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Beyond Indoor Air: The Importance of Light in the Healthy House

This article is an excerpt from Mariel Wolfson's doctoral dissertation.


...Each of the physical factors contributing to Kern’s baubiologie-inspired view of a healthy house is worth a substantive discussion in its own right, but this section will focus on light as a revealing example of Kern’s ecological approach to housing. There are five additional reasons for discussing light.


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First, compared to the other factors that went into constructing the healthy house, light more readily stands apart from indoor air pollution and indoor air quality, which were jointly becoming the dominant foci of housing-and-health discussions at the time Kern was writing. Second, Kern’s discussion of light in the healthy house connects him to other researchers from a range of backgrounds (including scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory) and shows the heterogeneity of interest in light and health during the 1970s. Third, the relative lack of attention to healthy light (as compared to healthy air) since the early 1980s reveals the dominance of indoor air as a healthy-housing concern, possibly at the expense of other important factors in indoor environmental health. Fourth, the history of lighting reflects a tension between health promotion and energy conservation that is familiar from the air-quality-versus-energy-conservation discussions of the 1970s and 1980s. Fifth, windows and light bulbs were and are such standard (and even banal) components of the typical home that their historical use as health-enhancing features warrants further exploration.


Light was an important subject for Kern in both The Owner-Built Home (1972) and The Healthy House (1978). In The Owner-Built Home, he explained that well-designed houses should include both “protected, cave like, introverted” spaces and “exposed, airy, extroverted” spaces, in keeping with the natural environments in which primitive man had evolved. He cited the architect Frank Lloyd Wright as an exemplar of this balance .21 Kern’s chapter on light and shade offered the owner-builder a wealth of information on how best to use windows for insulation and illumination, as well as techniques for reducing glare, such as appropriate window placement, size, and planting of shade trees at strategic locations outside the house .22 Lighting was yet another area in which existing building codes (as well as “the guiding regulations of the FHA or the Federal Public Housing Administration”) were failing builders, buyers, and occupants, for they merely prescribed window area on the basis of floor area. This ignored factors that affected both comfort and health: first, the difference between daylight and sunlight, and regional variations in both; second, the all-important distinction between quantity and quality of light.23


Again, this is where the owner-builder’s autonomy was crucial: “rather than waste our time complying with unintelligible building-code requirements, we should understand the nature of illumination with respect to the region of our locale and to the architectural effect that we seek to produce. Quality, as well as quantity of light to be provided, should be our concern.” Kern encouraged owner-builders to surpass these minimal - and possibly misguided - code requirements when it came to illuminating their homes .24


By the time he published The Healthy House in 1978, Kern had studied baubiologie’s recommendations on light as well as other published research on light and human health; accordingly, he expanded the discussion of light quality that he had begun in The Owner-Built Home. His goal was to show his readers how to construct their homes using the healthiest natural and artificial light, and how to avoid “malillumination,” which occurred when the body received insufficient full-spectrum light. Both ordinary window glass and ordinary incandescent light bulbs - found in typical American homes - failed to provide the light needed for optimum health, according to recently published literature that had had a significant influence on Kern. Ordinary window glass blocked “about 90 percent” of the long-wave ultraviolet light that humans needed; making matters worse, ordinary light bulbs emitted mostly infrared radiation.25 The result was that most people were deficient in essential ultraviolet radiation: “sunburn of human skin or sunlight obtained only through window glass that inhibits ultraviolet waves is as harmful to people as total deprivation of sunlight.” 26 This was a decidedly ecological view of the human organism in its habitat. It was no accident that Kern’s chapter on light also provided advice and diagrams on building a greenhouse, and discussion of the importance of full-spectrum lighting to healthy photosynthesis in plants. Kern was not recommending that humans take up residence in greenhouses - darkness and shade were essential features of a healthy house - but the analogy between plants and humans was clear: both needed natural light in sufficient quantities to flourish. “Natural daylight,” he wrote, “is needed by the body to maintain its circadian rhythm, which makes it possible for an organism to fully relate to its environment.” The house, as man’s “third skin,” was the all-important medium that connected him to this environment.


We know that Kern valued intelligent siting as one of the most important factors in homebuilding. This was essential to energy-conservation and comfort, but it was also important to obtaining healthy light: “the most effective way to provide illumination and warmth for a house is to learn to know the sun’s path across the sky and to be aware of how much of its light will actually penetrate home interiors.” 27 This was part of Kern’s “integral design,” and necessitated that the homebuilder have a thorough knowledge of his home site - not only of micro-level factors such as soil quality, but of macro-level factors such as its relation to the sun. The owner-builder with a truly holistic knowledge of his home site’s place on planet earth would be best prepared to build a healthy house. It was an ecological view of the home in its environment, and of the human being in his home.


Moreover, an intimate knowledge of one’s home site presumed a land ethic, a value articulated by ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose 1949 A Sand County Almanac had shaped the environmental movement with its argument that land - and all the living things it supported - should be treated not as a commodity with solely economic value, but as “a member of a community of interdependent parts.” “In short,” Leopold had written, “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” 28 A healthy home, by being well integrated with its surroundings, supported the health of the land and of its occupants. Proper illumination was just one of the many ways that a house, ideally, enabled the human organism “to fully relate to its environment.” One could never build such a house without a thorough understanding (and appreciation) of the land itself.


In the view of Kern and other writers on healthy light, conventional American windows and light bulbs compromised the health of housing, but the autonomous owner-builder need not suffer malillumination if he made informed choices. New German “bio-windows” used a two-layer design that could both transmit ultraviolet light and seal out cold air when desired. In the United States, Kern recommended that the owner-builder replace ordinary window glass with ultraviolet transmitting (UVT) windows made of Plexiglas or acrylite and that he replace ordinary incandescent bulbs with full spectrum light bulbs such as the newly-available Vita-Lite bulb. Kern planned to expand on this in a later book, Healthy Home Furnishings, but seems never to have published this.29


In advising owner-builders on healthy home illumination, one of Kern’s most important influences was the little-known researcher and writer John Ott. Ott began his career as a banker in Chicago before turning his hobby of photography into a full-time career. He specialized in time-lapse photography, which used numerous sequential images, varying incrementally, and showed them in rapid succession so as to create the illusion of fluid motion (a similar concept to cartoon animation, but using photographs instead of drawings). Ott became well-known for his time-lapse sequences of “dancing primroses,” as well as other flowers and plants, which he created for Walt Disney’s nature films as well as the Paramount film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. It was his work photographing plants that sparked his interest in the emerging field of photobiology.


