Two co-workers in a large corporation were visiting at the water cooler. The first exclaimed, " I got a promotion!"
The second was taken by surprise. "Really? You got a raise?"
"No," the first replied, "I got a window!"
Windows are so much a part of architecture today we often take them for granted. But life and work in a windowless environment would be, well, artificial. We've come a long way into the technology age only to discover that natural light, an exterior view and air ventilation often are better companions for living and working than exclusively artificial lighting, looking at solid walls and breathing often not-so-clean, piped-in heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
In this article, we take our hats off to the natural winner-windows-whose benefits are worth appreciating as we preserve or improve them with window treatments.
Benefits of Natural Light
Natural light from the sun often is referred to as full-spectrum light and is the most healthful light for humans. The visible spectrum, or light we can see, is a small part of the much larger band of electromagnetic wavelengths radiating through space. White light is composed of all the colored light (also called spectral color or naturally occurring colored light) that we see in a rainbow. Each color band of light is an electromagnetic wavelength, and each hue exists because it is a different wavelength.
At one end of the visible spectrum is red with the longest wavelength. At the other end is purple or violet with the shortest wavelength. Each wavelength in between has health-enhancing properties and together give us the full-spectrum benefits that most artificial light cannot.
Naturally occurring spectral hues are arranged in a rainbow next to each other in graduating order. This order also is seen on the color wheel: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. Just beyond the red hues are infrared wavelengths (think: infinitely long), and on the other end are ultraviolet rays (think: ultra short), which we know as that part of sunlight that is damaging to skin and to furnishings. We can receive the health benefits of natural, full spectrum (visible) light, yet screen out the ultraviolet light by specifying window film to be installed on the inside of a window. Window film can be sold to customers with a markup, or with the advantage of a referral fee paid to the window treatments professional by the installation company.
Man-made or artificial lighting is rarely full-spectrum. As a general rule, most fluorescent lighting emits a majority of cool wavelengths (green, blue, violet), although balanced light is possible in more expensive lamps (bulbs) and warm fluorescent lamps also are available. On the other hand, incandescent lighting consists largely of warm wavelengths (yellow, orange, red). Low voltage and halogen lighting both produce a clearer white light with low voltage light possessing more warm colors and halogen more cool colors.
None of these artificial lighting types can produce the health benefits of natural sunlight. In fact, there is a condition many people experience during the long, darker winter months known as Seasonally Affected Disorder, or S.A.D., that is a physical and emotional state of fatigue and depression. S.A.D. is considered a disruption in the circadian entrainment rhythms-meaning the process by which we set our internal, biological clocks through regular exposure to daylight has been disrupted. So physiologically, sunlight can make us happy and give us energy.
S.A.D. can be treated with strictly controlled phototherapy in which the patient sits in a light box for one-hour sessions. The person glances up at a phototherapy light for 10 to 15 seconds out of every minute. The light must reach 2,500 lux, a measure of brightness. Phototherapy lights can be purchased for the home or workplace. The best brands have a color index of 91, compared to 100 for natural, full-spectrum light.
Other advantages to natural light include the pleasant quality it often casts on our work and on interior furnishings. When natural light is too bright, a blind, translucent shade or sheer product can filter it to soften the sometimes harsh effect of glare or direct sunshine. A daylighted interior often is considered to be stress-reducing, calming and peaceful.
Another winning consideration to natural light is that plants thrive best under sunny, filtered conditions and in relative constant temperature. Live plants make life and work more enjoyable because they are life supporting-always growing and changing. It is a symbiotic relationship. We derive pleasure from real plants, and they require from us water, fertilizer, good light and protection against temperature extremes.
We win in yet another way: plants clean the air. The following chart is from the Foliage for Clean Air Council. It provides a list of three common indoor pollutants, their sources, side effects and which plants are proven fighters against them.
Plants for Clean Air
Source: Inks, oil, plastics, rubber, dyes, detergents, gasoline, pharmaceuticals, tobacco smoke, synthetic fibers.
Side effects: Skin and eye irritation. May be a contributing factor to chromosomal aberrations and leukemia in humans. Chronic exposure to even relatively low levels causes headaches, loss of appetite, drowsiness, nervousness, psychological disturbances, anemia, bone marrow disease, carcinogenicity.
