How often do you think about the windows in your home and workspace and the way they impact your health? Not much, I imagine. But new research shows that they really matter. 

Scientists have known for decades that the amount of natural light we receive is a critical determinant of health and wellness. Study after study has shown that increased daylight and views of the outdoors can regulate circadian rhythmlower blood pressure, and even positively impact our ability to learn.

Recent research by Dr. Mohamed Boubekri, a professor in the school of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that people who work in offices with plenty of natural light sleep 46 minutes more each night than employees who work in offices without windows or access to daylight.

This finding has important ramifications for our health and wellness. Lack of sleep has become a societal problem. A recent NIH-funded study found that nearly 30 percent of Americans sleep 6 hours or less each night. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sleep disorders are so common in the United States, they now constitute a public health epidemic.

Now, a new study from Boubekri and Dr. Usha Satish, a cognitive scientist at SUNY Upstate Medical University, suggests that our window blinds are contributing to this problem.

EVOLV: Establishing the value of light and views

Traditional glass windows let in so much of the sun’s light and energy, leading to glare and excessive heat, that we have been forced to hang blinds on them. Blinds have their own downsides — they block the view and natural light, while not doing much to reduce the heat. 

We can only spend so much time near them before we start to feel uncomfortable — common symptoms are headaches, drowsiness and eyestrain. A 2013 Urban Green Council report found that blinds cover 59 percent of the office windows (and views) in New York City. “Architects, engineers, and developers should work together to discover ways to resolve energy and comfort issues while maintaining great views,” the authors of the report concluded.

For the bulk of human history, we have been an outdoors species — we evolved to thrive in the natural environments around us. We now spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors. We’ve replaced the sun’s natural light with artificial lighting, and fresh air with HVAC. Because of this, our buildings are, quite literally, making us sick.

As the CEO of View, a technology company reimagining the day-to-day window, I’ve always been optimistic that technology and innovation can provide us with the tools to solve such problems. For over a decade, our scientists and engineers have been developing smart windows that can intelligently change their tint based on cloud cover and the angle of the sun. This high-performance technology blocks out heat and glare while eliminating blinds and shades, optimizing comfort levels for people and giving them access to daylight and views of the outdoors.      

For a long time, this technology was the stuff of science fiction, but View’s smart windows are being adopted rapidly, now in over 65 million square feet of offices, airports, hospitals, universities, and residential buildings all across North America — and now expanding internationally.

The evidence regarding daylight’s positive impact on sleep is encouraging, and at View, we wanted to extend the research to our smart windows. Boubekri and Satish measured the sleep and cognitive function of participants in two controlled office settings: one with traditional glass windows outfitted with blinds; and the other with View Smart Windows, which maximized daylight while maintaining a view to the outdoors. Other factors, such as furniture layout, air quality, and temperature were held constant throughout the study.

Each of the participants — all holding office jobs typical of today’s “knowledge worker” — spent one week in each environment. A second group of people participated in the study in the reverse order to negate any potential ‘learning’ effects. They measured sleep duration throughout the study with precision sleep trackers — the same wrist-watch sized devices used in studies by the CDC and NIH. At the end of the first day and last day of each work week, Boubekri and Satish also tested the participants’ cognitive function using a test designed to measure real-world decision-making performance.

They found that during the week when participants worked in the room with more daylight, they slept 37 minutes more each night. For these knowledge workers, who averaged about six hours of sleep a night, 37 minutes of additional sleep makes a huge difference. Importantly, the participants who had the worst sleep quality prior to the study were the ones who benefited the most, gaining almost an hour back each night. 

Sleep is when our body and mind recover, and it plays an outsized role in our overall well-being and mental health. It is no surprise then, that the participants were also 48 percent less likely to report eyestrain and 77 percent less likely to report feeling depressed in the room with better daylight and views.

In addition, the participants’ cognitive function improved dramatically, resulting in a 42 percent average increase in test scores compared to when they worked in the office with blinds. Participants were better able to strategize, make decisions, and respond to crises, and they had an easier time finding information and focusing on daily tasks. What’s more, their test scores improved over the course of the week with five days of improved sleep quality. At the same time, the test scores of participants in the room with traditional blinds decreased from Monday to Friday.

Coronavirus forced us to re-evaluate the world we live in. Some of our greatest innovations were born during times of great uncertainty. We’re now witnessing this process in real time. As communities across the country open up in fits and starts, we’re beginning to talk about how life needs to change. We’re coming out of the tunnel, and we’re asking ourselves what type of world we want to see when we do.

The answer is not to return to normal, but rather a new normal (or a new abnormal).

As a technology company that strives to inspire change, View has been thinking about the new abnormal for quite some time. We’re obsessed with how buildings can have a profound effect on our health and wellbeing. We’ve been on a journey with some of the world’s leading academics to figure out how to build healthier human environments. The recent research into the effects of smart windows on sleep is just the next great leap in that journey.

If we’ve come to find health as our core value, then we should craft a world that promotes our health first and foremost. We should craft buildings that make us healthier, not sicker.