Ott’s frustrations in trying to grow different varieties of flowers and plants, from primroses, to morning glories, to corn, to pumpkins, led him to manipulate light in various ways. These included replacing the ultraviolet-blocking glass walls of his greenhouse with ultraviolet-transmitting plastic, using light to attract the leaves of his plants in different directions, interrupting the plants’ periods of nighttime darkness with the flashbulbs of his cameras (unwittingly retarding their growth), and using photographic filters that favored the blue end of the light spectrum. Ott’s experiments began as trial-and-error as he simply tried to complete his photography assignments on schedule. But he could not ignore the powerful effects that light seemed to have on his plants: light could promote or retard their growth and even determine the sex of flower buds. This led him to conclude “that light exerts a profound effect on plants.” What matters from the perspective of healthy housing is that Ott applied his plant research to animals, eventually concluding that “there was some mysterious link between light and the mental and physical health of humans.” 30


Ott published the story of his work in Health and Light in 1973, republished as a mass-market paperback in 1976. He also published numerous articles in popular magazines and occasionally in scientific journals. Despite these publications, as well as an honorary doctorate, academic affiliations, some supportive scientific and medical colleagues, and various awards, Ott faced continual difficulty in convincing the medical and scientific professions to take his work seriously. He did achieve isolated successes and enjoyed periods of encouragement, but overall he can be seen as an outlier excluded from the conventional circles of scientific and medical discussion, despite the contemporary emerging interest in the biomedical effects of light.31


Ott’s experiments with plants, and his observations of the dramatic effects of light manipulation, soon led him to investigate the effects of light on animals, including mice, fish, and chinchillas. His appealing films of dancing flowers earned him appearances on television programs including The Home Show, Today, Out on the Farm, and Disneyland; his work was also featured in popular and scientific magazines. This publicity led to what Ott called “happy accidents” - contact from viewers and readers who thought Ott might be able to help them with their own work. Ott assisted a high school biology teacher in Chicago, helping him use different types of light to affect the sexual development of fish. He helped a chinchilla breeder in New Jersey produce more female chinchillas (an economic necessity) by manipulating the wavelengths of light used in the cages of the reproducing females. These and other observations, recounted in Health and Light, led Ott to hypothesize an analogy between plant and animal responses to light:


“possibly the basic principles of photochemistry in connection with the process of photosynthesis do carry over from plant life into animal life, but in a greatly improved way. If the basic chemistry of the human body responds to glandular actions controlled by the pituitary gland responding to light energy, then - as with plants - the characteristics of the light energy would be a very important factor. Different types of light and lighting conditions ranging from natural unfiltered sunlight to various kinds of artificial light, or natural sunlight filtered through different kinds of glass, or light reflected from different colored interior decorations in a room could affect the physical well-being of an individual.” 32


After additional experiments involving humans - including himself - Ott would refine his theory and his plant-animal-human analogy in terms of the retinal-hypothalamic-endocrine system (or oculo-endocrine system) .33 In this model, the human eye (particularly the retina) was the crucial link that enabled light energy to stimulate normal activity of the pituitary, which controlled much of the endocrine system.


In a striking analogy between plant and person, Ott likened the chloroplast to the cells of the retina:


“It would therefore seem that the chemistry of plants may be affected by the various responses of the chloroplasts to both the periodicity of light and darkness and to the intensity and distribution of wavelengths influencing the process of photosynthesis. It is further suggested that similar responses of the pigment granules in the pigment epithelial cells of the retina might be involved in the photoreceptor mechanism... that stimulates the retinal-hypothalamic-endocrine system in animals and thus influences the hormonal balance or body chemistry. And so it would appear that the basic principles of photosynthesis in plants, where light energy is recognized as a principal growth regulating factor, might be equally as important a growth regulating factor in animal life through control of chemical and hormonal activity.” 34


At the time of Ott’s writing, ecological thinking and environmentalism were both gaining considerable traction, especially among young people .35 What could be more ecological than a model in which plants and humans had analogous cells (chloroplasts and retinal photoreceptors respectively) and depended on light from the same sun, as parts of the planetary ecosystem as a whole?


Even when outdoors, Ott believed, most people did not benefit from the sun’s natural full-spectrum light because they wore sunglasses (and eyeglasses) that blocked it from their eyes.36 Using his own body as a research subject, Ott became convinced that ultra-violet blocking eyewear was another way that modern technology was harming human health. Ott suffered from hip arthritis so painful that it eventually compromised his mobility and ability to work. He tried every remedy available: “aspirin.... remedies, tonics, and vitamin pills baths... Injections of various new glandular extracts.”


Nothing helped. In another “happy accident,” he broke his glasses. The result?: “my hip hadn’t felt this well for three or four years ....The effect on my arthritis was as beneficial as an injection of one of the glandular extracts right into the hip joint ...Maybe I was one of the lucky people you hear about who get better for no reason at all, but I felt strongly that there was a reason. I had taken my glasses off and let the full unfiltered natural sunlight energy into my eyes and had also made a point of being outdoors six hours or more each day whether or not it was sunny or cloudy.” 37 He concluded that the light had stimulated his pituitary or pineal gland, affected his body chemistry (“stimulated the glands that lubricated my joints”), and improved his arthritis. This experience further convinced Ott of the importance of natural light. It prompted him to investigate whether others suffering from various diseases could be helped by light therapy.38


While it was rewarding to discover the salubrious effects of natural, full-spectrum sunlight, there was a major problem, and Ott had confronted it during the photographic work that first piqued his interest in photobiology: when plants were kept in greenhouses, subjected to artificial lights and flashbulbs, their growth could be arrested, promoted, or disrupted. Like Ott’s primroses, morning glories, corn stalks, and pumpkins, humans had become indoor creatures, removed from their natural light environment. Ott recommended ultraviolet-transmitting lenses for eyeglasses so that wearers could benefit from sunlight when outdoors. But, being indoors was a different problem. The modern indoor environment was decidedly unnatural and therefore harmful: “as man has become more industrialized, living under an environment of artificial light, behind window glass and windshield, watching TV, looking through colored sunglasses, working in windowless buildings, the wavelength energy entering the eye has become greatly distorted from that of natural sunlight   Too little is known generally... about the importance of providing an environment of natural light indoors, where so many people must spend a major part of their time.” 39


Contemporary with Ott, researchers in the emerging field of indoor air quality frequently reported a similar observation: people were now spending 80 to 90 percent of their time indoors, with some populations (children, some women, the elderly, the sick) spending most of that time at home. In the early 1960s, Theron Randolph and other clinical ecologists indicted the postwar proliferation of indoor chemicals and standard house features (like gas stoves) that polluted the home environment. The observation (and arguably the implicit regret) that most people spent so much time inside of buildings as opposed to outdoors was an argument for increased attention to the dangers of indoor air as well as the dangers of indoor light. There were, of course, other indoor dangers in addition to polluted air and distorted light, many of which Kern discussed in The Healthy House. Light, however, would attract neither the popular nor professional attention that air did. Malillumination, which Ott likened to malnutrition in its systemic health consequences, did not gain traction on par with other environmental dangers.


But not because no one else was interested. Ott was not alone in calling for more attention to the relationships among light, hormones, and health. In the early 1960s, Dr. Julius Axelrod, a recipient of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and Dr. Richard Wurtman at the National Institutes of Health (and later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), had studied the production of the hormone melatonin in the pineal gland, and found it to be sensitive to environmental light .40 Establishing this relationship between light, a particular hormone, and the human circadian rhythm, prompted Wurtman and others to take seriously the health effects of light, and to pursue new research on light and the endocrine system.


