A Sunshine Coast researcher is using science to help people get a good night's sleep.
A Sunshine Coast researcher is using science to help people get a good night's sleep. Ximagination

Science holds the key to a good night's sleep

IT HAS been more than a year since I relocated from the CQUniversity Rockhampton campus to our Noosa campus.

One of my goals in relocating was to raise the profile of building design on the Sunshine Coast and encourage more students to consider building design as a career option as the Sunshine Coast has always had a vibrant, contemporary design community.

That provided the perfect opportunity to combine my research interests with building design education and provide a greater opportunity to work with the design community to implement some of my research findings into the real world.


Dr Darryl O'Brien is helping change the lives of poor sleepers.
Dr Darryl O'Brien is helping change the lives of poor sleepers. Contributed

My research started in Rockhampton, where as part of my PhD studies I examined whether traditional houses could provide a sound sleeping environment for shift workers sleeping during the day.

This is known as the sleep hygiene environment which, as we all know, must be cool, dark and quiet to promote good sleep.

We also know it is not always possible to maintain this environment for night sleep, let alone day sleep.

This is because sleep is regulated by a physiological mechanism know as circadian regulation, or the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle that is present in all living creatures.

We have evolved to sleep at night and be awake during the day. As it is cooler, darker and quieter at night, day sleeping shift workers will be always fighting their natural circadian body clock as well as the natural environment in trying to get enough quality sleep.

We wanted to answer two questions for day sleeping shift workers.

Firstly, how important was temperature, air quality and noise on sleep quality?

Secondly, how much did the built environment influence these factors?

We hoped that in measuring these influences, we may be able to identify the "Goldilocks" zone for good sleep for shift workers.

To measure these influences, CQUniversity developed system that, operating on a wi-fi network, was able to upload actual environmental conditions from shift worker bedrooms in real time.

These data allowed us to compare our findings against previous research to identify the Goldilocks zone for good sleep.

We found the optimal temperature was around 20 degrees celcius and noise should not be more than about 40 decibels (normal conversation is about 60 decibels).

In our summer climate, keeping the temperature to around 20 degrees usually requires the use of an air-conditioner. But for the air conditioner to be effective the doors and windows need to be closed.

This identified a potential health risk for our shift workers - air quality.

As part of our normal respiration process we exhale carbon dioxide (CO2) but the risk is that shift workers sleeping in a sealed sleeping environment CO2 levels could potentially reach unhealthy levels.

Indeed, long-term exposure to CO2 levels of over 2000 parts per million (the atmosphere has CO2 level of about 350 parts per million) has been shown to cause fatigue - not something that shift workers want!

In 2015 I was invited to present some of these findings to a New Zealand conference where the research caught the attention of a representative on the New Zealand Government.

They were interested in seeing whether the technology could be adapted to measure the environmental conditions in school buildings.

They were particularly interested in measuring temperature, noise and air quality in their classrooms with a view of determining an optimal (Goldilocks) environment that would support student learning.

As the demand for classrooms continues to grow, this information would be used to inform best practice design for the next generation of new and refurbished classrooms.

As with sleep quality, CO2 levels have been shown in some studies to adversely affect mental performance and test results.

A 2014 study from the US described how in CO2 concentrations of over 2500ppm, significant reductions in decision-making performance were identified.

As for school students, a 2005 paper identified a link between poor air quality and reduced student attendance and performance.

These and other similar studies point to the fact that perhaps some simple improvements to the classroom environment may help with student results.

At a time when the Australian media is buzzing with reports how our kids are lagging on international education results, it's exciting to think that my discipline area might reveal some of the tools to help boost them back up the performance ladder.

Our technology has been involved in a study for about a year now in selected New Zealand classrooms seeking to find the Goldilocks zone.

This work has shown that our technology is capable of measuring and recording important environmental data, which is a first step in designing the best class room environment.

Based on these results, we are hoping to start a new study that will be expanded into many more schools, allowing even more data to be gathered.

I very much look forward to remaining part of this research, and seeing how these finding can be applied to our local classrooms.

It is a simple fact that everyone lives and works in buildings and once you realise that improvements to building design can pay off for generations to come it's inspiring to chase those incremental improvements ... from little things big things can grow.

It is my goal to work with the current generation of building designers and our future generation of building design students studying at CQUniversity about how research can produce best practice building design.

After all, the building are going to be with us for a long time, so let's make them the best they can be.

Dr Darryl O'Brien is Head of Built Environment Program at CQUniversity's Noosa campus.

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