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UNI Sabin Hall Light Lounge

UNI Sabin Hall Light Lounge

Submitted by Mike Lambert, LC, IES on September 3, 2012

The University of Northern Iowa’s Sabin Hall was originally constructed in 1913 as a Teacher’s College featuring instructional spaces that typified the style of classrooms that recent graduates were likely to encounter during their careers. Currently it houses the University’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (CSBS). CSBS includes seven
departments: Design, Textiles, Gerontology & Family Studies; Geography; History; Political Science; Psychology; Social Work and Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology.

UNI Sabin Hall Light Lounge
When originally constructed as a classroom building, Sabin Hall featured a center light court that provided natural light to the interior core of the building. During the intervening years, the need for new mechanical systems and increased programming space prompted the infill of all but the top level of the light court. The current renovation included the reintroduction of a partial full height light court to improve daylighting and access for the building occupants. Many strategies incorporating natural and electric lighting were employed in the renovated Sabin Hall, including a “Light Lounge” in the new student area at the base of the light court.

The UNI Sabin Hall “Light Lounge” is patterned after the Light Cafes of Scandinavia as well as the Dana Center Light Lounge at the Science Museum in the UK, created in 2006 to coincide with a special event to debate the issues of winter depression. The goals for the Sabin Hall “Light Lounge” include:

• Increase knowledge about the importance of light and its suggested therapeutic effect on symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
• Offer potential relief for any building users suffering from SAD.
• Provide observation and research opportunities for UNI students and faculty.

Light Therapy and SAD
The pioneering research in the early 1980’s by Norman Rosenthal, M.D., Alfred J. Lewy, PhD, M.D., Thomas Wehr, M.D. and others led to much of the knowledge gained regarding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) (1). Since the discovery of SAD in the 1980s, light therapy has been recommended as the treatment of choice. A presentation by Mark S. Rea, PhD of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center at Boston University’s Photonics Building highlights the progress being made in this area (2). SAD is thought to be linked to a biochemical imbalance in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls mood, appetite, and sleep; SAD appears to be caused by the shortening of daylight hours and lack of sunlight in winter (3).

According to National Climatic Data Center information, the project site in Iowa has a slightly lower than the national average percentage of sunny days compared to other locations in the U.S.; a 59% annual average of possible sunshine days, as compared to the high of 90% at Yuma, Arizona and the low of 30% at Juneau, Alaska. The Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms estimates that about 25% of the residents of the middle and northern latitudes of the US experience some form of sub-clinical winter SAD, while Yale University’s Department of Psychiatry cites research suggesting that over 3% of all US citizens, including those in the lower latitudes, suffer from clinical winter SAD. Of this group, women are four times as likely as men to be represented (4).

The highest building occupancy at UNI Sabin Hall occurs during the typical August to May academic year when daylight hours are more limited, and the possible sunshine percentage can be as low as 46% during December. The darker days signal the brain to overproduce the hibernation hormone, melatonin. Melatonin is necessary during the night; its presence forces us to pull back, conserve, and sleep. Light is believed to be a key component in the melatonin suppression mechanism that energizes people during the daylight hours. While the spectral and chromatic characteristics of light under various intensities may have an influence on the efficacy of SAD light therapy, it has been generally recognized by researchers that exposure of 1000 footcandles of reasonably “white” light for 30 minutes minimum to be most effective. However, studies have also indicated that an exposure to 250 footcandles for 60-120 minutes can help facilitate the suppression of melatonin and elevate levels of the hormones serotonin and cortisol, contributing to the mitigation of the effects of SAD (5).

Research continues to explore the possible mechanisms involved with SAD as well as expand the knowledge base regarding use of light therapies for conditions related to SAD. The Light Lounge at Sabin Hall will create an opportunity for students to more fully consider the intricate relationship between light and human well being.
Design Strategy for Sabin Hall Light Lounge
The newly reclaimed light court features a commons area at Ground Level with seating where
students and faculty can socialize, study, and relax. This central space also provides a
dedicated flat screen monitor on the north wall of the Light Lounge that highlights the sustainability features of the renovated building and furnishes other student information.

The open pergola style canopy at the Light Lounge holds eight two-lamp narrow housing wraparound fluorescent fixtures which are mounted at 8’-6” above the finished floor and consume 56 watts each. The lighting branch circuit is energized on a time schedule through a programmable lighting relay panel, supplying power to the eight fixtures. The user can then manually switch on the lighting array, with a time switch facilitating energy conservation by automatically switching the fixtures off.

A local single pole switch intended for general illumination controls 4 of the 8 light fixtures within the canopy. However, a wall mounted timer switch set to shut off half of the fixtures after one hour can also control all 8 light fixtures. When the relay panel’s time schedule dictates, the branch circuit is fully de-energized until the next scheduled “On” event. With all light fixtures fully energized, the illumination level directly under the canopy of the Light Lounge is approximately 255 footcandles measured at 4’ above the finished floor, or at the typical eye level when seated.

Educational and Research Opportunities
The Light Lounge strengthens the Sabin Hall’s project goal to re-establish the critical joint roles of natural and electric lighting in fostering the building occupants’ sense of well-being. By emphasizing the potential wellness benefits associated with adequate light exposure, it is hoped that students, staff and visitors will increase their awareness and build a stronger understanding of the place of light in responsible building design.

Faculty within the College are formulating exploratory studies to investigate links between this
permanently installed light therapy model and building occupants’ mood and satisfaction during the winter months. One such pilot study under consideration plans to engage university students in a series of test conditions to obtain qualitative and quantitative data related to student outcomes. Assessment tools such as the Beck Depression Inventory II (Dozois, Dobson, & Ahnberg, 1998) and the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire could be used in these studies to yield important quantitative data. The resulting analysis will not only provide useful design feedback but also chart future focused research directions.


1. Lewy AJ, Kern HA, Rosenthal NE, Wehr TA: “Bright artificial light treatment of a manic-depressive patient with a seasonal mood cycle”. American Journal of Psychiatry, 139:11 – 1496-1498, 1982.

2. Mark S. Rea, PhD: “A Second Kind of Light”. Presentation: Academia – Industry Day, Boston University, 2010.

3. National Institute of Mental Health / Science Update May 1, 2006: “Properly Timed Light, Melatonin Lift Winter Depression By Syncing Rhythms”.

4. Jacobsen FM, Wehr TA, Sack DA, James SP, Parry BL, Rosenthal NE: “Seasonal Affective Disorder: A review of the syndrome and its public health implications”. American Journal of Public Health, 77 (1):57-60, 1987.

5. Robert N. Golden, Bradley N. Gaynes, R. David Ekstrom, Robert M. Hamer, Frederick M. Jacobsen, Trisha Suppes, Katherine L. Wisner, and Charles B. Nemeroff: “The Efficacy of Light Therapy in the Treatment of Mood Disorders: A Review and Meta-Analysis of the Evidence”. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162:4 – 656-662, 2005

Additional Readings
Dozois, D.J.A., Dobson, K. S., & Ahnberg, J. L. (1998). A psychometric evaluation of the Beck
Depression Inventory–II. Psychological Assessment, 10(2), 83-89.

Rosenthal, N.E., Genhardt, M., Sack, D.A., Skwerer, R.G.,Wehr, T.A. (1987). Seasonal affective disorder: relevance for treatment and research of bulimia. In Hudson, J.I., Pope, H.G. (Eds.) (pp. 205–228) Psychobiology of Bulimia. American Psychiatric Press, Washington, DC.

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