One particularly significant experiment, reported in 1971, concerned calcium absorption among elderly men at the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Recognizing that vitamin D (“the ‘sunshine vitamin’”) was produced by the skin when exposed to ultraviolet light, after which it facilitated the intestinal absorption of calcium, Richard Wurtman and several colleagues tested the effect of full-spectrum artificial lighting in simulating natural sun exposure and thus improving calcium metabolism. Their rationale was similar to John Ott’s warnings about “industrialized” man’s confinement indoors and behind glass: “ordinary window glass absorbs essentially all radiation of the wavelength necessary vivo synthesis...of vitamin D. Millions of people work behind glass, underground or in the extreme north, travel to and from work in closed vehicles, and venture outdoors only in the early morning or late evening, when ultraviolet radiation is minimal. Incandescent bulbs emit little ultraviolet radiation... Our data suggest that illumination which simulates natural light significantly increases the efficiency of intestinal calcium absorption.” 41 This investigation into the effects of light on calcium metabolism was one of the three major foci of research into light and health in the early 1970s.42


The experiment at the Chelsea Soldiers Home was significant not only because it contributed to knowledge about light and calcium metabolism, but also because it used a new light bulb, the Vita-Lite, produced by the Duro-Test Corporation of New Jersey. The Vita-Lite, which Ken Kern had recommended in The Healthy House, resulted from a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder collaboration, and represents a moment of heightened interest in healthy lighting for residential and other indoor environments.


At a 1962 Chicago meeting, John Ott met a dentist named James W. Benfield. The two struck up a conversation about Ott’s work with light. Benfield was very interested because “dentists ... spen[t] more time under artificial light sources than those in almost any other profession.” 43 A “fluorescent light that would duplicate daylight” could benefit not only dentists but anyone who spent time indoors - from “industrialized,” “civilized” men to homemakers. Ott had already proposed this idea to General Electric and Sylvania - the largest American light bulb producers - without success. Benfield decided to approach the Duro-Test Corporation, the smallest of the four American light bulb manufacturers in the 1960s.44 Fortuitously, a patient of Benfield’s was a personal friend of Duro-Test’s president, as well as major stockholder in the company. He happily facilitated an introduction. Luke Thorington, a Duro-Test engineer, led the Vita-Lite’s development, recruiting both Richard Wurtman and John Ott as consultants. Wurtman had been educated at Harvard Medical School, had done his pioneering melatonin and vitamin D research while working at the National Institutes of Health, and would soon become a professor at MIT. Ott, of course, was a banker turned photographer with no formal scientific training. He had never attended college.45 Wurtman published in prestigious scientific journals including Science and Nature. Ott, though he had some supportive friends and colleagues in academic circles, and tirelessly worked to present and publish his work (with some success), remained on the periphery of the scientific and medical communities. But both men had studied light’s effects on health and participated in the development of the Vita-Lite.


By 1967, the New York Times reported on Duro-Test’s new product. The company called it a “‘multi-purpose bulb of tomorrow,’” and predicted that the day was coming when one might buy “an electric bulb with a doctor’s prescription in order to achieve a specific health or cosmetic affect in addition to illumination.” 46 Duro-Test soon received a patent for the Vita-Lite and invested “more than $1 million in high-speed manufacturing equipment to increase production.” The company announced this expansion at a June, 1972, New York City symposium attended by “four medical researchers delivering papers linking lighting and health,” one of whom was Richard Wurtman, who cited “abundant evidence that light influences the growth and secretory activity of several endocrine organs.” 47 This symposium - as well as the development of the Vita-Lite itself - was a collaboration among medical science, engineering, and business, targeted at the improvement of indoor environmental health, and of course, at consumers. Outside of such symposia, in the pages of prestigious and widely-read publications, Wurtman called attention to light as a serious environmental health issue warranting further research. In the New England Journal of Medicine, he wrote: “wiser prophets than we have proclaimed that the 1970’s will be the decade when human ecology attains its rightful place in the hierarchy of medical sciences. Spurred by mounting concern about the long-term consequences of smog, food additives, water pollution...broad public support is becoming manifest for programs to explore the effects of environmental inputs on human health.” 48 Light, he argued, should be studied and regulated like other environmental factors known to affect health.


Like John Ott, Wurtman questioned the long-term consequences of man’s metamorphosis into an indoor animal: “most Americans spend much of their time indoors, exposed to artificial-light sources whose spectra differ appreciably from sunlight....It does not seem wildly imaginative to speculate that prolonged exposure to this unplanned phototherapy might have physiologic consequences .... much additional research should be performed to define the biologic effects of spectra now in use.” 49 For the broader readership of Scientific American in 1975, Wurtman made a similar argument about light and environmental health: “we have learned that the chemical constituents of the environment in the form of food, drugs, and environmental pollutants must be monitored and regulated by agencies with suitable powers of enforcement. A major part of their responsibility is to see that nothing harmful is put into food or drugs and that nothing essential is left out of food.” Light required the same investment of time and money:


“in contrast, only minuscule sums have been expended to characterize and exploit the biological effects of light, and very little has been done to protect citizens against potentially harmful or biologically inadequate lighting environments. Both government and industry have been satisfied to allow people who buy electric serve as the unwitting subjects in a long-term experiment on the effects of artificial lighting environments on human health.... Light is potentially too useful an agency of human health not to be more effectively examined and exploited.” 50


Although Wurtman and Ott came from significantly different educational and professional backgrounds, they did agree on at least three important and related points during the 1960s and 1970s: first, that light was an environmental health issue on par with such high-profile issues as air quality, water quality, food, and drugs. Second, more research should explore the various effects of light on health. And third, whether for financial or medical reasons - or some combination of both - a bulb like the Vita-Lite, which attempted to replicate sunlight for the indoor environment, was a project worth pursuing.


Looking back from 2011, Wurtman recalled that “John Ott’s claims were largely unconfirmed and have pretty much been forgotten.” 51 At one point during their collaboration on the Vita-Lite, Wurtman visited Ott’s beach house in Sarasota, Florida. Seeing Ott’s amateur experiments, Wurtman felt that Ott lacked sufficient scientific knowledge to execute reliable research .52 There was, Wurtman believes, a period in the 1960s and 1970s that could have yielded more “extrapolations” about light’s effects on health, but indoor light quality failed to maintain its fleeting traction as a focus of medical research, in stark contrast to indoor air quality.


