Lighting design hasn’t changed much since someone first decided to call himself a lighting designer. Twenty years ago, the most earth-shattering developments were in fluorescent lamps; ten years ago saw advances in ceramic metal halide; today we’re cautiously welcoming LEDs into regular practice. LEDs really do have the potential to displace a lot of the existing technology, once we’ve smoothed out all the bumps, but even technological jumps of this sort won’t completely address the energy crisis we are facing. Yes, LEDs will give us more light per watt, but they still produce heat and we’ll have to get rid of it somehow. We’re still using energy. So what else is there?
Buildings, as we build them now, are barely more efficient than they were 50 years ago, even the LEED ones. What are we doing wrong? We are pushing the limits of our technology but we continue to increase our per capita energy consumption. To borrow an oft-used quote, Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps our efforts to design better simply haven’t been enough, to the point that we’re essentially doing the same thing over and over again. Sure, using fluorescent lamps and super-efficient fixtures en masse throughout a building can make an impact, but is it enough to make the fundamental leap to save us from ourselves?
So, are we too cheap? When it comes time to pay the bill, do we argue about what’s on it, or look around and ask others to chip in? Ask yourself, as a designer, how many times have good, common-sense design elements been deemed expendable when the budget hits the fan? And when those tough decisions are made, what takes precedence over sustainable functionality? Immediate satisfaction! More square feet per dollar – that’s the sad bottom line. Next time you consider skimping on controls or settling for that less-efficient pendant, consider the big picture: eventually all those 1% savings here and there can add up. Budgets need to support projects in their entirety and keep what really matters. If it means sacrificing marble floors for more daylighting, do it! We’ve gotten off too easily for too long on the cost of responsible building.
Or, perhaps we’re all lazy. Take an example: as an undergrad I spent a summer in the wonderful city of Portland, Oregon, and was awed by what I saw there. Buildings without any air conditioning! Now, I’m not so sheltered that I’ve never seen a building without AC – I grew up without it – but I was astonished to see large commercial buildings without it. The climate obviously had a lot to do with it, but, when you looked around at the older architecture of the city, the pre-AC stuff, you saw that they simply designed the buildings to function without it. Big windows, high ceilings, narrow floor plates, atria, architecturally integrated daylighting, and on and on. Those designers relied almost exclusively on passive systems and when the sun went down, people went home.
The point is that all of our wonderful innovations, however efficient, have made life so convenient and comfortable that we’ve detached ourselves from the natural environment, from house to car to office. Life is actually too easy for the majority of people. Look at the nation’s waistline as an indicator. We work late because we can (the lights and AC stay on) and, consequently, we exercise less. We use more electricity by working on the fringes of the day (fewer people in the office, but all the lights are on) and even though the lights are more efficient than before, we leave them on longer. Net result: same energy use and fatter people. Just recently, the BBC published a story citing: “People who regularly put in overtime and work ten or eleven-hour days increase their heart disease risk by nearly two-thirds, research suggests. The findings come from a study of 6,000 British civil servants, published online in the European Heart Journal.”
One more guess then: is it vanity? Just because we can build all-glass buildings doesn’t mean we should – all that heat-gain and glare. Just because we can make floorplates 200 feet thick doesn’t mean we should – they only exist on life support (i.e. electricity). Just because they make light fixtures that are two inches wide doesn’t mean we should use them – those two-inch-wide fixtures are super inefficient, by the way.
Exceptional design and creativity can promote advances in technology, and those advances fuel, in turn, exceptional designs. But if an aesthetic that technology can’t efficiently support takes priority over the energy use, the cost of pretty goes way up. Is there another pretty, or could you do it another way entirely? Can practicality and originality coexist?
If it’s all or none of the above, one thing is sure: we need to make a sacrifice and adjust our values. To quote Thomas Friedman in a recent New York Times editorial:
Our parents were ‘The Greatest Generation,’ and they earned that title by making enormous sacrifices and investments to build us a world of abundance. My generation, ‘The Baby Boomers,’ turned out to be what the writer Kurt Andersen called ‘The Grasshopper Generation.’ We’ve eaten through all that abundance like hungry locusts.
Now we and our kids together need to become ‘The Regeneration’ – one that raises incomes anew but in a way that is financially and ecologically sustainable. It will take a big adjustment.
Not only do we need to radically change our building designs but we need to use them way more efficiently. We need to change our habits – turn out the lights, or not use them at all.