Our sense of sight dominates our perception of what is happening around us. Because of this, design is typically focused on the materials, textures, shapes of what we see. What gets easily overlooked are our other senses and how impactful they are to our wellness. We often overlook great opportunities that are right in front of us, such as the quality of our light and the noises that we hear. In many cases, our lives can easily be improved with a low investment in any environment.
Light is one of the biggest design tools that we have. Often architecture is seen as the use of steel or concrete or wood in the design palette. Internationally renowned architect Steven Holl has said, “My favorite material as an architect is light.” Light connects us to our experience of the environment by revealing form, color, texture as well as time of day or season. It also affects our well-being, including our circadian rhythm, cognition, blood pressure, immune systems, metabolism, melatonin, cortisol and more. Light synchronizes our body every day.
There are two main ways we get light: from the sun and from a synthetic source. In nature, the sun has a daily rhythm of rising and setting while changing color temperature during the day. This natural rhythm aligns our bodies’ rhythm. Warm light influences the hormone melatonin that slows down our body functions and helps us get a good night’s sleep. Bright light in the morning suppresses the melatonin and allows the cortisol to stimulate our metabolism to start the day.
Natural Light To magnify the benefits of natural light we need to understand the path of the sun in the region of the world we work in and take advantage of what is being offered. This can include bringing in natural light as much as possible throughout different times of the day to maximize its potential. For example, we may want bright morning light to be in the primary bedroom and bathroom to help to give us energy to start the day. We could place a home office in a location to have sun during the day to help maintain focus and give energy. A home can be designed to have the living room face the west to end the day with natural color tones warming through sunset to calm our bodies, decrease stress, release melatonin and prepare us to sleep.
Using natural light may not always be an option for everyone. Our homes may not align with the path of the sun to get the best effects. And, as the seasons change, the time of day and amount of light we get changes, affecting the natural body rhythm. During the winter season this balance can be off and some people can develop Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), leading to poor sleep, fatigue, sadness and mental health issues. To counter these effects, we need to use man-made light to help keep the rhythm. Synthetic Light Synthetic lighting can be as simple as changing the light bulbs in our
existing light fixtures or buying a lamp specifically designed for circadian lighting. There are light bulbs that can be programmed through an app or voice-controlled to automatically change temperature as the day goes on. This would include bright white light in the morning, dropping a little through the day and having a warmer light temperature in the evening as our internal clock switches to night mode.
GE has a light bulb named C-Sleep that has an app to control it. For an all-encompassing design approach there are full home-automation systems like Control4 and Savant. These systems are often used to control home entertainment, temperature, security and turn lights on and off. For our health, these systems are now integrating lighting controls that will automatically change the color temperature and intensity of light in the entire home throughout the day to maximize the potential of the uses in the spaces and maintain natural body rhythm.
When we look at noise in terms of design, we often focus on keeping sound out or limiting transmission, but we can also use noise as a design tool. We understand that unwanted noise can be a distraction, reducing cognition, causing stress and bad sleep. When building a new home, one area that often gets overlooked is the insulation of the interior walls as well as the floors to isolate areas where sound transmission is important. If the home design has an open floor plan, the layout needs to be conscious of sound transmission as it may echo through the entire house.
White and Pink Noise There are many environments where noise levels are difficult to control, such as existing apartments or homes. Masking sound may be as simple as adding white noise or pink noise. White noise has been around for a while and there are devices that provide a higher frequency sound like the sound of static on a TV, a room fan or running air conditioning. Pink noise is a newer trend that has focused not only on masking sound but also is designed to find health benefits in the sound that is produced. This type uses lower frequencies to mimic sounds that are in nature such as rainfall, ocean waves and rustling leaves. While the scientific research is still in progress, some people find the lower frequencies more relaxing and there are new studies that show it will help sleep quality as well as build memory.
In addition to blocking out or masking sound, we can also look at adding sound that can benefit us. An indoor water feature can add many of the therapeutic benefits found in nature including reducing stress and increasing cognitive abilities. Additional side benefits to the water features is that they also add moisture to the air and clean the air. Water releases negative ions into the air to help neutralize the harmful effects of positive ions from pollutants like dust
and dander. Water features can be as simple as a plug-in desktop to installing a built-in freestanding structure.