Ott’s reception among medical and scientific professionals was, fundamentally, mixed. James Benfield, the dentist who took such an interest in Ott’s work and facilitated the introduction to Duro-Test, called him a “a twentieth-century Leeuwenhoek,” using a camera instead of a microscope.53 Signs of encouragement, such as publications and invitations to present his work, were tempered by indifference and rejection. To his great frustration, Ott frequently felt that he “could stir up no action” for a cause that he saw as both important and promising.54 He knew that some scientists and doctors, finding nothing in the existing literature to support his observations, classified him “in the category of crackpot.” 55 Ultimately, the marketplace may have been friendlier to Ott than the halls of medicine or of academia: he counted among his successes the development of the Vita-Lite, the availability of ultraviolet-transmitting lenses for eye and sunglasses, and the availability of ultraviolet-transmitting plastic and Plexiglas for doors and windows. If doctors would not prescribe Vita-Lites to their patients, consumers could at least make their own choices about the light environments they created at home. Exclusion from the worlds of professional science and medicine did not relegate Ott to obscurity: Health and Light received a second printing in 1976, and Ott later published Light, Radiation, and You in 1982. His beliefs and his work were enthusiastically endorsed by proponents of healthy housing, including Ken Kern and Theron Randolph (as well as other clinical ecologists). The general theme of his research - light and the endocrine system - was, of course, an interest shared by elite scientists like Axelrod and Wurtman.


Dr. Fritz Hollwich, a German ophthalmologist, credited Ott as “the first to show the dependence of leaf movements on light in his skillful time-lapse films...he demonstrated that only the full spectrum of sunlight that has not been reduced by any form of glass induces full growth in plants.” 56 Hollwich shared many of Ott’s ecological views of light’s influence on human health, and accordingly, questioned the compromised light environment of man’s new habitat: the indoors. He wrote: “in an age ... when fluorescent lighting turns night into day, we are in danger of forgetting that man is a creature of nature as well as of culture. Artificial light cannot replace natural daylight.... Artificial light may be an optic substitute but it is by no means equivalent to natural light in physiological terms.” 57 Like Richard Wurtman, Hollwich argued that light warranted the same attention as other environmental health factors emerging in the 1970s: “such an important environmental factor as light must once again be correlated with the needs of man as a creature of nature. Man, in his daily routine, requires the influence of natural environmental factors to a certain degree. Among these are well as the unfiltered pure air of the atmosphere and the changing temperature of the external world.” 58 Not only was this an argument for exposure to natural light and air, it was also a tacit argument against the increasingly tight, mechanically-ventilated, and highly regulated buildings of the post-energy crisis built environment.


In 1966, after moving with his wife to Sarasota, Florida, Ott established the Environmental Health and Light Research Institute (EHLRI), “a more substantial structure from which [he] could disseminate research findings.” 59 So far I have emphasized Ott’s work on light and physiology, but he also believed strongly that light could affect psychology and behavior. Here it is helpful to recall that Ken Kern, who endorsed Ott’s views on light and recommended full-spectrum artificial and natural light in The Healthy House, also viewed the physiological and psychological aspects of housing as inseparable. In Ott’s view, a home could be dangerous not only because of the light it lacked (short-wave ultraviolet), but because of the radiation it produced. He was particularly concerned about radiation emitted from color televisions and its effects on children .60 Again, Ott used an analogy between people and plants: “what really concerns me,” he wrote, “is the effect of the very low levels of radiation that can influence the pattern of the streaming of the chloroplasts in the cells of a leaf....Is it possible that these very low levels of radiation affect the behavioral patterns and learning abilities of children without producing any signs of physical injury or cell structure damage?” 61 When he interviewed the warden of Illinois’ Stateville Penitentiary for a Chicago television program, Ott was intrigued to learn about that prison’s program of “horticultural therapy” and its positive effects on the inmates who participated; so intrigued, in fact, that he visited the prison, toured its gardens, and maintained correspondence with the warden. While conceding that “certainly working with flowers and plants in the garden close to nature is a very good psychological influence,” Ott believed that exposure to natural light likely had something to do with the prisoners’ rehabilitation.


Reflecting on the potential behavioral effects of light contributed to Ott’s indictment of modern civilization’s recent trends - both material and cultural. Of the prison program, he wrote, “it raises the question about the ultimate effect on human health and normal growth development resulting from excessive exposure to other than natural sunlight as the result of increased and extensive use of large picture windows, glass buildings, and modern brighter artificial lighting.”


There remained few habits of daily life that were not affected by malillumination: “the fad of wearing dark glasses is sweeping the country. The matter of driving or being driven in an automobile to school or work is becoming more important all the time. Many outdoor sports are now attended at night under lights or watched over TV. The importance of education is being stressed more and more, and students are working harder and longer under midnight electricity to meet stiffer requirements and increased competition. New mental institutions, hospitals and especially maternity wards, where newly born infants get their first glimpse of light, have larger windows that are no longer made to open - and more and brighter artificial lights.” 62


Nearly every physical feature and behavioral habit of modern society, it seemed, was depriving the American population - from newborns, to children, to prisoners, to mental patients, to ordinary adults - of the natural sunlight so important to their mental and physical health .63 Ott lamented “an alarming deterioration of the national health record of this country,” including rising infant mortality and declining life expectancy. He warned: “this may lead to disaster if the trend is not soon reversed.” 64 Americans were living in a dangerously unhealthy ecosystem and a habitat to which they were not adapted.


The implication was that man’s relatively new indoor life was unnatural.


The Trouble with the “Natural” House


Underlying Ott’s speculation about the consequences of an indoor life - and also underlying the writings of Kern, Hollwich, and occasionally MIT’s Wurtman - was a nostalgia (intentional or not) for a more natural, outdoor life. This dichotomy between unnatural and natural, indoor and outdoor, was a crucial aspect of healthy housing discussions during the ecologically-oriented decade of the 1970s. As discussed in Part I of this dissertation, scientists (and later the public) were increasingly attentive to the hazards of indoor air pollution during this time, and it soon became almost formulaic for articles on indoor air to state that most people spent between 80 and 90 percent of their time indoors. But if living indoors was unnatural and therefore potentially unhealthy, what was the “natural,” preferable alternative? Returning to an imagined Edenic wilderness, to the lifestyle of primitive humans?
William Cronon has offered a valuable perspective on modern environmentalism’s devotion to “wilderness.” His perspective can be profitably applied to the nostalgia for the “natural” that we see not only in Ott’s writings on light, but also in some of Kern’s writing on healthy housing, in some literature of the owner-built housing movement, and even in some scientific and popular literature on indoor air pollution. Cronon exposes the American ideal of “wilderness” as “entirely a creation of the culture that holds it dear ....the last remaining place where civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully infected the earth. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity.” 65 The wilderness ideal, Cronon writes, “is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul;” it “embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural.”66


Although Ott, Kern, Randolph, and the other healthy-housing advocates discussed in this dissertation did not urge their readers or patients to abandon civilization and retreat to remote locations, they certainly idealized a more natural way of life than what could be found in conventional American housing - urban or suburban. The postwar domestic environment, even within the supposed sanctuary of one’s home, could be just as polluted as the everyday outdoor environment as well as the forests, rivers, or mountains that environmentalists were struggling to protect from ever-encroaching pollution. This sentiment would become ever more obvious in the early 1980s as indoor air scientists and journalists alike warned the public that indoor air was usually more polluted than outdoor air. Ott was practical: he did not advise that his readers reject shelter, clothing, and anything else that blocked natural light. Instead, he advised modifications of housing, eyewear, and lifestyle - as did Kern, Randolph, and other proponents of healthier housing. Still, their tacit message was that a “natural” lifestyle either existed elsewhere or once existed in the past, but twentieth century civilized man, could, at best, achieve only a satisfactory compromise or approximation. Man’s home, as the environment over which he had the greatest autonomy, was the logical place to pursue this healthier ideal.67


