A Little Birdie Told Me

September 12, 2011 / no comments


One of the core fundamentals of the design community is collaboration. Whether it be among multiple designers within a single office, or between the architect, consultants, and of course the owner working towards the goals of a project, a design is never fully visualized and constructed without careful collaboration of resources and ideas.


As individuals within that community, we constantly strive to gain more knowledge, increase our experience, and share our ideas. Design is a two-way street (sometimes a never-ending rotary), with a constant ebb and flow of concepts and diagrams. Being a singular designer isolated from the richness of team thought and continued education would result in stale work and short careers. That’s why we all attend Lightfair and IALD or AIA conferences, and go to lectures and seminars – to see what others are doing and thinking. These activities are about much more than just earning CEUs; they are also about networking and socializing, for it is these aspects that really stimulate our interests and further our careers.

Every time I attend Lightfair, I’m intrigued by the new products that are coming to market, but I’m always much more interested in, and inspired by, hearing about what others are working on, or seeing projects they have recently completed. Keeping in touch with colleagues and being a part of a community (one that’s much larger than your daily isolated focus on project-specific tasks) keeps us fresh and invigorated to strive for more or to do better work. This is not about keeping a watch on our competition – it’s about constantly seeking inspiration to enhance the built environments that we design.

Unless you’ve been under a rock lately or you still have a dial-up modem, much of this inspiration can be found online or in the palms of our hands.


For years now, we’ve turned to blogs and websites to share our ideas and to seek inspiration. It is this constant search and self-education that makes design so much fun. There are many bad answers, but there is no single right answer that solves all of our design challenges. If there were, buildings would never evolve, design would grow stagnant, and the design community would be extremely small, populated by the lucky few who first found that ‘right’ answer.

Fortunately, much of what makes design so challenging and fun is the actual process and not just the final answer. So take a minute and view some cool, thought-provoking images, reconnect with a past colleague, or listen for a clever birdie, and you may be surprised by how much out there is useful and influential.

I am certainly not one of those at the forefront of the social networking phenomenon that is upon us (I don’t even know if I am close enough to see the back of it), but I am excited by all of the endless digital media that now exist to generate the same interest, intrigue, and inspiration that I always sought, and will continue to seek, from a global design community. Sharing our ideas, listening to the experiences of others, and trying something new is what makes each of us better designers and each of our projects more successful. I haven’t seen that ‘perfect’ project yet, but I will continue to seek out ideas to improve the built environment that we all create and live in.

Image Credits: Twitter, Inc. (1), William Wayne Caudill (2), public domain (3)


Basic Sustainable Lighting Concepts: On Electric Lighting

August 22, 2011 / no comments

Part 3 of an ongoing series outlining design principles for sustainable lighting design: here are a few ideas regarding electric lighting to help navigate the greenwash.


Strike a balance between efficiency and functionality

The efficiency of a light fixture or system is not a replacement for functionality and aesthetics. On the other hand, the beautiful appearance of a chandelier does not mean it should be an energy hog either. Know where to pick your battles and try as hard as you can to design lighting that’s as efficient and beautiful as possible – together.

Having said that, do look for fixtures with 75% efficiency or better – certainly no lower than 50%. Not everything will conform, but if the bulk of your lighting exceeds this benchmark, you’re doing pretty well in getting the biggest bang for your electrical buck. As always, weigh efficiency against function – if it’s glary, those extra percentage points aren’t helping.

LEDs, coming soon…

LEDs have the awesome potential to the be next big thing in the lighting world. At the rate the technology is improving, they may be set to take over the fluorescent market in the next five years. But beware of false claims: make sure you’ve personally tinkered with any fixture you’re going to use on a project, and don’t forget to find out what it really costs – you may be shocked. Just as there was hesitation to adopt the early compact fluorescent bulbs because of their poor performance and color, we’re seeing the same with LEDs. Give them time and they will wow us, for real this time.

Do your homework. You don’t want a call from an owner in two years saying that they can’t replace a light source because it failed prematurely and they’re not available anymore; that whole fixture would have to be scrapped and replaced. Try to future-proof your designs.

Mind the costs.

Greener buildings are touted as being more expensive than traditional spec buildings, and that may well be true. But, good, efficient lighting doesn’t have to be part of that added cost. Mind your dollar-signs when selecting fixtures, and make your clients see that it’s the padding of the bill that jacks up the price, not the hardware. Of course, if you do pick a really expensive fixture, you’re on your own.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

First, don’t over-design – the more over-designed a space is, the more raw materials and energy it will consume. Building designs can’t accommodate every possible use. Designers need to pick the function of a space and stick with it, with exceptions for truly multi-purpose rooms.

