Throughout my professional career I’ve always enjoyed making comparisons between good lighting and good food. We obviously need food to sustain our lives, as we need light to sustain our lives. But evaluating “good” lighting on simplistic numerical quantifications such as footcandles or lumens per watt is similar to evaluating a good meal on calories or nutrients alone. Although these metrics are important, they do not complete the overall picture.
I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Food”. Besides being a very enjoyable and enlightening read, I was struck by the parallels between the food industry and the architectural profession. It seems as “logical” beings, we are constantly trying to break down the components of complex systems in order to extract and identify the good or positive elements. Food scientists in the last hundred years or so have been able to identify parts of whole foods such as proteins and vitamins that are supposedly good for us, and to reintroduce them back into our refined and industrialized foods, since processing expels most of these nutrients. However studies have shown that even after adding all of these nutrients back into our processed foods, the original whole food is still more healthful. This scientific reductionism that breaks food into its component parts ignores subtle interactions and context. The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.
Architecture is also a complex system. There are a host of parallel professions involved with designing and constructing the built environment. Since humans spend a majority of their lives indoors or in a man-made world, architecture too has been analyzed and dissected. But when architecture is evaluated solely on the sum of its parts rather than its synergy of systems, we lose the soul of architecture, the thing that separates true architecture from, simply, a building.
Our latest architectural evaluation system is LEED, essentially a scorecard to evaluate a building’s sustainability. I’m not suggesting that LEED is a bad thing. It has identified many critical elements of design, and made the profession more aware of the importance of sustainability since we’ve been operating in a world of blissfully bountiful energy. But to evaluate architecture solely on its LEED score is like evaluating a meal at a restaurant by how many calories it contains.
Why is it that “eaters” trust scientists or food manufacturers for the “healthfulness” of our eating habits instead of our rich historic culture? Why does a client trust reams of calculations generated by a technician before trusting the good judgment of an architect? Why would a homeowner with a custom addition project hire a builder before (or instead of) hiring an architect? And why would an architect have an engineer or lighting manufacturer’s representative design their lighting?
All of these specialists are important to the overall success of the project. But just as with architecture, lighting design is not only about the numbers. Sure, we have to satisfy certain illuminance and power density criteria, but real lighting design starts with design: a true understanding of the architectural concept and a constant weaving of lighting hardware into the architectural fabric so that, especially in the case of daylighting, the light and architecture are inseparable.
Oil subsidies and unnaturally low energy prices could be blamed for western industrialized food, energy-inefficient buildings, urban sprawl, and the general attitude of us all. Recycling, turning lights off, using public transportation – they’re all contributing to a more sustainable world. With the current economic situation, our design practices have geared up for new challenges in sustainability and energy savings. But designers cannot depend on emerging technologies alone. The real innovations will come from the architects and designers themselves and from how these technologies are creatively employed to produce wonderful environments where humans can flourish and live more harmoniously with nature. Long live design!
Photo Credit: Keith Yancey / Lam Partners Inc (1), Stephen M. Lee (2), Wil Carson / Michael Maltzan Architecture (3), Peter Vanderwarker (4)