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Marty Brennan
Marty Brennan basks in the glow of blue light just off of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Controlling blue light is key in attempting to replicate daylight for interior settings like offices, hospitals and schools. (Photo courtesy of Marty Brennan)

Marty Brennan wants us all to have a desk by the window. At the very least, our latest Geek of the Week hopes someone is paying attention to the lighting in the spaces where we live and work.

Brennan, an architect and daylighting specialist with ZGF Architects, turned toward the light after an early career as a carpenter, building houses, kitchens and restaurants in the 1990s. He said he got frustrated by the toxic materials and the waste he witnessed.

“A friend mentioned an opportunity in salvaging building materials for the RE Store in Ballard [now Ballard Reuse],” Brennan said. “Five years zipped by while rescuing old-growth bleacher boards from high schools, miles of tongue and groove flooring, palettes of chimney brick, stacks of de-nailed lumber — and then my hip said no more.”

Brennan went back to architecture school at the University of Washington thinking design/build. He fell into a job at the Integrated Design Lab at UW and got hooked simulating solar energy using the program Radiance, and eventually earned his Master of Architecture.

“After graduation I worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago simulating radiation on facades, and daylight bouncing through atriums, offices, and patient rooms in climates all over the world, Brenna said. “Reducing heat gain, maximizing diffuse daylight, and minimizing glare was my thing — until I heard Dr. Steven Lockley talk about circadian light at Harvard. I thought: that is the next step.”

Brennan dove into that topic at ZGF, where he and a colleague learned everything they could on the subject. They partnered with researchers and ended up publishing a paper with Dr. Mehlika Inanici at UW on simulating spectral light. Brennan learned enough Python thru Codecademy to turn their paper into an open-source plugin called LARK Spectral Lighting for architects to use.

They recently incorporated circadian lighting in Swedish Medical Center-Ballard’s Medical Behavioral Health Unit.

“I am still an architect though — that comes first,” Brennan said. “But I’m increasingly intrigued by how buildings can be more like the outdoors where human evolution occurred. If I can reduce a little bit of stress in your day with tunable spectral lighting that mimics skylight, I’m on the right track.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Marty Brennan:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I simulate and analyze light in digital architectural models and make suggestions to design teams where there are opportunities.

“The aim is to provide environments with blue-rich light in the morning and warmer-toned light at night. I do this because this lighting regimen can improve your sleep cycle, which can translate into significant gains in daytime productivity, mood and reduce the odds of bad things like cancer and diabetes. The Mariners have blue circadian lighting before games in their locker room and warm relaxing light after the game to give an extra edge against the competition. Why not give everyone an edge by applying this to schools, offices, and hospitals?

“I simulate every hour of the year for a given climate. Then I post-process the data with sensitivity curves for both the cone cells in our retinas and the lesser known intrinsically photosensitive ganglion retinal cells (IPGRCs). These correspond to visual, and non-visual stimulus, respectively. Architects have been evaluating light for the cones for a long time which makes sense: this is what we see and how we navigate space. Studying what the IPGRCs detect is a new trend; measuring this stimulus allows one to predict a circadian response.”

Circadian lighting
A look at the tunable circadian lighting system at Swedish Ballard in Seattle, used to orient, soothe and calm by supporting patients’ circadian rhythms. (Benjamin Benschneider Photo)

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Humans have a biological advantage from exposure to views of the sky. Our eyes and brains have a long history perceiving a horizon, half of which is sky. It turns out that the color of the daytime sky, which can be very blue (4,000-100,000 Kelvin), is hardwired into resetting our daily circadian rhythm. The recent Nobel prize in physiology was awarded for the unraveling of the link between our IPGRCs and our biological clocks. For many reasons, daylight is pretty important to humanity and you can find laws supporting access to it dating back to the mid-500s AD. Most international building codes have codified this access. However, there is a lot of discrepancy between countries’ metrics and a need for more rigorous analysis; France requires 17 percent window area (based on habitable space) compared to 10 percent in NYC, and an astonishingly low 8 percent in cloudy Seattle.

Where do you find your inspiration? “Going outside to watch the sky, trees, tides and people.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “Radiance simulation program because it is open source, validated and supported by an active community.”

Marty Brennan
Marty Brennan at his desk. The HDR photography technique helps architects analyze the luminous environment within a space. (Photo courtesy of Marty Brennan)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “A desk + a good chair + a window, preferably with a view of the horizon and generous amounts of sky.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Get outside. Walk or bike to work. Get outdoors for lunch. And make time each week to develop your dreams.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac at home, Windows at work and Linux for special projects.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Kirk always knows when to break the rules.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Instead of a time machine or transporter I would hitch a ride with a photon. They are super stable and barely experience time and distance as it warps the fabric of spacetime. Riding on one would make a long journey feel instantaneous!”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Teach Python to kids.”

I once waited in line for … “The Beast: the longest, tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster back in the day.”

Your role models: “Light artist and designer James Carpenter, who talks about light as information, and folds skies into the most surprising civic spaces. Also architect Jeanne Gang because she designs with the community, restoring urban habitat for people and wildlife.”

Greatest game in history: “If you are talking digital, ‘Prince of Persia.’ Otherwise, Hide-and-Seek.”

Best gadget ever: “Based on my construction days, definitely the cordless impact driver.”

First computer: “PC/ AT.”

Current phone: “Apple 5S.”

Favorite app: “OneBusAway.”

Favorite cause: “Affordable housing. Cities are losing sight of the social contract if there is no place for families, carpenters, students, service workers or teachers. Homelessness should not be a thing.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Scaling Photovoltaic energy for massive distribution.”

Most important technology of 2018: “Smart, tunable task lights that mimic skylight.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Test your ideas. If you can’t mock it up, simulate!”

Website: ZGF

Twitter: @ZGFArchitects

LinkedIn: Marty Brennan

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