Cronon argues that our romanticized ideal of wilderness is actually “a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century,” because it both distracts us from the environments in which we live and from serious issues of environmental justice: “problems of toxic waste exposure on ‘unnatural’ urban and agricultural sites, problems of poor children poisoned by lead exposure in the inner city, problems of famine and poverty and human suffering.” 68 In his reflections on the importance of our local environments to the development of responsible environmentalism, Cronon taps into the ideals of owner-builders: “most of our most serious environmental problems start right here, at home, and if we are to solve those problems, we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it.” Home is at the core of Cronon’s revised environmental ethic: “home, after all, is the place where finally we make our living. It is the place for which we take responsibility, the place we try to sustain so we can pass on what is best in it (and in ourselves) to our children.” 69 Although Cronon’s essay uses the historical roots of the wilderness ideal to question and redirect the priorities of late-twentieth century environmentalism, his emphasis on “home” is actually highly relevant to the specific problems of housing after the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo and during the energy-insecure decade of the 1970s (and beyond).


We have seen that California’s owner-builders sought to reduce their residential energy consumption, either by living in minimalist cabins without heat or electricity, or by designing and building their own innovative houses that used features (thermal mass, passive solar) beyond the scope of commercial builders and building codes. Home was indeed the center of their response to environmental (and economic) crisis. We have also seen that Kern’s vision of healthy housing emphasized a home’s environmental impact just as much as its impact on occupant health. Kern and other owner-builders held some utopian views about rural living and its power to transform society, but this should not detract from their home-based environmentalism, which can be seen as a land or environmental ethic grounded in housing, or a “house ethic.70 In the view of Kern and other owner-builders, the only desirable - and ethical - type of house was one built from environmentally-conscious materials and designed to consume minimal energy.


For Ott (as well as Randolph and the clinical ecologists), environmental pollution was framed in terms of its adverse effects on human health, not on the planet, but this approach was nevertheless ecological, as it situated each person within the ecosystem of his own house and local outdoor environment. Whether the goal was improved personal health or planetary health, each of these figures argued that positive change began at home. Such is the argument of William Cronon, Richard White and other advocates of a revised twenty-first century environmentalism and environmental justice.


Fritz Hollwich, the German ophthalmologist who shared and endorsed many of Ott’s views on light and health, underscored the importance of the “unfiltered pure air of the atmosphere,” as one of the “natural environmental factors” necessary for human health .71 Although outdoor air pollution had been recognized for some time as a respiratory health hazard, one of its less-emphasized consequences was the obstruction of sunlight, in both quantity and quality. Dr. Robert Kehoe, an early leader in the field of industrial hygiene and a recognized (if controversial) expert on air pollution and health (he had led the investigation of the Donora smog tragedy in 1948), linked air pollution, light, and health in his 1952 Address to the Air Pollution and Smoke Prevention Association. “It is entirely possible,” Kehoe acknowledged, that air pollution’s exclusion of sunlight from the atmosphere “may be removing health factors from our general environment.” 72 The same year, Dr. H. H. Shrenk, Research Director at the air-pollution focused (and industry-sponsored) Mellon Institute, proposed “the loss of ultraviolet rays” as one of the potential health effects of air pollution. Shrenk offered no answers, but presented this problem as warranting further study .73


Kehoe and Shrenk aired their concerns twenty years before Ott published Health and Light. In 1973, Ott was similarly concerned: “air pollution not only causes respiratory problems but also further pollutes our light environment.” “Polluted light,” therefore, should benefit from the same “increased interest in ecology [that] has dealt primarily with man’s environment and the problems of air and water pollution.” 74 Ott cited farmers’ difficulties with stunted crops and proposed that a deficiency of ultraviolet light was at least partially to blame. Light quantity and quality clearly affected plants and animals, and the human animal was part of the same malilluminated ecosystem. How could he or she not be affected? This was the consistent subtext of Ott’s work, and the impetus behind his prescriptions for Vita-Lites and ultraviolet-transmitting windows. If man could not change his polluted atmosphere, he could, at the very least, modify his home to make the most of the available light.


This message reached the architectural profession in the pages of its leading professional publication, the AIA Journal, in 1979. George Rand, a psychologist and architecture professor at UCLA, wrote a feature on the health hazards of indoor environments. Although he focused mostly on air, Rand linked the decline in indoor natural lighting to the popularity of “systems-engineered office buildings,” which relied on fluorescent lighting. This was at least partially a consequence of the energy crises of the 1970s: buildings were increasingly designed to operate at optimal energy efficiency, which meant a reduction in occupant control of the indoor environment. Manual opening and closing of windows was replaced by mechanical ventilation; manual adjustment of task-lighting was replaced by “modular fluorescent light.” Rand warned of the consequences, citing “researcher John Ott’s one-man crusade” and summarizing his experiments: “growing evidence has cast doubt on the health value of narrow band fluorescent lights for those who work in spaces illuminated by them. It has been shown that they can lead to mental and physical stress.... Fluorescents have been tied to the growth of anomalies in plants and animals. Plants grown in hothouses under fluorescent bulbs grow roots up instead of down, or produce strange mutagenic reactions. We also know that the human body has a need for an ecology of light to absorb chemicals (e.g., calcium), and maintain healthy body functions.” 75 A Berkeley researcher (Kate Bernier) was quoted as prescribing “a daily diet of full-spectrum light. With eyeglasses, windshields and darkrooms distorting this spectrum, our pituitary and normal functions may be affected.” In a statement reminiscent of MIT’s Richard Wurtman, Rand reported “light may be as potent as a drug ... and the absence of adequate light could be hazardous.... The potential consequences of positive findings in this area are so great that systematic research is being pursued only reluctantly.” 76


Daylighting: “An Energy Conserving Strategy and A Lost Architectural Art”


The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which shaped research into - and the national conversation about - residential energy use and indoor air quality during the 1970s and 1980s, did not make light a major focus of its residential research program - from either an energy or a health perspective. In contrast to heating and cooling, which, by a 1980 estimate, accounted for the majority (64%) of residential energy consumption, lighting was only 3.5% of the residential energy budget. Commercial and office buildings, in contrast, spent 50% of their energy on lighting and only 30% on heating and cooling.77 This helps to explain why LBL’s efforts to improve the energy efficiency of housing (particularly after the oil embargo of 1973-1974) mostly focused on weatherization, retrofitting, and mechanical ventilation as energy saving strategies, as these had a potentially large impact on heating and cooling needs and costs. Lighting, in contrast, did not. To find evidence of significant research interest in daylighting and electric lighting, we must look instead at LBL’s buildings research that focused on the office and commercial sector.78 LBL’s Energy Efficient Buildings Program, which also hosted the Lab’s early indoor air research, supported daylighting research led by Stephen Selkowitz, who consistently argued in his papers and articles that daylighting was “an energy-conserving strategy and a lost architectural art.” 79 He noted that fragmentation of different research fields - building researchers, lighting researchers, and solar radiation researchers - was compromising potentially fruitful collaboration and knowledge production.80


