Light and Color Goes to School

Typically, when facility managers and other campus administrators think of facilities, they think of the rec center's leaking roof, the aging power plant and the tight schedule for completing the current residence hall renovation. They are not thinking about light and color. They should be. Both have power to influence a facility's atmosphere and the performance its occupants.

Add More Light

No one questions the importance of high-quality light to the education process. In fact, numerous studies have been conducted in recent years on the effects of light in K-12 classrooms. However, what experts do question is how to cost-effectively get light into the classroom, how to balance daylight with artificial light and what kind of artificial light works best. Add to these challenges the fact that this writer couldn't find any research relating light to higher education, and it would appear that higher-education administrators have been left in the dark.

Fortunately, it isn't a stretch to take research from the K-12 market, or even the commercial business market, and apply it to higher education. Two recent studies by California-based Heschong Mahone Group (HMG) allow higher-education administra- tors to do just that. HGM is a professional consulting firm that focuses on building energy efficiency, specializing in applying building design and construction technology to the problem of making buildings more efficient.

HMG has recently completed a second suite of major human performance studies on behalf of the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program. The productivity studies consider the impact of daylight on human performance, along with other aspects of the indoor environment such as ventilation and view. Here are executive summaries from two of the studies.

1. How physical comfort conditions in classrooms are associated with student learning at Fresno Unified School District; and

2. How windows and physical comfort conditions are related to office worker performance at Sacramento Municipal Utility District offices.

Windows and Offices: A Study of Office Worker Performance and the Indoor Environment - CEC PIER 2003. Here, two studies were conducted at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The first study looked at "100 workers in an incoming call center, whose performance was continuously tracked by a computer system and measured in terms of time to handle each call," says the summary. "The second study examined the performance of 200 other office workers on a series of short cognitive assessment tests, taken at each individual's desktop computer."

According to the summary, "the studies found several physical conditions that were significantly associated with worker performance, when controlling for other influences. Having a better view out of a window, gauged primarily by the size of the view and secondarily by greater vegetation content, was most consistently associated with better worker performance in six out of eight outcomes considered. Workers in the Call Center were found to process calls six percent to 12 percent faster when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Office workers were found to perform 10 percent to 25 percent better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Furthermore, office worker self reports of better health conditions were strongly associated with better views. Those workers in the Desktop study with the best views were the least likely to report negative health symptoms. Reports of increased fatigue were most strongly associated with a lack of view.

"Other variables related to view were also found significant. In the Call Center, higher cubicle partitions were associated with slower performance. In the Desktop study glare potential from windows was found to have a significant negative effect on performance in three of the five mental function assessment tests. In the three tests, the greater the glare potential from primary view windows, the worse the office worker performance, decreasing by 15 percent to 21 percent, all other things being equal."

Windows and Classrooms: A Study of Student Performance and the Indoor Environment - CEC PIER 2003. "This study investigates whether daylight and other aspects of the indoor environment in elementary school student classrooms have an effect on student learning, as measured by their improvement on standardized math and reading tests over an academic year," notes the summary. The study uses regression analysis to compare the performance of more than 8,000 3rd through 6th grade students in 450 classrooms in California's Fresno Unified School District.

According to the summary, this study is the third in a series of studies looking at the relationship between daylighting and student performance, and its primary goal was to examine another school district, one with a different climate and curricula from the two previous districts, to see whether the original methodology and findings would hold.

"The findings of regression models in this study support the general conclusions that:

1. The visual environment is very important for learning.

2. An ample and pleasant view out of a window, that includes vegetation or human activity and objects in the far distance, supports better outcomes of student learning.

3. Sources of glare negatively impact student learning. This is especially true for math learning, where instruction is often visually demonstrated on the front teaching wall. Per our observations, when teachers have white marker boards, rather than black or green chalk boards, they are more likely to use them and children perform better in math.

