A winter view from the shore of one of the lakes near Madison, WI.

We All Age In Place

I made plans to write on this topic months before the world changed underneath us. Back then, Living in Place was an emerging term that encapsulated a myriad of design ideas intended to help us live better lives without having to change locations. Comfort, accessibility, safety, and wellness all fit within the term. Age in Place – the idea that we could stay in our homes longer if we lowered barriers, planned for limited mobility, and integrated tools to enhance our safety – was falling out of favor as more and more of us wanted the benefits without the stigma of “getting old.”

Then the pandemic began and millions – no, billions – of us began living and even working in place. Suddenly, with little warning, our homes needed to adapt along with us. Spare rooms became the global headquarters of business. Living rooms saw more living than ever before. Our kitchens became restaurants, our utility rooms became storehouses. Does the term Live in Place mean the same thing today? Perhaps. But it applies to all of us now.

Properly designed lighting in our homes promotes healthier and happier lives. To get the right light in the right place at the right time, you have to sort through the myriad of scientific studies, sift through the snake oil claims, understand the competing theories and terminologies, and finally lay out a system of light and controls that delivers the intended results.

Does that sound intimidating? It doesn’t need to be. We’ll sort through the acronyms and terms, take a quick stroll through the emerging science behind the revolution in lighting design, and end up, I hope, with a clearer path forward. You need to know enough to differentiate a qualified design and technology team from the proverbial snake oil salesman, without drowning in the data. And this goes for both custom and production homes.

We all live in place

Live in Place, Age in Place, Human Centric Lighting, and Circadian Lighting are bandied about by architects, designers, authors and researchers. One term may overlap with another; one may attempt to replace another. One manufacturer may talk about Human-Centric Lighting (HCL), while another refers to Circadian Lighting with seemingly no difference in application. It’s a zoo out there, and it used to be a lot easier to ignore it all.

You might be wondering at this point what Living in Place has to do with light. Light, when intelligently designed, could deliver what I call the five promises of light: light can help us do better, know more, feel better, focus clearly, and adapt to changes more easily. Each promise is deeply embedded in the core concepts of Living in Place. You will find many definitions to the phrase; I believe light can help us live better lives anywhere, anytime, and most certainly in place.

A view from the ground looking up at Wisconsin rock formations covered in trees and ice on a sunny winter day.

Is circadian lighting real?

We need light that comes up in the morning, changes throughout the day, and goes down at night if we are to harvest all the benefits of light.

You might call it natural light, if you live outdoors. Our careers and modern lifestyles often result in many more indoor hours, where steady electric light keeps our bodies in a state of perpetual twilight. We live most of our lives with not as much light as the sun can give, yet far more light than we experience under the moon and stars. We end up with too much at night and too little in the day.

Circadian Lighting, a term as difficult to define as it is to spell and say, hints at light that supports natural biorhythms and took the design world by storm a few years ago. Studies by the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, RPI’s Lighting Research Center, and a large list of other reputable scientific entities created a growing body of evidence that we need more than just light. If we want to sleep well at night, be productive during the day, and enjoy benefits such as higher cognition and faster healing, we need light that supports our natural cycles.

Circadian Lighting is a very real endeavor in retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and skilled care facilities. It is in these locations where residents spend the most time indoors that the benefits of changeable, adaptable, circadian-inspired electric light solutions become absolutely essential. When studies show that the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s can be reduced with Circadian Lighting, facilities directors take note. Light can be a part of treatment, not just a utility overhead. Beyond a few limited applications, however, Circadian Lighting has been slow to expand. Why?

The concept of Circadian Lighting intimidated most of us, and a flood of products on the market that made grandiose promises created a cloud of suspicion over the theory. You have likely seen light bulbs that promise to help you sleep better or be more alert. You may have seen blue-tinted eyeglasses in ads promising to improve your life. If the term “snake oil” popped into your head now, you would not be far off track. Many of these promises are false or grossly incomplete. As a result, the idea of Circadian Lighting got off to a shaky start.

A closeup of new grass sprouting from snow covered ground on a sunny day.

What is human centric lighting?

Americans spend $70 billion each year on sleep aids, twice as much as we do on lighting. In a clear case of irony, moving some of those dollars over to light might be more effective. Human Centric Lighting, or HCL, is an attempt to do just that – and much more.

Human Centric Lighting, by one definition, is lighting that takes into account the effects of light on humans. It is a wonderfully crafted term, one that sounds like something we need, yet it’s vagueness reveals several issues. Isn’t all artificial lighting, by definition, human centric? If it isn’t there for our needs, then why does it exist? Is there anything but Human Centric Lighting?

Unfortunately, lighting has not been human centric for many years. Go back 130 years and you find Thomas Edison desperate to perfect the electric light bulb. Yes, he wanted to be a legend. But he also wanted to be the biggest electric utility company. Edison was a genius, but he also was a key player in making lighting no longer human centric, but profit centric. Let’s call it Profit Centric Lighting, or PCL.

You can see signs of PCL everywhere. If you’ve seen a light switch lately, then you’ve looked a device that is PCL, not human centric. Switches still exist because it is cheaper to have light in a binary setting (on and off) than to put that same light on a dimmer that can adjust to our eyes. Instead, we make our eyes – the iris, to be precise – adjust to the light. That’s not Human Centric.

Look above your head. If you have a nice even grid of recessed downlights, or just a single ceiling fixture, the chances are high that you are sitting under Profit Centric Lighting. If the lighting overhead does not adjust, does not change, does not take into account the biology of your eyes, the geometry of light, or the psychology of sight, your light is Profit Centric. It was put there because it easy to install, or looks good on a reflected ceiling plan, or looked good in the showroom. In similar fashion to Circadian Snake Oil, much of Human Centric Lighting is really Profit Centric Lighting in sheep’s clothing.

How do you recognize a good effort of Human Centric Lighting? Everything in the home should feel different. Light will gradually wake you in the morning and fade out gently to help your body move to rest in the evening. Light will be brighter than usual throughout the first half of the day. Light will slowly shift color temperature at dawn and dusk and mimic daylight in between. Switches won’t exist. Light will be distributed throughout the home in layers, not just from the ceiling. HCL, as it is currently marketed, will support your natural rhythms every day.

How does this help us live in place?

Imagine a world where lighting supports our needs. What are you doing today? Cooking? Reading? Watching television? In a perfect world, light would know what you are doing and adjust to support you.

When you get ready to go to sleep, light would begin preparing you for a good night’s rest by stimulating your brain in the first half of the day with bright light. That’s a key component of regulating our body clock – it’s not just about using dim light at night.

Properly designed lighting will adjust as you age. I need twice as much light as my teenage sons to see with the same level of visual acuity; my parents in their 70’s need four times as much light. Lighting design can ensure that every age group has the right light they require.

Lighting can help us maintain balance at night by providing visual cues of vertical and horizontal lines. Light should be just enough to help us navigate safely and reduce the risk of falls, but not enough to disrupt our sleep.

As far as your mood and your health, if your spirits or body are in need of a good sunny day, lighting can provide it. We do not need to imagine this idyllic world of professionally designed lighting spaces. We can achieve this now.

We just need to design it into every home.

Light Can Help You