The Bad Rap of Blue Light

By: Rachel Bannon-Godfrey, Rachel Fitzgerald and Katherine Stekr

RECENT HEADLINES BLAME BLUE LIGHT FOR THE CURRENT SLEEP DEPRIVATION CRISIS. But what does that really mean?  Why is blue light so bad?  More importantly, how does it affect you and the built environment?

We are living in a glowing age of information – literally. We are constantly bathed in light from a barrage of sources – phones, watches, computer screens, TVs, fitness trackers – you name it, and most anything with a screen or digital output has a component light in the blue spectrum. As technology brings smarter devices into our lives, our awareness of the potential detrimental effects on the human body has grown. Artificial blue light has been shown to disrupt our natural sleep patterns. According to recent studies, sleep disorders contribute to multiple health ailments – from Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease, and clinical depression. The dangers are real, but there’s also a lot of misinformation that paints blue light as the enemy. The key is all in the timing.

When Blue Light is the Good Guy

We actually need blue light. It is an important part of how our biological time-clock functions; it controls our Circadian Rhythm, which is in charge of our sleep/wake cycle. Blue light entering the eye in the morning and throughout the day suppresses our body’s production of Melatonin and increases the production of Serotonin and Dopamine. This allows us to be alert during the day. Blue light is in league with the blue sky and the high angle of the sun, which is mimicked by the overhead lighting in most offices. We need sources of blue light during the day, as many of us spend most of our waking hours in the built environment where access to natural daylight is often limited.

When Blue Light Is the Bad Guy

 As the sun sets, the angle of light into our eye decreases and the ‘color’ of the light shifts from blue to a warmer amber color. This shift increases the production of Melatonin in the body. This is the body’s natural sleep aide, helping you fall asleep and stay asleep. Blue light at night, even for a millisecond, resets the body’s internal clock and disrupts all these processes. Prolonged exposure to blue light right before bedtime prohibits your body from performing normal brain and body functions that keep us healthy. Studies have shown significant negative health impacts with exposure to blue light after 8 p.m. It has been linked to higher incidences of cancer in shift workers and greater instances of confusion and disorientation in those affected with Alzheimer’s.


So how can those of us who have an impact on the built environment support a healthy balance of light?


Circadian Lighting

The term circadian lighting essentially refers to a system with the potential to produce lighting sequences that stimulate cortisol production (blue light) during peak daylight and suppress melatonin production (elimination of blue light) at night. Put simply, circadian lighting tries to imitate the light patterns we would have experienced before the built environment and technology came along. Caveman lighting, if you will.

Addressing Circadian Lighting in the Built Environment

Achieving the perfect ‘caveman’ circadian lighting is no easy feat. The typical person today spends 90 percent of our time indoors, under a growing amount of LED lighting, which has a component of blue light. Thought is now being put into how a shift in the color temperature and output of LED lights could address circadian disruption currently happening in most buildings. At RNL, as designers and architects of the built environment, we see more opportunity to implement LED lighting systems with variable outputs which mimic the color output of the sun, providing the good peak blue light output at mid-day, eliminating the blue light component at night with warmer white outputs.

It Takes a Village

The problem with (and solution to) circadian-related health impacts is not the sole responsibility of the architectural lighting community. RNL strongly believes the key to solving this problem lies in cross-disciplinary partnerships. We are actively collaborating with not only lighting designers, manufacturers and architects, but also public health and medical professionals, urban planners and municipalities. Society has become alarmingly dependent on glowing screens. Ultimately, collaboration needs to extend to the electronics and wearables industry. If we can create lighting systems tuned to follow our circadian rhythm, then why not every light we find ourselves exposed to? If the designers and engineers of our spaces, places and devices work together, we can find solutions that keep us digitally connected, well illuminated, and biologically in sync. We can get that healthy caveman lighting back, but it’s going to take a significant re-tooling of technology and re-training of personal habits to get us there. 


Calling All Design 2 Thrivers

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We design spaces and places that help people and communities thrive, using the 12 Design for One Earth principles as our framework.

Why? Because we care. We also listen. So send us your suggestions, thoughts, comments.

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Origami Strikes Again!

