically shape our perception of a room and even impact our energy, emotions and productivity.

Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “More and more, so it seems to me, light is the beautifier of the building.” It’s true that the right lighting can elevate and beautify a given space, but it also has a unique psychological impact on the inhabitants of a building. Here are some surprising ways that light can shape our sense of comfort, focus, and perception of the environment and some examples of how SHP has applied them.

1. Light Temperature & Productivity

Color temperature is typically depicted in Kelvin (K), and the higher the color temperature, the brighter and cooler the light will be. Warm lights will make a space more welcoming and soothing, while cooler lights tend to make us feel more alert and focused. By harnessing the impact of light temperature on productivity, designers can better prepare a space for a specific activity or task. When it comes to educational facilities, for example, “we’ll use 4,000 Kelvin lights (a cool white) throughout the building, except for in sensory-specific spaces where we’ll provide color tuning lights that can shift to warmer, more calming tones,” says Sam Bohman, an electrical engineer at SHP.

2. Perception of Space

How a room or building is illuminated can dramatically shift our perception of how large or enclosed a space is. A dark ceiling, or one with shadowy corners, is commonly referred to as the “cavern effect;” depending on how the space will be used, this can be a good or bad thing. A dimmer, cozier space can be ideal for employees who need a heads-down focus space or somewhere to decompress; on the other hand, a dark ceiling in an office foyer or conference room could make inhabitants feel cramped or closed-in. Strategic uplighting can eliminate the cavern effect, making ceilings seem higher and the room more open.

3. Wayfinding

The right lighting can also affect how inhabitants navigate the built environment. Wayfinding, or how individuals orient themselves in a space and navigate from place to place, is an essential consideration when designing any building, and the right lighting can establish focal points and provide visual cues that guide people to where they need to be. Humans are innately attracted to light; incorporating conspicuous lighting around key areas like a reception desk or front office, for example, will naturally attract visitors.

4. Mental & Physical Health

Some of the best lighting available for offices, schools and libraries is shining right outside of our windows. Sunshine and natural light play a huge role in our mental and health, with regular exposure to natural light linked to improved sleep patterns and a lower risk of depression. In fact, the WELL Building Standard includes light as a way to minimize disruption to the body’s circadian system, support good sleep quality and provide appropriate visual acuity. Incorporating plenty of windows or realistic daylighting can go a long way in supporting the well-being of a building’s inhabitants (check out the glass-enclosed micro-offices we included in WCM Investment Management’s offices, which provide privacy without sacrificing access to natural daylight).

Because lighting can have a dramatic impact on how inhabitants feel and behave in their environment, designers and engineers must be intentional with how they combine and balance both natural and artificial light within a space. If an office is being built from the ground up, for instance, special attention should be given to the positioning of doors, windows, and skylights to maximize the amount of ambient natural light. If the team is working in an existing building and has no say in the building site and fenestration, on the other hand, they’ll need to be particularly thoughtful in how they integrate artificial light to complement the available natural light and enhance the well-being of its inhabitants.

The right lighting will do more than simply illuminate a space—indeed, it can have a real impact on how people feel when they walk into a room and how they interact with their environment. Careful consideration of brightness, color, and positioning of light fixtures can create spaces that make inhabitants feel comfortable and empowered to do their best work.