We have long known the benefits of natural light in the workplace. Consider the survey by an HR advisory firm Future Workplace and published in the Harvard Business Review showing access to natural light is the number one attribute workers want in their office environment. Yet, millions of employees are deprived of natural light because the use of traditional window blinds and shades act as a blunt instrument for reducing glare and heat transfer.
Fortunately, smart-window technology is promising to eliminate that ages-old problem and simultaneously give employees and propery owners the full benefit of natural sunlight and temperature control. Those innovations are only starting to be realized, according to Brandon Tinianov, because most real estate professionals are still unaware the technology exists. Tinianov is vice president of industry strategy at View, Inc., a manufacturer of smart-window technology.
We have been using blinds and shades on windows for many decades. What is the problem with that?
Traditional glass windows amplify the sun’s energy like a greenhouse, leading to glare and excessive heat. We can only spend so much time near them before we start to feel uncomfortable — common symptoms are headaches, drowsiness and eyestrain. So far, solutions to this problem have been clumsy and low-tech: covering windows with blinds and shades. The problem is, none of these is very good at reducing heat and, perhaps more important, they block natural light and views of the outdoors, both of which are not only desirable amenities but critical determinants of our health and wellness. Blinds also impact asset value. In most buildings, the number one feature is the view, which is the reason lease rates get more expensive the higher up you go and the more expansive the view. Yet, a 2013 Urban Green Council report found that blinds cover 59 percent of the office windows (and views) in New York City.
Why have blinds and shades been state-of-the-art for so long?
The answer is simple: No one has proposed a decent alternative — until recently, that is.
What is new window technology making possible with regard to controlling natural light and heat?
A decade ago, engineers developed smart windows that intelligently change their tint based on cloud coverage and the angle of the sun. This high-performance technology — made possible by an electrochromic coating — blocks out heat and glare without blinds and shades, while optimizing comfort levels for people and giving them access to daylight and views of the outdoors. As an added benefit, the machine-learning software required to control natural light and heat also makes the entire skin of a building digital and intelligent, allowing it to be easily updated to gain new capabilities, effectively future-proofing the building to accommodate future innovations.
What effect will so-called smart glass have on workers?
The technology can have a profound effect on our health and wellbeing. Some leading academics have shown, through research and data, exactly how smart windows benefit people. One recent study — led by Dr. Mohamed Boubekri, from the school of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Dr. Usha Satish, a cognitive scientist at SUNY Upstate Medical University — 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 smart windows. Boubekri and Satish found that when participants worked in the office with smart windows, they slept 37 minutes more each night. Sleep is when the body and mind recovers, and it plays an outsized role in overall wellbeing and mental health. It is no surprise then, the participants in the room with smart windows were also 48 percent less likely to report eyestrain and 77 percent less likely to report feeling depressed. 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.
What will it take for the technology to become universal, at least in economically developed countries?
The biggest barrier to a universal adoption of smart windows is awareness. Most real estate professionals still don’t realize there’s a proven alternative to blinds and shades. But once people try this technology and see the benefits it has to their occupants, they realize that smart windows aren’t a “nice-to-have,” they’re a necessity, for both the occupant and the building owner. Buildings with smart window technology have a higher asset value, command higher average rents, and faster lease up. As a result, smart windows are now in more than 65 million square feet of offices, airports, hospitals, universities and residential buildings across North America. We’re fortunate to have top developers and private equity firms adopting the technology and recognizing its benefit to their portfolios.