Second, if designing for a large institution, especially renovating a space, ask if they have attic stock that you can use on your design. They’ll love you for not spending money, and you save manufacturing and shipping energy. That doesn’t mean you can use A-lamps instead of fluorescents, but if it fits the design, use it. That goes for controls, too. How can you augment an existing system to perform its new task even better?

Third, recycle: recycle old fixtures, recycle lamps, recycle control systems, recycle everything you throw out during a renovation, new construction, or simple maintenance task. Fluorescent and metal halide lamps, especially, need to be recycled as toxic waste. They both contain mercury, a neurotoxin, and we don’t need that in our water supply. Find your closest lamp recycler.


Lighting Design and Revit: Part 1

July 25, 2011 / no comments


Like it or not, BIM – by which I mean Revit – is here to stay. For smaller firms, Revit may represent a daunting hurdle to overcome, in terms of both cost and learning curve. While I agree the cost is high, once I began to understand how the software functions, I realized it actually forces the entire design team to work in a much closer and more collaborative way; in other words, more like how projects were done before computers.

While claiming that an expensive software platform can actually replicate the design process of yesteryear may seem like a bit of stretch, there are some interesting parallels. Revit functions as a stand-alone tool, but really shines when all the team members using it interact and communicate regularly. Until a project can live reliably on a cloud server so all team members can access the model simultaneously as originally intended, the various disciplines now work on separate models that get linked together on a regular basis to coordinate and resolve conflicts. This regular interaction enables team members to observe each other’s progress, gaining valuable intimacy with the entire project, not just his or her own area.

This current process works reasonably well for the main players on a project – the architect and MEP and structural engineers – but what about lighting, which is such a critical component of a successful project? Shouldn’t lighting also take advantage of Revit? How can a lighting design firm effectively interact in an increasingly BIM-oriented work environment?

As I quickly found out, nobody had really thought much about how smaller consultants could successfully provide Revit deliverables, so we continued to issue 2D CAD lighting layouts that were then recreated in the model by the architect. Eventually it became apparent that this method didn’t make sense, and we began to actively explore a simple and effective workflow with our clients using Revit.

Next month: Part 2.

Image credits: Jonathan LaRocca (1,2)

Measure Twice, Cut Once

April 11, 2011 / no comments


The old adage of measuring twice and cutting once applies just as well to design as to construction, and especially to the design of our lighted environment. Lighting can certainly be judged quantitatively, and it often needs to be, but it is also always qualitative and very subjective. The perception of brightness, the balance of light and dark, shade and shadow, and the appropriate contrast to enhance a sense of dimensionality without visual clutter, all play a role in the quality of lighting.

Sometimes numbers aren’t enough, or they don’t show the whole picture; sometimes seeing really is believing. In the case of a recent high-rise tower project, the penthouse screen wall was backlighted to create a glowing crown within the nighttime skyline. This started as a computer model to study the relative output needed, along with the general patterning of the screen wall structure. Then, during the glass selection process with the architect, a series of full-scale mockups were done on the rooftop of the existing building to evaluate the appropriate brightness.


Numerous glass samples were explored and tested, during the day and backlighted at night. Various frit patterns and interlayer films behaved differently at night, lighted from one side, than they did during the day when daylight illuminated both sides.

Care was taken to accurately simulate the structure supporting the screen wall, in order to represent realistic shadowing; however, the primary purpose of the full-scale mockups was to determine with the client the preferred brightness of the backlighted glass. There was no right answer in this case.


If the process had stopped there though, we still would have missed the mark, because brightness was only one piece of the composition. The next step went back to small-scale modeling. A 1/4”-scale physical model was constructed of one entire façade, with all of the structure and fixtures accurately represented. This allowed the overall pattern of the wall, with all of its potential shadows, to be scrutinized and explored.


The interplay of shadows from vertical and horizontal structural elements, in relation to standard fixture lengths, created a depth to the lighted wall that, at this grand scale and from normal street-level vantage points, became a positive quality that the entire design team, along with the client, preferred over a relatively uniform and flat appearance. The distinction between texture and visual clutter can be a very fine line, and neither the computer model nor the full-scale mockup really told the full story.

