Seeing the light
Seeing the light

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Seeing the light

2 The Secret Life of Buildings

Activity 1 The Secret Life of Buildings

Timing: Allow about 40 minutes

Watch The Secret Life of Buildings. As you watch it, try to make notes about the key points made. Then answer the questions below.

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Transcript: The Secret Life of Buildings

Tom Dyckhoff
Your home is the most important piece of architecture you’ll ever experience. It’s where you spend most of your life. It’s where you express who you really are. It’s where you feel most yourself. This is somebody’s home. It’s also a work of art.
This is the Lost House hidden away in London’s King’s Cross and designed by the much feted British architect David Adjaye, the poster boy for sexy, up-market housing. He creates spaces that seduce by fusing a relationship between indirect light, materials and colour. This iconic house is almost totally black. Black resin floor, black walls, with no windows, but three light wells.
This is the kind of home we all drool over in the glossy magazines, but you could argue that it’s spaces like this that have driven our national obsession with what a home looks like and how expensive it is. Not what it feels like, or whether it’s good for us. Does it feel like a home, or does it feel like an artwork?
Suzanna Wallgren
Yeah, I think it feels very much like a home. I don’t mind at all to be in a piece of art.
Tom Dyckhoff
So then does the house rule your life?
Suzanna Wallgren
Yes, in a way, yeah. You cannot leave things out. They will disturb the feeling of the house.
Tom Dyckhoff
So what are the demands that the house makes on you?
Suzanna Wallgren
You have to have a certain upkeep. You have to polish the floors. You have to keep it tidy. You have to work on the concrete. It definitely requires maintenance, absolutely.
Tom Dyckhoff
A lot of windows. A lot of window cleaning must go on here.
Suzanna Wallgren
You have to keep very good friends with the window cleaner.
Tom Dyckhoff
But even with all this glass everywhere, the one you can’t help noticing is a lack of direct light and a pervading gloom. It’s very dark, though, as well. I mean, all the blackness. You never feel like you’re living in a bunker? Or a coffin?
Suzanna Wallgren
No, I’ve heard many things, but not that. For some reason, I never felt that this is stark or very cold feel to it. It may not be for everyone. It probably is not for everyone, but for me it is, yeah, it’s very, very peaceful.
Tom Dyckhoff
This is a beautiful house, meticulously thought through. But I’d argue it’s a prime example of an architect as artist, making a house that rules you, instead of making a house that fulfils your needs.
Most of us don’t live in a work of art. We buy places like this. You thought the Lost House was dark? Unbelievably many windows in new housing are just over half a metre squared, about the size of a pizza box. Why so small? Simple. To save money. Small windows in new homes are a real concern for Professor Foster who, for more than 25 years, has studied how a low lux or light level can effect our internal body clock.
Prof Russell Foster
Outside light is incredibly bright. Even in a cloudy day in London, you’ve probably got 20,000, 30,000 lux. The equivalent in your home would be 200 to 300 lux. In fact, people have argued that we live our lives in dim-dark caves.
Tom Dyckhoff
This is where I live. A flat built in the 1950s. And the thing I love most of all about it, the big windows. But I’m curious to see what a lack of light does to me. So Professor Foster has devised an experiment, boarding up my windows for a week to the level of a house with the smallest national average window size.
Prof Russell Foster
So what we’re going to do is reduce the light probably to something like 50 or 100 lux. Still many people are living under those sort of relatively low light levels. And then see how you cope with that reduced light exposure after about a week.
Tom Dyckhoff
It sounds very depressing. Oh, my god, what have I let myself in for? I bought this flat for the light, and I’m going to be without it for a whole week. It feels like being in prison, and the door has just slammed shut. So this light meter will detect how much is coming in here before we put the boards up. OK, that was about 200 from this position in this room. Now it’s reading about 50.
I’ve got all these different tests to do. Urine sample, that I've got to keep in the fridge and in the freezer. Fridge full of urine – that’s very nice. Blood test, got my glucose monitor. This is my sleepiness scale. It shows you how sleepy I’m feeling throughout the day.
And then these ones. These are mood ratings. Do I feel calm? Do I feel sad? Horrified? Happy? Angry? Do I feel extremely angry? I feel a bit angry at the moment. I have to be honest. The whole flat feels a bit like it’s been plunged into depression.
I feel like I’m living in a cave. Or like in a Goth’s bedroom or something. I really want to get out now. I really feel like I want to escape. But you know the most worrying thing for me? The most worrying thing of all at the moment? It’s these, look, my plants. I’m not even allowed to leave my home for a week.
Day four, very glum and very tired. There’s this sort of gloom over the whole flat. It does smell like a gentleman’s toilet. I can’t really wait for it to end now, I think. It’s horrible. I hate it. Make it stop. Not long to go now. I feel really, really glum.
Isn’t that amazing? To reacquaint yourself with the Sun after a week. I feel like I’m going on holiday, like I’m off to Saint-Tropez after a spell in the Arctic North where there’s no light. Thank goodness that’s over with. But I wonder, what was all that darkness actually doing to my body?
Prof Russell Foster
So your tension and anxiety went up significantly.
Tom Dyckhoff
Wow.
Prof Russell Foster
Your depression and dejection went up really quite a lot, but look at this. Your vigour collapsed enormously.
Tom Dyckhoff
I know I felt glum, and a bit blue, and a bit grumpy and so on, but to actually see the swings.
Prof Russell Foster
Now let’s look at the glucose levels. And I have to say, I’m a little concerned. A glucose level above six is regarded as high. And what you see is that under the dim light conditions, your morning glucose has moved from 5.7 to 6.8.
Tom Dyckhoff
So I’m sort of borderline diabetic? That’s not good after a week, is it?
Prof Russell Foster
Certainly, if that was sustained, then you’d need to bring that down below six.
Tom Dyckhoff
Shocking, isn’t it?
Prof Russell Foster
It’s quite marked actually. What was really interesting, and that urine collection was worth doing, because these data are really fascinating. If you were perfectly entrained, the body clock was exactly locked on, the period of the peaks would be exactly 24 hours, but they’re not. In fact, we’ve got a period of 24.2, which is a little bit longer, which fits with the idea that the body clock is beginning to drift. Those peaks are getting a little bit later and later.
Tom Dyckhoff
Now what is the consequence of that?
Prof Russell Foster
Well, what you’re getting is a tendency for internal desynchronisation. The master clock in the brain is at a slightly different point to the clocks in the liver, to the ones in the gut.
Tom Dyckhoff
So if I was to carry on living like this, like many people do in new homes, what would be the result?
Prof Russell Foster
You’re more likely to be depressed.
Tom Dyckhoff
Blimey.
Prof Russell Foster
You are increasing your chances of immune suppression, metabolic abnormalities such as diabetes two. And, of course, all that is associated with increased levels of susceptibility to disease.
Tom Dyckhoff
That’s quite incredible, isn’t it. That’s quite an incredible reaction, response.
Prof Russell Foster
We are an extraordinary species, and perhaps just profoundly arrogant. We think we’re independent of so much. We can do what we like, when we like. And something as trivial as the amount of light we see each day is not considered as important.
Tom Dyckhoff
And yet it is. It’s fundamental.
Prof Russell Foster
It’s critical.
Tom Dyckhoff
I’m astonished by what a lack of light can do to us. Luckily for the house builders, most of us can get out for a top-up of natural light. But for those who can’t, and for all of us in winter, staying at home in a house with small windows can certainly damage your health. And it gets worse. It’s not just light they skimp on. This country is building some of the smallest homes in Western Europe, and it’s having a devastating effect.
End transcript: The Secret Life of Buildings
The Secret Life of Buildings
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  • a.What is the unit for measuring light?
  • b.What are the light levels:
    • i.outside in an urban centre?
    • ii.in the average British home?
  • c.In the programme, the presenter, Tom Dyckhoff, is tested to see how he reacts to decreased light levels. What was the light level in Dyckhoff’s home when the window sizes were reduced?

