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Creating better places for learning with light

Ongoing research is discovering that balanced lighting systems in classrooms are vital for the learning of students and that one of the best ways to reduce melatonin levels (the hormone that induces sleep) is with the right type of light. Recent studies found that fewer mistakes are made, concentration is improved and a curb in hyperactivity in younger pupils is achievable when adaptable lights are incorporated.

Marc Greco, Director of Engineering Consultants Australia, agrees that lighting is a fundamental consideration in effective classroom design for the health and benefits of students. He says that designers who have a better understanding of the significant role lighting levels play in classrooms help create better learning environments.

Gerry de Wind from Mondoluce, a Perth commercial and architectural lighting company is also familiar with the importance of light in the education sector. He believes first and foremost, lighting levels (intensity), lighting scenes (adjustability), glare control and colour temperature are the factors that improve productivity within a classroom.

Joseph Banks Secondary College, Photographed by Ron Tan

There are two main reasons why the design of lighting in schools is imperative; the considerable amount of energy lighting uses in schools, and the positive effects lighting can have on students and teachers. Decisions on illumination should take into account student productivity, their circadian rhythm, the use of multi-functional areas, newer technologies and sustainability. Other factors will include the lifespan, replacement and running costs of equipment and the benefits of well-designed lighting to the health, well-being and performance of students and teachers.

Productivity begins with your circadian rhythm, which is the 24-hour internal clock running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. Replicating the daily cycle of natural lighting positively impacts our energy levels, ability to concentrate and general well-being. The tonality of sunlight varies during the day, with this cycle replicated by changing the colour temperature of light sources. Given that natural light connects to significant improvements in student performance; solar light tubes, natural lighting shafts and glass areas are now being frequently used to take advantage of it.

In extreme conditions, where natural light is limited, such as in the Arctic and Antarctic circles, humans experience difficulty in maintaining a positive level of energy and well-being. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the manifestation of limited exposure to the right level of appropriate colour of light. SAD corrective therapies include exposure to a preset cycle, where the small sensors in our eyes are exposed to the right triggers. This therapy assists in performing similarly to being in a more conventional natural light condition and can take up to 20 minutes per day. Marc says that while SAD is not directly relevant to education, it exemplifies the critical role that natural light plays in our lives. Therefore incorporating natural light and considering the cycles and impact on pupils is a relevant and vital consideration to lighting design for the education sector.

Trinity College, Photographed by Ron Tan

In consideration of productivity within the classroom, adjusting the light levels at various times of the day, (particularly in the morning and after lunch) reduces melatonin levels. Choosing low glare lighting is also a vital factor being that teachers and students are in the classroom for long periods of time. Environments with significant glare can affect wellness and cause discomfort, along with the interference of whiteboards and screens.

Changes in the spaces of schools, such as collaborative learning and multi-functional areas are creating a need for more adaptable lighting fit for all purposes concerning lighting control. Gerry states that illumination has to be more interactive to alter as learning conditions change, with dimmable luminaires often being chosen over others so they can accommodate to collaborative spaces. Gerry also notes that throughout schools, we are now seeing more suspended extrusions and linear fittings in larger areas, with an increase in decorative feature luminaires to make school environments resemble a more exciting and stimulating place to learn.

In Australia, primary schools follow a specific pattern of design while high schools have more flexibility to introduce smart design initiatives, which includes lighting. Marc explores the built environment of universities, which have predominantly collaborative spaces and a large number of staff and students which resemble more of an office or workspace. Marc states that universities tend to have larger budgets presented, which renders more creative lighting solutions.

On a collaboration front, Mondoluce believe a shared space encourages better collaborative learning environments and stimulation suited to older students where team building, ideas and opinions come into play. Lighting in such shared environments need to be multi-functional while inspiring creativity; “A love for learning in a space students find inspiring will, in turn, achieve better results,” illustrates Gerry.

Contrary to this, younger students still benefit from a closed classroom environment which eliminates outside distractions. Low glare and adjustable lighting helps with the wellness of the students in these learning conditions for extended periods of time and help to keep focus.

We are slowly beginning to see driving factors of existing buildings moving towards newer technology, with regards to sustainability; “The energy and maintenance savings by changing to more efficient LED lighting means school budgets can be put towards other facilities and upgrades in the school,” says Gerry. He clarifies that in 2018, there is more of a focus on sustainability, so sourcing lighting that is daylight harvesting, energy saving and low maintenance is indeed a priority. Marc comments, “Daylight harvesting is now specified in the National Construction Code (NCC), and more advanced systems are gaining space in an industry sector that is generally cautious and where some pockets rely on tried and tested recipes.”