In 1980, Selkowitz and Richard Johnson published “The Daylighting Solution” in the journal Solar Age. They pointed out that while solar energy was increasingly being researched as a source of thermal energy for buildings, it had been neglected as an alternative to electric lighting. They proposed that the recent energy crisis could serve as the impetus for renewed attention to daylighting as an energy saving strategy: “ a longstanding tradition broken only in our brief era of low-cost fuels. This historical precedent in conjunction with currently available technology in electric lighting and control hardware offers the potential for both energy savings and more humane building design.” 81 Indoor light quality, Selkowitz argued, warranted the same attention as indoor air quality, and for the same reason: people spent most of their time indoors. In offices particularly, they were potentially exposed to lighting that compromised well-being and productivity, as well as energy resources: “one should not hesitate to build the strongest possible case for the use of daylight in buildings. Effective use of daylight promises reduced operating costs due to energy and demand savings, improved visual quality, and increased amenity and well-being in the indoor environments in which many of us spend the largest fraction of our waking hours.” 82 This was a familiar argument: if man was an indoor animal, then his well-being depended on the quality of his indoor habitat.


Selkowitz’s (and others’) studies of daylight as a potential lighting source for commercial buildings led them to complete studies and develop research tools that overlapped with the interests of John Ott, and which Ott would have likely found exciting had he been a member of an academic research community. By 1981, Selkowitz could summarize several technical accomplishments of the Windows and Daylighting program at LBL, which had begun in 1976. These included, for example, compilation of data on available daylight for the San Francisco area, the development of computer programs (SKY, Quicklite, and Superlite) used to calculate various aspects of indoor illumination, and field studies of lighting in buildings. The program had also established a resource center to “help designers implement daylighting strategies.” 8


In contrast to Selkowitz’ government-supported and multifaceted program, Ott waged a “one man crusade” to bring attention to the problem of malillumination. In 1986, he was featured in Mother Earth News, one of the most popular magazines among ecologically-minded Americans in the 1970s and 1980s. He told the magazine, “I’m just personally so convinced that this is important and that the research backing up my theories is basically sound. It’s taken a long time, but we’re beginning to make some progress.” He still viewed light as an under-appreciated variable: “scientists, for the most part, are still ignoring light as a variable. The lighting in virtually all research centers and laboratories is left up to the janitor as routine building maintenance.” Possibly, Ott said, this was even affecting the results of otherwise “carefully controlled studies.” 84 By 1989, an LBL report on “Buildings of the 21 st Century” addressed indoor light quality, along with indoor air quality, as a crucial factor in indoor environmental health. Citing the work of Luke Thorington and Richard Wurtman, both of whom had been instrumental in developing Duro-Test’s Vita Lite, the paper called for further research into the effects of light on health and productivity, especially considering the by-then truism that “Buildings dominate our lives!” 85 By 1983, Ott had already begun marketing his own light, the Ott-Lite, choosing to bring what he saw as the benefits of full-spectrum household lighting to the marketplace without waiting for scientific validation.86


In the history of postwar healthy housing efforts, attention to indoor light quality has been dwarfed by attention to indoor air quality. Furthermore, attention to residential light - from either an energy or a health perspective - has been dwarfed by attention to commercial light, which accounts for a much larger portion of this sector’s energy consumption. It may be too simple to say that the potential economic advantages of studying commercial lighting (and its effects on worker productivity) far outweigh corresponding advantages in housing, but this does seem to be at least part of the explanation. The point of this brief comparison is to suggest further exploration of energy and health as related, and sometimes conflicting, priorities for the built environments in which we live and work. The history of research on residential energy consumption - and its relationship to indoor air quality and health - indicates that balancing energy and health goals has often been presented as a formidable challenge, and one requiring compromise.


For approximately forty years, researchers have studied and debated the apparent tension between residential energy consumption and indoor air quality in the post-oil-embargo United States. No equivalent study or debate has occurred about residential lighting. Although there have been isolated episodes of interest in light and health - studies of bilirubin, melatonin, and vitamin D - research on light quality and health pales in comparison to research on air quality and health. This is a contrast whose history warrants further exploration.87 This lacuna aside, the preceding discussion of Ken Kern, John Ott, and others who questioned the health consequences of man’s metamorphosis into a predominately indoor creature, shows that during the 1970s, the built environment - and especially housing - absorbed the ecological concerns and ideals that permeated American society. Like the wilderness settings and natural resources for which environmentalists of the 1970s campaigned, the American home required stewardship if it was to support the health of its occupants and the health of the outdoor environment. Out of the all-important land ethic that had shaped conservation of natural resources, some Americans cultivated a “house ethic” that was grounded in conservation of energy resources and a belief in physical, psychological, and economic autonomy.




20 Kern, The Owner-Built Home, 15. Kern was especially inspired by Jiro Harada’s The Japanese House and Garden.

21 Kern and Wright endorsed some of the same principles of ecological building, including attention to site, materials, integral design, and light. Both authors also took inspiration from Japanese architecture. See Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House (New York: Bramhall House, 1954).

22 Kern, The Owner-Built Home, 44.

23 Sunlight comes directly from the sun to the earth while daylight includes light “reflected or refracted from objects and substances that it strikes.” Both are affected by latitude, altitude, time of year, time of day, amount of air pollution, and relative humidity - thus regional variations could be significant. Lighting was part of Kern’s general concept of “integral design.” See Kern, “Light and Shade,” chapter 5 in The Owner-Built Home, 42-51.

24 Kern, The Owner-Built Home, 44.

25 Kern, The Healthy House, 39-41.

26 Kern, The Owner-Built Home, 40.

27 Kern, The Owner-Built Home, 42-44. The same issue was concurrently being explored at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. I discuss this in more detail later in this chapter.

28 Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

29 Ken Kern, The Healthy House, 43. I will discuss the Vita-Lite in more detail below.

30 John Ott, Health and Light (Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1973), 21, 5.

31 The history of interest in and research on light and health is a vast subject. I discuss John Ott because of his connection to Ken Kern and the world of healthy housing, as well as to Theron Randolph and the world of clinical ecology, which also emphasized the importance of a healthy house with healthy lighting. Ott bears some resemblance to Theron Randolph in that he was marginalized and dismissed by mainstream medicine. An essential difference, of course, is that Randolph was a formally educated medical doctor who was ostracized despite his credentials, while Ott had no academic credentials. Ott and Randolph both relied heavily on trial-and-error and anecdotal evidence in making their arguments about environmental health. For example, Randolph frequently prescribed removal of the gas stove from his patients’ homes in an attempt to reduce indoor air pollution and associated symptoms. Ott, when he was invited or allowed to work in a hospital setting, had patients remove their sunglasses and spend time outside so as to expose their eyes to full-spectrum natural light, which he argued was essential to neuroendocrine function and good health.