Sometimes the answer is quick and right in front of you, and other times, especially when perception and subjective qualities are in question, multiple methods need to be explored to make sure that the right measurement was made. A single measurement would have cut this design too short.


Photo Credits: D Sharon Pruitt (1), Lam Partners (2-5)

Shedding Light on Times Square

December 6, 2010 / no comments

The Times Square we know today did not simply evolve towards ever bigger and brighter lights, but rather is the result of deliberately crafted design codes intended to produce a visually arresting environment – celebrating the advertising, commerce, and entertainment culture of New York through the use of bold, bright signs that can be seen as easily from across the street as on a television screen in Tokyo. The codes are the work of architect Robert A.M. Stern, hired by Mayor Ed Koch, who began in 1992 to develop design guidelines as part of a long-term plan to improve the seedy, dangerous, and declined “Crossroads of the World”.

The codes, known formally as the New York City Zoning Resolution for the Special Theater District , read like instructions for producing a crazy science fiction landscape. There are provisions regulating everything from sign size, illumination, animation, and visibility from key points in the square. One article reads, “each of the signs… shall have either: a minimum of 20 percent of its surface area continuously electrically animated either by means of flashing borders, writing, pictorial representations, emblems or other figures of similar character or by means of flashing sign surface area serving as a field or background thereto; or a minimum of 50 percent of its surface area continuously mechanically animated.” Elsewhere, the code provides instructions for creating a customized light meter with accompanying Times Square-specific lighting units: LUTS (Light Units Times Square). It is hard to find many other places where light is regulated so stringently and so specifically.

These highly prescriptive codes set out to produce an environment formed by light, in which light plays an unequivocal role: clear, constant, relentless, and above all, bright. It is the loudest, most bombastic announcement of American prosperity, and it is a wholly new luminous environment. However, despite efforts to manipulate light into confined limits, its wily behavior finds ways to cleverly subvert those intentions.

Amid this over-the-top environment, the modernist architectural glazing of the surrounding buildings becomes a slippery skin upon which Times Square’s illuminated signs reflect and reverberate. The light from a single sign is reflected in thousands of window panes, glazed storefronts, and glass curtain walls, and it mixes with reflected light from hundreds of other signs. Lights inside stores are overpowered by reflected light from outside; the resulting compositions on the glass challenge the tourist to see into the merchandise inside. Sometimes the transparent pane becomes almost opaque simply from reflections.


In contrast to the irrefutably informative illuminated signs, the reflections of those lights multiplied over the surfaces of windows and glazed facades produces the opposite: a thick atmosphere of light and color in which foreground and background become confused. Windows which are normally designated as the first enticing entrance into a store or company become obfuscated by the multiplied myriad of lights beyond. Instead of clearly expressing an identity, the building and the brand are engulfed by the ethereal environment around them.


Daylight also plays games with the show-stopping electrical extravaganza, toying with the Square’s strict configurations of time and illumination, and challenging the 5-minute animation loops. The constant change in lighting conditions throughout the day and seasons mean that it is never the same atmosphere as it was several minutes ago. Despite efforts to schedule the environment into regular, repetitive intervals, natural light counters with variability and variety. And daylight is responsible for one of Times Square’s biggest tricks: at certain times of day, the sun’s brightness completely overpowers the lights of even the biggest signs, and in one fell swoop, takes Times Square and turns it off.



Lighting design today, like architecture, is facing a new era of regulation. The increased use of computer simulations and the increasing importance of energy codes slowly changes the perspective on light into something much more quantifiable and less qualitative. Yet light, like all other elements of perception, resists that quantification. Through perception we are able to rediscover means and methods of conceptualizing space that have been temporarily forgotten amid the wave encouraging us to quantify our world. Times Square, perhaps unexpectedly, shows us that there are territories still to be uncovered.

Photo Credits: © Kera Lagios

Worth a Thousand Words

July 5, 2010 / no comments


As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true when studying architectural lighting concepts. With energy codes becoming more and more stringent, and seeking sustainability through power reduction becoming more and more prevalent, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that designing by numbers does not tell the entire story. Although meeting minimum illuminance levels is critical to safety and security, and although reducing electricity demand is critical, balancing brightness, uniformity, and contrast ratios with an understanding of texture and shadow is what really leads to a successful lighting composition.

This is not to say that energy codes and recommended illuminance levels are not important, but rather that they are only one piece of the puzzle – one that must be thoroughly understood, and achieved without sacrificing visual clarity in our designs.


