Postgraduate Lives: Matthew Harrison, research assistant, Royal College of Art

Bad lighting can affect our health

My research is looking at the ways in which office lighting can improve the health and well-being of an ageing workforce. If you've ever been in an office then you know how awful the lighting is, and there is a lot of room for improvement. I met a PA who worked in a dark office with no window nearby and she was suffering from terrible migraines. Then, one day, the overhead fluorescent light broke, and she stopped getting migraines. We spend more time in offices than anywhere else in our working life and the lighting really affects our health.

My undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering at Imperial College. I found the course quite dry and unemotional and I was aware of the Royal College of Art (RCA) next door and I thought, 'gosh, that looks a lot more exciting'. I did an MA in industrial design at the RCA where they encourage people to combine an engineering background with creative, socially minded, design. After that I applied for a research assistant post.

I'm 25 and I've never worked in a proper office, so I have a fresh perspective. My focus is on an ageing workforce because when you get older you have more individual needs and preferences. As eyes age they become less sensitive to light and after the age of 45 your visual ability to do difficult tasks reduces rapidly. Yet suitable lighting is rarely provided; instead offices often use the cheapest lighting possible with constant light on the whole day. There is no emotional or psychological reference to the time of day or to what people are doing.

Natural light doesn't just provide us with vision; it is linked to our own body rhythms. There are receptors in the eyes that react to a dark blue spectrum of light that occurs in varying levels throughout the day. This light suppresses the sleep hormone, melatonin, that informs our body clocks. It exists outside in the morning and makes you alert and productive. But in the afternoon it disappears. If you spend all your daylight hours in an office with fluorescent light bulbs then it has a dulling effect on the body clock.

I began with book research and an analysis of new light technologies. Then I sat and watched peoples' behaviour in different sized offices at Orange and EMI. The third stage of research was a design hypothesis in which I created images of light fittings. I have now produced a website style tool which can be shared by my industrial sponsors, Thorn Lighting. The next stage is to work on a prototype control interface. This is the way light can be controlled using a computer.

There is some scepticism from old industrial experts but computer control of lighting is inevitable and it needs to be used to its full potential, by giving individuals control.

People have different preferences when it comes to light; there is not one solution that fits all.


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