Joseph Banks Secondary College, Photographed by Ron Tan

With LED making advancements widely available and affordable, variable colour temperature sources are readily accessible and have significant positive impacts on health. Old technology in these environments have become inefficient and require a lot more maintenance with regular lamp changes as they burn out. The longevity of new technology means fewer working hours are spent replacing lamps. Modern technology has provided us with opportunities to efficiently retrofit old lighting systems with LED, helping to facilitate energy savings while accommodating to a budget.

Referencing the transition from old technologies to new, Gerry explains that tunable white light is a new technology that enables users to adjust the colour temperature of a lamp in real time. Most recent manufacturer offerings provide a tunable spectrum with an effective range that covers both warm and cool temperatures. With this new technology, solutions are available to facilitate the individual requirements of each school and in particular, each learning environment.

Bluetooth control is another progression which means facilities adopting this technology can monitor faults and data from a local server or remote device to collate, making it more energy and time efficient. “With more technology, more solutions are available to facilitate the individual requirements of each school, class and client,” Gerry explains.

Skilful luminaire layout plays a vital role for both students and teachers in the classroom. The correct use of colour and well thought-out lighting intensity adjustment in different parts of the learning environment amplify comfort and well-being and should reflect the function of the space. Gerry explains that the control of lighting in these environments is slowly being given back to the occupants to adjust accordingly to their individual needs. “Being able to recreate feelings of well-being even in a closed environment, through the skilful use of light and colour, has become an increasingly important challenge,” he says. Gerry also states that having the ability to use fewer or a variety of different fittings to create more light makes it easier to accommodate to different budgets and still provide ideal light levels.

Joseph Banks Secondary College, Photographed by Ron Tan

From his extensive experience, Marc encourages lighting designers and engineers to enjoy the opportunities where value is added, energy is saved, and there is an advancement in practices, all resulting in better outcomes for the community. He states, “buildings stay for generations, and we have the opportunity to offer systems and lighting that are slightly ahead of our time, providing an asset that will be of value now and in the future.”

Estimates show that lighting can account for more than a quarter of school energy consumption, which is a significant component of yearly budgets. In response, designers have created an innovative solution to save on wasteful energy consumption and high costs, replacing dated manual controls with advanced digital lighting control systems. Marc states that this technology is affordable and is a system that homeowners, facility, and building managers all need to adopt. “Some of these include apps on your mobile device, simple WiFi protocols, accessible to all,” he remarks. Marc believes that with sensors coming up a mere 3mm in diameter and fitting within light globes, socket outlets, and numerous day-to-day controls, the likes of presence detectors and light switches will completely change.

When exploring retrofit lighting projects, designers must consider specific parameters, with many factors up for consideration; glare, colour quality, uniform light levels, application and dimming. When lighting designs or retrofits are performed appropriately, energy and maintenance savings will be an added benefit of the product; however, it is not the paramount goal.

Trinity College, an independent school in East Perth, has seen significant benefits in an efficient lighting project. In the building upgrade, the lighting design and performance of the school was modified to be of the highest quality for the application in aesthetics, performance and adaptability.

Engineering Technology Consultants (ETC) in collaboration with Mondoluce, selected recessed canopy lights for a sleek, minimalist design to complement the architecture, ceiling and internal wall features of the newly designed multipurpose facility. The low maintenance, energy efficient LEDs provided increased visibility for the multitude of internal sporting activities. With dimmable functions providing full lighting flexibility for assemblies via a C-Bus lighting control system.

Following the construction of Joseph Banks Secondary College Stage 1 in 2015, Stage 2 sees energy-saving LED fittings used throughout its upgrade. In particular, linear LED luminaires were utilised in all classrooms to achieve a modern and functional teaching space. With extremely low glare, these luminaires accommodate for various learning and teaching environments.

For this project, Wood & Grieve Engineers in collaboration with Mondoluce, selected LED panels to the audio and visual recording studios along with associated media classrooms as they required uniformity and colour accuracy. Slimline, recessed fittings were also used throughout the student service areas to discretely blend with the raking ceilings and provide ample light for illuminating the space.

With a rising demand for buildings to move in an environmentally friendly and energy efficient direction, lighting design in the education sector is a vital consideration for the built environment. From primary schools to universities, LED lighting has enhanced and created learning environments that students find comfortable and conducive to learning. Designers now have the responsibility to set schools up for success with safe, comfortable learning spaces that inspire concentration and support educational objectives.