HMFH Architects

Shedding Light on the Future of Learning

The Harvard School of Public Health’s recent report, Schools for Health: Foundations for Future Success, which pulled from 200 research studies, found that lighting, along with other environmental factors like noise and air quality, has a significant impact on learning. The authors state:

The evidence is unambiguous — the school building impacts student health, thinking, and performance.

Since the 1890s, when schools were designed with ceiling-height windows,  architects have been attuned to the importance of natural daylight. Over the last century with the introduction of artificial light, we’ve learned more about how to control light and how the quality, timing, and color of light impacts our health. The growing canon of research about lighting and learning is pointing to new ways that school design can enhance academic outcomes and improve the health of students and educators.

In a really, really simplistic way, if you can’t comfortably read or review a computer screen, you can’t learn. For instance, a 1990 study explicitly stated that glare—especially as computer screens became a bigger part of classrooms—can reduce a student’s ability to learn. If a classroom isn’t evenly lit then the student can’t see well, which can ultimately impact eyesight strain. Over the years the theories about how to apply natural light have changed. There’s been more information about what not to do, instead of what to do.

Chin Lin, AIA, Senior AssociateHMFH Architects

Light quality, and when it comes, matters. At the Capuano Early Childhood Center in Somerville, in the early 2000s, we put in skylights in classrooms to ensure deep even lighting, and we used physical models to test how the light would bounce around the room.

Now, to ensure the appropriate light levels and the best mix of artificial and natural daylight, we use daylight modeling software to simulate and test different design solutions. Whether that is studying glare, point in time illumination or analyzing daylight autonomy to understand the percent of time that a space meets a determined light level, technology is critical in optimizing educational space design.

Technology is now a key to using light for learning, both in terms of how spaces are designed to use natural light, and how artificial light can be incorporated. We’re spending a lot more time and resources on analytical processes and illustrating to the clients what the impact of light might be, and how to implement cost effective solutions.

Deborah Collins, AIA, Senior Associate

Not all light impacts us in the same way. The presence of blue light- like that found in sunlight and emitted from electronic devices – can trigger internal circadian rhythms contributing to one’s state of mental alertness. The Harvard study found that appropriate use of blue light can improve academic performance by up to ten percent. However, too much blue light or exposure at the wrong time of day can disrupt our natural circadian rhythm and may affect hormone levels.

With awareness of this research, we’re now designing schools that allow for greater control of light temperature. At the new Saugus Middle High School, classrooms that serve students with behavioral or cognitive challenges will each have tunable white light, which allows staff to change the color, duration, and intensity of the lighting in the space, bringing in energizing blue light, or calming warm light, depending on students’ needs.

The hope is that this ability to adjust the lighting more selectively will offer more nuanced learning environments for the students and will assist the faculty in their efforts to work with the students.

Gary Brock, AIA, Associate

Designing schools requires a clear understanding of the impact that the built and natural environments have on children’s health and their capacity to learn, and by using new tools to design spaces that harness natural brightness, we’re lighting the way to better learning environments.