If you saw ‘Between The Folds’, the first in David’s summer movie series. Then you’ll know that Origami has worked its way into many, many aspects of our daily lives (air bags!). You’ll also remember there are some very ‘passionate’ paper folders out there... Here, origami is elegantly applied to a plant pot that grows along with the plant. The pot references the dynamic aspect of nature, in contrast to the static spaces we surround ourselves with. It’s also a way of ensuring your interior landscaping looks great from the day the building opens, instead of the typical scenario of stick-like plants sitting in vats of soil sized for year two of growth.

There is a strong disconnect between nature and the environments we are used to and comfortable in as humans. The spaces and objects we build and surround us with are very static. In nature, everything evolves, adapts, grows, blooms, degrades, dies, gets absorbed, reused. - Begum & Bike Ayaskan, Royal College of Art
Image Credit:  Dezeen

Image Credit: Dezeen


The wait is over. Lexus has released a hoverboard that uses magnetic fields and liquid nitrogen to carry a person without touching the ground. It requires a proprietary magnetic surface to hover over, but all that just makes it so much cooler. Stop reading and just watch the promotional video. Relevance to our projects? It doesn’t matter, it’s a HOVERBOARD. (Ok, this car-alternative doesn’t need bike racks).

Side note, the number of times the talent fall off the hoverboard is actually hilarious. They couldn’t have practiced more before filming…?

photo courtesy of dezeen.com

photo courtesy of dezeen.com


In July, three Google Street View cars roamed Denver for 750 hours, capturing 150 million data points on air quality to make people more aware of how cities ‘live and breathe’. Place-making, meet public health.

Air quality is the most fundamental component of human health. It is also, globally, one of the most threatened. In recognition of this health crisis, the most heavily weighted section of the WELL building standard is ‘Air’. From testing, monitoring and display of air quality inside your building, to filtration, ventilation, and microbe control, WELL pre-conditions and optimizations aim to limit pollutant concentrations in the buildings we live and work in.

photo credit: Joe Pemberton

photo credit: Joe Pemberton

The challenges are many though. At a building-level, increased filtration often increases pressure drop which affects air delivery and efficiency. Sensors are expensive. Many external conditions are beyond the engineers’ control (I hear stories of smoking students outside the RNL Denver office air intake…). At a more fundamental level, exposure to harmful air quality is nebulous and hard to pinpoint: ‘monitoring is complicated by the fact air is everywhere, yet scientists can’t be.’

Scientists can’t be everywhere, but in the age of the IoT (internet of things) they don’t need to be. Physical cloud, meet your virtual counterpart. Networked sensors and smartphone apps are stepping in to capture data on air pollution at a much more granular level than previously possible – specific to communities or neighborhoods rather than the nearest airport weather station. This article describes sensors and apps developed to help Joe Public track air pollution levels, including low-cost devices in recognition of the social-environmental inequity of the least affluent communities suffering the worst air quality. This is good news for our WELL projects, as we try to think of innovative, people-empowered ways to provide monitoring of the most important environmental conditions, without adding to the project budget or impeding the performance. All it takes is a few people with the smartphone app / sensor networked to the building’s website, intranet or display monitor, to create an air quality map of the project locale.


The ‘Lighter Quicker Cheaper’ approach to place-making - the fast food of urban design or a way to kick start the journey to longer term solutions?

This article presents some examples of a quick and small way to create community spaces – by closing down unused streets and adding simple landscape furniture. One particular interesting observation:

“..based on these brief observations it seems as though certain demographics dominate the space more than others. It would be interesting to return to this space at a later time and see whether programming has been added that attracts more women and children, as is the case with Corona Plaza.”

photo credit: Nikita Malviya and Himadri Panchal

photo credit: Nikita Malviya and Himadri Panchal


This is not a new article, but it came up in a discussion of the need to design cities for people, not cars, and is worth a read. It basically reminds us of the need to walk for the sake of walking, not just as a means to go from A to B quickly. And apparently aimless walking is the key to literary genius, but wait till you finish walking before texting your agent.

"A lot of places, if you walk you feel you are doing something self-consciously. Walking becomes a radical act."


Do Bike Paths Need Ride-In Toilets? YES. And other things. Read on for a discussion on how to make Bike Paths more functional. But focus on the ride-in toilets because, yes.

photos credit: MarkA on Flickr

photos credit: MarkA on Flickr