Make human-centric lighting the center of a post-pandemic built environment (MAGAZINE)

Sept. 8, 2020
The advanced capabilities of human-centric or circadian lighting and controls can and should deliver a new level of enrichment and safety indoors, says JAMES TU of Energy Focus.

The novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, responsible for COVID-19, has abruptly and drastically reduced the frequency and degree of common physical interactions, and caused global economies to shrink by unprecedented magnitudes. With heightened awareness of pandemic risks, what will the “new normal” be like? How will the lighting industry both cope and evolve in the post COVID-19 age that is destined to reshape the economic climate and infrastructure landscape?

Lighting is hands down the most visible and universal technology humans are exposed to in the built environment. In the modern world, people spend approximately 90% of the time indoors, mostly with the lights on, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Even outdoors, during evening hours, lighting is still required to accompany human activities. In the digital, post-COVID-19 world, LED lighting has an advantageous position to become the control hub that seamlessly brings together technologies for enriching human lives. Already, advanced solid-state lighting (SSL) systems can provide more amicable and productive human-centric lighting, which has also been described as circadian lighting but literally and broadly represents lighting that could benefit human health and physiology (for a more specific focus on circadian lighting, see "Circadian principles require a new light language" from this issue).

All of this means lighting needs to deliver far more than illumination, and SSL needs to deliver far more than energy savings. Lighting needs to disrupt and transcend itself to become truly human centric, not unlike many other modern technologies that changed human lives such as personal computers, smartphones, and e-commerce. For lighting to transcend its eponymous purpose, it needs to integrate and synergize with other exponential technologies — including electronics, software, sensors, wireless communications, Internet, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence or machine learning — to provide far more human-centric, non-energy benefits.

How impactful could human-centric lighting be? According to the World Green Building Council, typical business operating expenses and staff costs account for 90% of total operating expenses, with rent and energy accounting for 9% and 1%, respectively. If lighting accounts for 20% of an organization’s energy costs and LEDs reduce half of the lighting energy costs, LED lighting is able to reduce 0.1% of all expenses. On the other hand, numerous studies have shown significant increases in productivity and learning efficiency with human-centric designs. In a study by University College of London, an experimental workplace with circadian lighting installed played a role in boosting productivity by up to 20% while making employees 38% calmer and 10% more focused than their colleagues in a traditional office. A 20% increase in productivity would translate into benefits of at least 18% of total expenses versus 0.1% from energy savings. That’s 180 times the value of energy savings just by providing controllable circadian lighting.

Despite the overwhelming benefits, so far circadian lighting is mostly seen in new, ultrahigh-end residential buildings (i.e., the “1%” market), and it is nearly non-existent in retrofit applications or commercial buildings. Since human-centric lighting is enabled by complex controls, its adoption is hindered by the persistently complex and costly nature of today’s lighting controls, not to mention the lack of education and training among end users. It doesn’t help also that more advanced, “smart” lighting controls often require involvement of both building operations and information technology staff, further complicating and delaying purchasing, designing, and installation decisions. For human-centric lighting to be truly impactful in a post-pandemic environment by reaching the mass market, it needs to be vastly simpler to install, budget-friendly, intuitive to use, and headache-free to maintain.

In the post-pandemic world, we must also expand beyond fidgeting with lumen output and CCT to encompass all potential capabilities through intelligent lighting. When people have to think hard before they use public places for work, meetings, or study, their expectations of facility performance are greatly elevated. Therefore, lighting has the potential to expand from a functional application to a systemic platform that integrates or connects to an endless and evolving list of technologies to provide timely benefits such as effective and safe ultraviolet (UV) disinfection, autonomous circadian lighting, energy-efficiency optimization, building automation, equipment fault detection, and building security — all of which contribute to optimal human impacts post-COVID-19.

Just as incandescent lighting could not have revolutionized civilization and facilitated modern buildings without usability, affordability, and massive adoption, this time it will take human-centric lighting to simplify, economize, and converge with exponential technologies to again advance human lives and facilitate the intelligent built environment everywhere.

Editor's note: An abridged version of this column appeared in the September issue of LEDs Magazine.

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JAMES TU is chairman and CEO of Energy Focus, Inc., a Solon, OH-based developer and manufacturer of advanced, sustainable LED lighting and lighting controls technologies and solutions.

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