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Best and Brightest

Blue-sky thinking sheds new light on office spaces

Author JACQUELINE DETWILER

ILLUSTRATION BY MARIO WAGNER

Researchers have long known that natural daylight is better for humans than the fluorescent bulbs most of us languish under for eight to 10 hours a day. Adding windows or simply improving artificial light in offices has been shown to increase productivity, boost morale and reduce the number of sick days, headaches and cases of eyestrain among workers. The effect is so strong that some companies, like aerospace engineering firm Lockheed Martin, believe they’ve won billions of dollars in additional contracts just by incorporating more natural light into their workspaces.

This got scientists at German applied-research group Fraunhofer wondering: If an office had a ceiling that mimicked a daytime sky, complete with gently drifting clouds, would workers be even happier? It seems they would. Here’s how Fraunhofer did it:

1. Daylight includes a balanced spectrum of all colors of light—among them blue wavelengths, which are scarce in both incandescent bulbs and energy-efficient fluorescents. In order to imitate the balance of natural light, Fraunhofer outfitted ceiling tiles with red, green, blue and white LEDs that together can produce 16 million different hues.

2. To have the panels look less like a billboard and more like a real sky, the scientists reduced the ceiling’s resolution (making it, basically, the opposite of an HDTV) by covering the LEDs with a layer of foil diffusers. Then they measured ambient outdoor light during different weather conditions and times, and programmed the virtual sky to match.

3. Finally, Fraunhofer added the pièce de résistance: light that changes. “We did a study where we had the light change slowly over the course of the day; every half hour; or every couple of minutes, like a sunny day with moving clouds,” says Oliver Stefani, Fraunhofer visual technologies manager. “Eighty percent of people preferred the sunny day.”

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