  • d.What different tests are carried out on Dyckhoff and what two main things do you think they are measuring?
  • e.What are the effects on Dyckhoff from living with reduced light levels for a week?
  • f.What might these effects lead to if the experimental conditions continued?
  • g.How could these effects be reduced for people living in conditions of low light?

Discussion

  • a.The unit for measuring light is the lux.
  • b.The programme states that:
    • i.the amount of light outside in London is between 20 000 and 30 000 lux
    • ii.inside the average home it is between 200 and 300 lux.
  • c.In the programme, it was shown that the light levels in Dyckhoff’s home were reduced to about 50 lux when the windows were boarded up.

  • d.Dyckhoff has tests on his urine and blood to determine, among other things, his glucose levels. He also completes a couple of questionnaires: one to determine how tired he feels and the other to determine his mood.

    The blood and urine tests measure directly how the body is responding chemically, while the questionnaires test how Dyckhoff is feeling during the experiment. Usually the two things are related, but that is not necessarily the case. So, the blood and urine tests are measuring what we call objective things (for example, things that we can accurately put a number to) and the questionnaires are measuring what we call subjective things (for example, things that we feel).

  • e.After the one-week experiment, Dyckhoff’s glucose levels have gone up, his feelings of tension, anxiety and depression have all increased, his activity and vigour have decreased, and his ‘body clock’ has begun to drift, in what the tester calls ‘internal desynchronisation’. Of course, this cannot definitely be due to the decreased light levels alone – Dyckhoff was also not allowed to leave his flat for the week long experiment. So as well as being subjected to low light levels, he was also probably not getting the same amount of exercise and social interaction as normal – which is likely to have also contributed to his increases in anxiety, depression, etc. and his metabolic changes.
  • f.If the experimental conditions were to continue, Dyckhoff might be more likely to develop diabetes, suppression of the immune system, increased susceptibility to disease and depression.
  • g.One way to reduce the effects would be to spend more time outside in the open, where light levels are highest. A good walk is a cure for a lot of things!
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