Let There Be Light! A Conversation With Mary Cook

The architect sheds light on this fundamental design element, in the first installment of a new quarterly interview series.

Spring has begun and the boost of sunshine is brightening up our days. Light has been a fascinating element for architects and designers, often taking center stage in their multifamily projects. This is why architectural lighting is the focus of the first interview in a series with Mary Cook, president & founder of commercial interior design and strategy firm Mary Cook Associates. Every quarter, we’ll examine different aspects that impact residential design.

In this interview, Cook provides her deep understanding and expertise on the vital role light plays in our day-to-day lives. As modern humans spend significantly more time indoors, the diversity and evolution of architectural lighting has been spectacular.

What are the biological and health implications of light in our lives?

Cook: During my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, my peers and I spent much of our time playing outside in natural light, venturing indoors for sleep and meals. Today, this paradigm has regrettably shifted the other way, with a significant segment of the population spending 95 percent of their time indoors. Since this is where most of us spend the most time living, working and playing, these indoor environments—and how they are lit—have an outsized influence on our wellbeing, often surpassing the impact of genetic predispositions or lifestyle choices.

Lighting has significant biological and wellness implications. Throughout history, human routines have revolved around the natural rhythm of daylight: rising with the sun, reaching peak productivity at midday and slumbering in the pitch blackness of night. It’s a well-documented scientific fact that lighting plays a crucial role in regulating biological rhythms and impacting overall health.

For example, the benefits of natural daylight include stress and anxiety reduction. Natural light exposure in work environments has been shown to increase productivity, reduce eyestrain and decrease headaches among workers, while inadequate or inappropriate artificial lighting can hinder performance and contribute to discomfort and fatigue. Natural light has been shown to improve vision in young children whose eyes are still developing.

A lack of daylight can lead to headaches and too much artificial blue light—particularly from the illuminated screens of electronic devices—suppresses melatonin, which leads to sleep disturbance, upsetting the circadian rhythm or the body’s internal clock. The right (and wrong) kind of illumination affects the hormones that govern mood. Light exposure influences the production of serotonin and melatonin, affecting happiness and sleep regulation. Insufficient or improper light exposure can lead to fluctuations in cortisol levels, contributing to feelings of drowsiness and stress.

In what scenarios is warm/cold light used by designers?

Cook: Spaces must perform differently at different times of day and year, especially in today’s work-from-anywhere world where our homes often double as our workplaces. When it comes to design and interior space planning and strategy, we use warm and cool light in various scenarios and spaces to evoke specific atmospheres and cater to different activities. Warm light and warmer colors create cozy, calming and relaxed environments—think the glow of candlelight. Cool blue light is more energizing and, paired with cooler colors, can engage and stimulate within work-focused environments.

Warm white light, typically in the range of 1800 to 2700 Kelvin, is often employed in residential settings and during the evening. This type of lighting creates a cozy and relaxing ambiance, ideal for promoting calm and comfort, making it suitable for bedrooms, living rooms, game room, fireside lounges and other areas where relaxation is desired.

Cooler white light, with color temperatures ranging from 3500 to 5000 Kelvin, is commonly utilized during the day in work or office settings. Research shows that cooler lighting temperature helps promote alertness and focus, making it suitable for spaces where productivity and task performance are prioritized. Areas such as offices, study rooms and coworking spaces benefit from cool white light as it aids in maintaining energy levels and boosting concentration. Cooler light temperatures are also well-suited for fitness centers and back-of-house areas, where a more vibrant and invigorating atmosphere is desired.

New thinking on the role light plays in our quality of life has led designers to emulate natural light indoors through technologies like ‘human-centric’ LED lighting, which dynamically adjusts color temperatures. Understanding circadian rhythm and the benefits of aligning our biological clock with nature guides us to mimic natural patterns indoors that automatically change color—between 2700k and 6500k—to replicate the outdoors. This results in improved sleep, mood and work performance. 

Color-changing LEDs and smart lighting allow for a greater degree of flexibility and adaptability. It’s now possible to program interior lighting to automatically fade in and out depending on available natural light based on the time of day and time of year, and to change color and brightness to support different moods and functions, such as a multifamily amenity lounge that evolves from a brightly lit space for coworking during the day to a more intimate social lounge atmosphere at night.

Energy efficiency in buildings is greatly impacted by natural and artificial light. Could you share some of the strategies your firm uses to save energy in a multifamily project?

Cook: Energy codes today dictate output allowed for lighting, so we start there. We take a researched approach to understanding how spaces will be used and what type of behaviors we are looking to enhance.

We aim to integrate as much natural light as possible, both direct and indirect—think mirrors—and pair energy-efficient fixtures for general lighting with appropriate color temperature. The final step is adding accent and specialty lighting in key places to enhance and elevate the visual experience while working within energy parameters.

As multifamily conversions are a hot topic at the moment, what are some of the biggest issues in terms of the lack of natural light in these projects?

Cook: There has been a lot of conversation about converting empty office buildings to residential to solve issues around affordability, low housing inventory and commercial vacancy rates. The unfortunate fact is the footprints of some of these existing buildings do not easily lend themselves to residential conversion.

The deep spaces within buildings with large floorplates often receive limited natural light, and the smaller window openings that are common in older commercial buildings do not lend themselves to desirable living spaces without costly workarounds like changes to the exterior façade or carving out interior lightwells.

The recent conversion projects our firm was involved with were hospital-to-residential and school-to-residential. In both situations, the existing floorplans, ceiling heights and window opening sizes provided ample natural light and made these conversions feasible.

What are the latest technological advances in terms of artificial lighting? 

Cook: Technology advances for the past couple of decades have been focused on energy efficiency, sustainable fixtures and aesthetic impact—some restaurants use as many as 60 different bulb types to capture just the right mood. The impact of wellness and wellbeing has also become a key focus post-COVID-19. Today, good lighting design is holistic, considering energy efficiency, cost saving and sustainable technologies to maximize performance as well as aesthetics.

The Reed at Southbank includes 216 condominiums on its upper floors and 224 rental apartments in Chicago’s South Loop. Mary Cook Associates designed three model units. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

The latest generation of dynamic LED fixtures can be programmed to your customized plan and are highly adaptable. With your phone, you can adjust your custom lighting design to mimic natural outdoor light throughout the day. Entire lighting systems can be regulated by presets based on an activity or mood, like ‘dinner party’ or ‘read a book.’ There are also opportunities to incorporate dynamic lighting into bedrooms that alter brightness and color to perform ‘wake-up’ sequences based on the specific circadian rhythms of its occupants.

In your view, what does good architectural lighting mean?

Cook: People may take lighting for granted, but good lighting design can create spaces that make us feel our best, boost our productivity and enhance our wellbeing. Light not only plays a critical role in how we experience a space, but also how we work, relax, socialize and sleep. It is essential for designers, builders and developers to pay attention to lighting as a critical design element in the built environments where we live, work and play.

Trends will continue to prioritize lighting design that is immersive, adjustable, and adaptable depending on the function, time of day, and time of year. The goal is for lighting to work together with other design fundamentals to have a greater positive impact on the users. A holistic design approach that considers users’ psychographics—their values, attitudes, interests, expectations and aspirations—is a key to unlocking the most benefit. 

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