32 Ott, Health and Light, 41.

33 Ott was not the first to propose such a system. He was aware of his predecessors and cited Dr. Wendell Krieg’s 1932 publication on the “retinal hypothalamic pathway of the albino rat” (Health and Light, 72). As I discuss below, other researchers were actively studying the effects of light on neuroendocrine function (particularly Julius Axelrod and Richard Wurtman, who studied both melatonin and vitamin D synthesis in relation to light).

34 Ott, Health and Light, 72. (emph. added)

35 For example, see Gladwin Hill, “Environment May Eclipse Vietnam as College Issue,” New York Times, November 30, 1969. Also see “The Toxic Environment,” chapter 6 in Samuel Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

36 On emerging knowledge (and politicization) of ozone depletion in the early 1970s, see “Constructing a Counternarrative: The Fight over the Ozone Hole,” in Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 107-135.

37 Ott, Health and Light, 47-49

38 Ott was also interested in the effects of phototherapy on cancer patients. See “An Experiment with Phototherapy on Human Cancer Patients,” chapter 7 in Health and Light.

39 Ott, Health and Light, xiv.

40 For example: Julius Axelrod and Richard Wurtman, “Melatonin Synthesis in the Hen Pineal Gland and its Control by Light,” Nature 201, no. 4924 (1964): 1134; Robert Moore, Alfred Heller, Richard Wurtman, and Julius Axelrod, “Visual Pathway Mediating Pineal Response to Environmental Light,” Science 155 (1967): 220-223.

41 R.M. Neer, Richard Wurtman, et al., “Stimulation by Artificial Lighting of Calcium Absorption in Elderly Human Subjects,” Nature 229 (1971): 255.

42 The other two were: the effects of light on melatonin and circadian rhythm, and light therapy for hyperbilirubinemia (neonatal jaundice). Richard Wurtman, email message to Mariel Wolfson, September 17, 2011; Richard Wurtman, interview by Mariel Wolfson, September 27, 2011, Cambridge, MA. Also see Richard J. Wurtman, “The Effects of Light on the Human Body,” ScientiÞc American 233, no. 1 (1975): 69-77.

43 Letter from Benfield to Ott, reprinted in Ott, Health and Light, 180-182.

44 As Benfield recalled, Duro-Test executives had heard some complaints about headaches and other health issues resulting from fluorescent lighting, but “they thought this was all nonsense.” Ott, Health and Light, 181.

45 “The Plowboy Interview: John Ott: The ‘Light Side of Health,’” Mother Earth News, January/February 1986.

46 “Aid to Health Seen in New Light Bulb,” New York Times, July 23, 1967.

47 “Duro-Test Corp to Invest in High-Speed Equipment,” New York Times, June 13, 1972.

48 Richard J. Wurtman and Robert M. Neer, “Good Light and Bad,” New England Journal of Medicine 282, no. 7 (1970): 394.

49 Wurtman and Neer, “Good Light and Bad,” 395.

50 Richard J. Wurtman, “The Effects of Light on the Human Body,” Scientific American 233, no. 1 (1975): 77. Wurtman reflects the contemporary energy crisis: “if future studies indicate that significant health benefits (for example, better bone mineralization) might accrue from increasing the levels of indoor lighting, our society might, in a period of energy shortages, be faced with hard new choices.” Scientists studying indoor air pollution in newly energy-efficient houses cited similarly difficult choices between saving energy and ensuring acceptable indoor air quality.

51 Richard Wurtman, email message to Mariel Wolfson, September 17, 2011

52 Richard Wurtman, interview by Mariel Wolfson, September 27, 2011, Cambridge, MA.

53 Ott, Health and Light, ix

54 Ott even wrote a chapter (15) of Health and Light entitled, “Routine Opposition to New Ideas as Standard Procedure.”

55 Ott, Health and Light, 53. He did, at least, maintain his sense of humor.

56 Fritz Hollwich, The Influence of Ocular Light Perception on Metabolism in Man and in Animal, trans. Hunter and Hildegarde Hannum (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1979), 1. Hollwich addresses many of the issues of light, metabolism, and neuroendocrine function that occupied Wurtman and his colleagues, as well as Ott, including light’s effects on the pineal and pituitary glands, and by extension its effects on circadian rhythms and hormonal functions.

57 Hollwich, The Influence of Ocular Light Perception, v-vi.

58 Hollwich, The Influence of Ocular Light Perception, vii.

59 Ott, Health and Light, 141. It was via the EHLRI that Ott communicated with Theron Randolph. Other clinical ecologists later recommended Ott’s lights and the general principles of full-spectrum indoor lighting to their chemically-sensitive patients seeking to create healthier homes. For example, see John W. Argabrite, “Remodeling an Existing House for the Hypersensitive,” chapter 15 in The Household Environment and Chronic Illness: Guidelines for Constructing and Maintaining a Less Polluted Residence, ed. Guy O. Pfeiffer and Casimir M. Nikel (Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas, 1980), 135, 142.

60 Although color televisions may have delighted Americans when introduced to the marketplace, their additional cathode tubes, which provided the color, caused them to emit increased radiation (Health and Light, 134). Ott testified before the Federal government and contributed to the passing of the 1968 Radiation Control Act, which reduced the allowable radiation emitted from televisions. See Ott, Health and Light, 129, 186-187.

61 Ott, Health and Light, 133-134.

62 Ott, Health and Light, 57.

63 On this perception of civilization as dangerous to health, see Charles Rosenberg, “Pathologies of Progress: The Idea of Civilization as Risk,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 72, no. 4 (1998): 714-730. This perception is also present in the research (and popular literature) on indoor air pollution that occurred concurrently with Ott’s, Hollwich’s, and Wurtman’s work on light.

64 Ott, Health and Light, 187

65 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: Norton, 1996), 69-90; 69, 79. Cronon explains that the concept of wilderness has its roots in two ideals, the sublime and the frontier, both of which have connections to romanticism. Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Jackson Turner, and especially John Muir popularized these views of wilderness. America’s earliest National Parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rainier, and Zion), represented a desire to preserve seemingly unspoiled wilderness. Cronon discusses, among other issues, the fallacy of viewing such places as “untouched” when they had long been home to Native Americans. Another valuable perspective on the problematic dichotomy of nature vs. civilization is Richard White’s essay in the same volume, “‘Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?’: Work and Nature,” 171-185.

66 Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 80.

67 Sometimes due to intractable health problems and sometimes at the urging of their doctors, some clinical ecology patients did retreat as much as possible into seemingly unpolluted areas - abandoning the cities or suburbs for the country, where they built “natural,” hypo-allergenic houses in an effort to eliminate all traces of indoor air pollution.