Proven pollution fighters: English ivy, dracena marginata, Janet Craign, warneckei, chrysanthemum, gerbera daisy, peace lily.
Source: Foam insulation, plywood, particle board, pressed wood products, grocery bags, waxed papers, facial tissue, paper towels, fabric preservative, wrinkle-resistant finishes, water repellents, fire retardants, adhesive binders in floor coverings, carpet backing, permanent-press clothing, cigarette smoke, natural gas, kerosene.
Side effects: Irritates mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat; can cause contact dermatitis; irritation of upper respiratory tract and eyes; headaches; can cause asthma and is suspected of causing a rare type of throat cancer.
Proven pollution fighters: Azalea, philodendron, spider plant, golden pothos, bamboo palm, corn plant, chrysanthemum, mother-in-law's tongue.
Source: Used in the metal degreasing and dry cleaning industries and in printing inks, paints, lacquers, varnishes and adhesives.
Side effects: Considered a potent liver carcinogen by the National Cancer Institute.
Prove pollution fighters: Gerbera daisy, chrysanthemum, peace lily, warnecki, dracena marginata.
To View or Not to View
Windows are unique in that they protect us from nature's extremes while allowing a view to nature's beauties and bounties. A beautiful nature scene or masterful landscaping, even the view of rain- or snowfall, can be a rich visual experience and often is satisfying to the spirit as well.
When the view is worth preserving and enjoying, window treatments should support and not detract from the view. Treatments that open easily and stack fully off the window are best, and where a remote control can be installed, so much the better. Drapery side panels and top treatments should be simple and provide a background frame and not compete with the scene. Be sure to provide glare control. During daytime, blinds or a sheer treatment can maintain a view while assuring privacy. Always provide nighttime privacy with opaque treatments.
Many windows, however, provide a less-than-appealing viewa parking lot, other buildings, the neighbors' yards. When this is true, a more obscuring window treatment is advisable. Decorative fabrics, layers of fabric, fabric valances over alternative treatments, even complex treatments, are acceptable. But even when the view is not great, the ability to look outside is good in a number of ways. Those working at computer screens can help prevent eye damage by glancing outside into the distance often, stretching the vision, relaxing the eye muscles and reducing stress. A window, view or no view, is a mental escape from the four walls of home or workplace.
Ventilation au Naturel
Ventilation in sealed environments has undergone much scrutiny in recent years. The concept of a sealed building, in which the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system (HVAC) strictly regulates and distributes the correct air volume at a rate of turnover that is considered healthy, has been found to be flawed.
For one, the ducts often become lined with dust, micro-organisms and sometimes even rodent debris, which cause conditions that are less than optimum for humans as the air continues to recirculate through the duct work. Where air is drawn from the outside, pollution may be pulled into the system particularly in cities with smog.
Another problem with sealed environment systems is that although they were designed to save energy, in reality they often are expensive to run. When energy costs soar, there is a tendency to reduce their use and lower the rate of fresh air volume exchange.
Sometimes these systems are ineffective at removing the toxins emitted from man-made materials and fumes from machinery such as photocopiers. These pollutants lead to Sick Building Syndrome in which occupants feel symptoms such as headaches, nausea, lack of concentration, irritability, difficulty in breathing, fatigue or malaise. These conditions are not limited to nonresidential settings. Many homes have less-than-healthy air, and the symptoms and discomforts are the same.
So what is to be done? One remedy is to have the air ducts professionally cleaned and sanitized. Furnaces should be purchased or retrofitted with quality filters and air purifier attachments. Air conditioners or refrigeration systems may need dehumidifiers and filters that remove bacteria such as mold.
The ability to open windows for fresh, clean air when possible also is a solution. Although outside air might not be perfectly clean, it may well be free of the problems compounded by continuously recirculating air throughout an interior. Alternative health care professionals are strong advocates of deep breathing to cleanse the body, purify the mind and restore emotional peace and mental sharpness.
Luckily, we live in a culture that, although an integral part of the age of technology and information, has learned nature is much to be admired, respected and made a viable part of living and working conditions. Perhaps a better adage is that we live in a high-tech/low-tech world by choice.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.