4. Direct sun penetration into classrooms, especially through unshaded east or south facing windows, is associated with negative student performance, likely causing both glare and thermal discomfort.

5. Blinds or curtains allow teachers to control the intermittent sources of glare or visual distraction through their windows. When teachers do not have control of their windows, student performance is negatively affected."

Add More Color

As well as light, color plays an important role in the higher-education process. Its use should be carefully considered with the goal of producing A+ results.

What color on campus? Learning activities in technical or trade school environments are different from those in traditional classrooms. For example, eyestrain and glare are common problems where computers are used a lot. "Mild and mid-toned wall and floor colors help reduce the contrast between workstations and surroundings," says Sheri Thompson, director of Color Marketing & Design for Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams Co. "In an automotive trade classroom or workspace, try using metallic faux finishes to replicate colors found in automotive finishes or race-car colors for accents that enhance the learning environment."

Because college-level facilities must appeal to a broader range of ages - from late teens to adults of all ages - a variety of color is important. "Dark, highly saturated colors can be used strategically in a classroom to avoid distraction from equipment like televisions, video monitors and projectors," says Thompson. "Another option, as in the case of middle and high schools, is the use of school colors to promote school spirit."

What color for what room? Where you specify bright, attention-getting colors and mild, calming colors depends a lot on the function of the space, Thompson notes.

"In classrooms, students and educators need to feel stimulated and motivated, but not so much so that the colors discourage concentration," says Thompson. "An effective technique is to paint the teaching wall a deeper or brighter shade than is used on the side walls. This does two things: It attracts attention to the front of the classroom, yet the eyes get a visual break when focus is shifted to the side walls.

"Libraries don't need to be dreary, dull spaces. Actually, using color to warm and brighten these spaces encourages students to read. Walls and shelves lined with books can be energized with the use of colorful wall graphics. Frequently, libraries also contain computers, so remember to select colors that help reduce glare and eyestrain in these areas.

"Auditoriums, gymnasiums and cafeterias are often poorly lit. In addition, their large size makes color selection a critical issue - bright colors on large expanses can easily overwhelm the space. Lighter warm tones or neutrals are recommended for the main color, with brightly colored accents to invigorate the room.

"Corridors and stairwells are ideal spaces for bright, happy colors to reflect school spirit. Lockers can be painted school colors. Mascots and other colorful wall graphics add interest. Strategic use of appropriate colors can help visually shorten long hallways and enlarge small, dark ones. In corridors and stairwells, combinations of colors also can be used effectively to color code sections of the building - depending on use, for example - and can aid navigation and traffic flow in a large or multistory building," explains Thompson.

Changing colors is fast and inexpensive. Fortunately, changing paint colors is probably the fastest and least-expensive way to improve an educational facility's environment, notes Thompson. It's certainly easier and less expensive than replacing furnishings.

In a new facility, Thompson recommends apply- ing trendy accent colors on a single wall, leaving the other walls a classic neutral color. That way, down the road, only one wall will need a new color designation.

,p>In older facilities, says Thompson, new paint is a useful tool for renovation, plus it can be accomplished during holiday and summer breaks, or even while school is in session if low-VOC, low-odor paints are used.

"Purchasing paint in quantity, obviously, is a cost-saving tactic, and it can be inventoried for touch-up and repaint purposes," Thompson says. "However, selecting a variety of accent colors based on age preferences should reap valuable benefits at minimal additional cost."

Thompson cautions facility managers to consider paint's light reflective value when making a selection. "Sometimes light reflection from a painted surface serves as a secondary light source," she says. "Mid to light colors with a Light Reflectance Value (LRV) of at least 50 (this number can often be found on paint manufacturers' samples or swatch cards) are appropriate for classrooms, but even the lightest paint can't help a poorly lit classroom. In these cases, a professional lighting specialist should be consulted. The sheen of the paint selected makes a difference, too. High sheen makes colors appear richer and more saturated."