68 Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 84. Cronon argues that this perspective has its historical roots in wilderness as an ideal of the American elite (those with the time and financial resources to enjoy recreating in nature, and who knew little about the real challenges of living and working the land in remote environments). The environmental justice movement as we know it today had not yet begun at the time of Ott or Kern, but it nevertheless offers a useful perspective on the indoor anxieties and related nostalgia for nature that we see in 1970s and 1980s concerns about the health effects of diminished air and light quality. These anxieties presume a ubiquitous appreciation for (and familiarity with) the outdoors, nature, or wilderness, and a ubiquitous desire for a home that replicates “pure” air, light, and more. However, the environmental justice movement (considered to have begun in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina) called attention to environmental pollution that disproportionately affected not “unspoiled” landscapes, but rather the areas where low-income and minority citizens spent their everyday lives. It is important to recognize that such citizens are also disproportionately affected by indoor air pollution from a variety of sources. Such recognition has contributed to a robust movement for indoor environmental justice, the study of which has been pioneered by sociologist Phil Brown. See Phil Brown, “Asthma, Environmental Factors, and Environmental Justice,” in Phil Brown, Toxic Exposures: Contested Illnesses and the Environmental Health Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 100-139. On environmental justice generally, see Giovanna Di Chiro, “Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environment and Social Justice,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: Norton, 1996): 298-320.

69 Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 85, 89.

70 I will return to the idea of the “house ethic” in the conclusion to this dissertation. The World War II homefront offers an interesting case study in the potential of domestic conservation efforts, even if motivated by patriotic and political, rather than environmental concerns. See Mike Davis, “Home Front Ecology: What our Grandparents Can Teach Us about Saving the World,” Sierra Club, July/August 2007. When exhorting Americans to modify their behavior during the energy crises of the 1970s, Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter all appealed to the patriotic sacrifices of the World War II homefront.

71 Hollwich, The Influence of Ocular Light Perception, vii. It is important to recognize that this promotion of “unfiltered pure air” presumes a common standard of what qualiÞes as “unfiltered pure air,” which raises issues of environmental justice and even the wilderness ideal indicted by William Cronon in “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Not only is it problematic to establish that such a thing exists, but many people never experience it. In many urban settings, simply being outside (and inside) meant - and means - unavoidable exposure to polluted air.

72 Robert A. Kehoe, “Health Aspects of Air Pollution,” Air Repair 2, no. 1 (1952): 3.

73 Dr. H. H. Shrenk, “A Scientist Views the Air Pollution Problem,” Air Repair 2, no. 1 (1952): 17.

74 Ott, Health and Light, 142.

75 George Rand, “Caution: The Office Environment May Be Hazardous to Your Health: The Need for an Ecological Approach to its Design,” AIA Journal, October 1979, 41. (emph. added.)

76 Rand, “The Office Environment,” 41.

77 Stephen Selkowitz and Richard Johnson, “The Daylighting Solution,” Solar Age, August 1980, 14.

78 Stephen Selkowitz, “Daylighting as a Design and Energy Strategy: Overview of Opportunities and Conflicts,” LBL Report 13171, 1981. In the residential sector, innovation in windows usually focused on their insulating value, (which reduced heating and cooling load) not on their transmission or blocking of ultraviolet light.

79 J. Schuman, Stephen Selkowitz, et al. “A Daylight Design Tool Using Hypercard on the Macintosh,” LBL Report 26263, 1988.

80 Eliyaho Ne’eman and Stephen Selkowitz, “Daylight Availability as a Function of Atmospheric Conditions,” LBL Report 16425, 1983. This situation continues today, in that that there is still a relatively small research community focusing on light, as well as a lack of communication between lighting scientists and building scientists. I discuss this in more detail below.

81 Selkowitz and Johnson, “The Daylighting Solution,” 20.

82 Stephen Selkowitz, “Daylighting as a Design and Energy Strategy: Overview of Opportunities and Conflicts,” LBL Report 13171, 1981, 50.

83 The full catalog of this program’s activities by 1981 is found in Stephen Selkowitz, “Daylighting Research Activities in the Energy Efficient Buildings Program at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory,” LBL Report 13172, August 1981. Another daylight calculation tool is described in J. Schuman, Stephen Selkowitz, et al., “A Daylight Design Tool Using Hypercard on the Macintosh,” LBL Report 26263, 1988.

84 “The Plowboy Interview: John Ott: The ‘Light Side of Health.’”

85 J.M. Daisey, “Buildings of the 21st Century: A Perspective on Health and Comfort, and Work Productivity,” LBL Report 27213, 1989, 8.

86 In 2012, one can not only purchase a variety of “Ott Lites,” but also a range of other healthy-lighting products, indicating that interest in health and light - or at least a willingness to pay money for full-spectrum lighting - persists in the marketplace.

87 Duro-Test also introduced the “Wattsaver” incandescent lamp in 1973. Engineer Luke Thorington, father of the Vita-Lite, was also involved in developing this product. Following the success of the Wattsaver, Duro-Test initiated a new program in 1977 under subcontract to the Department of Energy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The program’s goal was the development of a new energy efficient incandescent light bulb using an infrared-reflecting transparent coating that could potentially create “doubled luminous efficacy without life reduction. Such efficacy increase corresponds to an energy saving of 50%.” There was some debate at this time about the energy-saving potential of even the best incandescent lamp when compared to “‘compact’ gas discharge lamps.” While the compact lamps were arguably more efficient, incandescent lamps had advantages in the marketplace, not least of which was their “pleasant and familiar light color” and “color rendering.” As is now well known, incandescent lamps are to be gradually removed from the marketplace under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, to be replaced by energy-efficient lamps, such as LEDs and CFLs. This government-mandated change has generated considerable controversy. Despite the indisputable energy advantages of the newer bulbs, there has been a strong consumer backlash against them, largely due to their unappealing light (which one journalist called “horrible, flickery, ugly, and unreliable”). A recent hour-long National Public Radio program discussing this mandated change generated nearly 500 written comments on the program’s website. See “The Light Bulb 2.0,” On Point with Tom Ashbrook, National Public Radio, September 15, 2011, A journalistic account of the change from incandescent to energy-efficient lamps is Dan Koeppel, “The Future of Light is the LED,” Wired, September 2011. For the technical report on Duro-Test’s subcontracted project with the LBL, see: “Energy-Efficient Lamp: Final Report,” LBL Report 14546, April 15, 1982. The history of the Wattsaver and other energy-saving household lightbulbs - in contrast to the development of the Vita-Lite and other “healthy” light bulbs - warrants further research.


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Beyond Indoor Air: The Importance of Light in the Healthy House:  Created on September 2nd, 2014.  Last Modified on June 23rd, 2015


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About Dr. Mariel Wolfson

Dr. Mariel Wolfson recently completed her PhD in the History of Science at Harvard, where she wrote her dissertation about the history of green and healthy housing in the United States (“The Ecology of a Healthy Home: Energy, Health, and Housing in America, 1960-1985"). While writing her dissertation, Dr. Wolfson was the Meyer Fellow at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), and is currently collaborating with the JCHS on a project exploring healthy-home concerns and behaviors among American homeowners, renters, and contractors. She presented the homeowner portion of this project at the 2014 National Healthy Homes Conference in Nashville, TN.  She has also served as a Teaching Fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. Mariel has long-standing interests in the environment, housing, and health, and is an alumna of the Student Conservation Association, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and the Mountain School in Vershire, Vermont.



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