A lighted nighttime environment rendered with 3D computer software can be an invaluable way to communicate a lighting concept and a hierarchy of surface brightness for a space. Seeing the ceiling uniformity and shadows created by structural members can impart important information back to the designers that could easily be missed when designing by numbers alone.


Uplighted coffers and the interplay of shadows on different architectural surfaces can be visualized when accurately modeled, allowing the perceived brightness of a room or building to directly inform the design. Material characteristics can be studied and determined, well before the design is finalized, allowing the designers instant feedback on their decisions.


The catch to all of this is that careful attention must be paid to material attributes and light fixture photometric distributions. Creating a wonderful picture that is not entirely accurate can be worth the wrong thousand words.

Material colors and reflectances must be matched as closely as possible to the intended specifications. Darker or lighter color selections, or polished material finishes rather than matte, can make the rendered image differ significantly from the built form. Photometric accuracy is equally critical. Without realistic light distributions and outputs, information contained within IES data files, the 3D model is nothing more than an artistic rendition.

The lighting designer’s responsibility is to integrate all of this critical information into one cohesive model when rendered images are required. It is the thorough understanding of fixture optics, material reflectances, brightness perception, and uniformity ratios that allow lighted environments to be accurately visualized and studied through computer simulation. The artful layering of light and dark goes far beyond minimum illumination achieved or amount of energy consumed, and sometimes, the picture is worth more than a thousand words.


Photo Credits: Visarc (1a), Nathanael C. Doak / Lam Partners (1b, 5b), Peter Aaron / Esto (3b), Lam Partners (all others)

Healthy Exterior Night Lighting – Is There Such a Thing?

June 7, 2010 / no comments


Many people would argue that the healthiest lighting at night is no lighting at all. Studies are revealing that biological rhythms are offset, sleep patterns are disrupted, even breast and prostate cancers are more likely with disrupted circadian rhythms, due in part to improper lighting at improper times of the day.

The human race evolved under both light and dark. The light-and-dark cycle sets our circadian rhythms and is responsible for our good physical and mental health. Relying on the sun, moon, and stars has for centuries provided us with high-quality, healthy lighting. That’s why there is such an interest in daylighting our buildings, not only to save energy, but to put us in touch with a natural light spectrum that changes throughout the day and provides us with healthy lighting. However, we sometime need to augment this cycle at times when tasks must be performed and there is no available “natural” light.

Exterior lighting provides useful illumination at night mostly through electric means, and there are a plethora of electric light sources available to light our cities, towns, and campuses at night. What’s the best choice? Unfortunately, that question is far too many times answered by “what’s the cheapest?” – cheapest to purchase, operate, and maintain. “What’s the most energy-efficient?” is another, more admirable, question.

Both metrics are easily quantifiable and, as a result, are used almost exclusively in decisions about what light source to use. But since we are primarily lighting for humans, we should be asking “what’s the healthiest lighting to provide at night?” This is a more difficult question to answer. We may find that the healthiest lighting at night is no lighting. But, if we determine that some sort of illumination should be provided for some given task, what kind of light is best?


Most of America’s highways, streets, and pathways are illuminated with high-pressure sodium lamps, a yellow, monochromatic source. Many lighting designers, though, prefer metal halide over sodium vapor due to its “whiter” color and superior color-rendering properties. However, designers have had a tough time justifying this qualitative aspect when compared to the efficiency and long life of sodium.

Then, a number of years ago, studies started to show that cool or bluish light (white light with relatively high color temperatures, 5000K to 6000K) improved visual acuity in off-axis seeing tasks. There was even discussion about measuring this benefit for exterior lighting applications, since off-axis tasks were very important for good nighttime vision, (scotopic) driving, and walking. Finally, designers had a scientific reason for recommending metal halide over sodium for ‘people-centric’ tasks.

On the other side of the coin is the research saying that blue light at night is bad. Studies are starting to reveal that exposure to light with higher concentrations in the blue spectrum at night may actually be bad for our health. Apparently, it is especially harmful to people prone to macular degeneration. Cool blue light in the morning and during the day, at high levels of illumination, is crucial in setting our circadian rhythms by producing serotonin in the body.

Conversely, warm-colored light at night does not suppress melatonin, which is needed for proper sleep cycles. This is why some claim that night lights should be amber or red so as not to disturb sleep patterns through the night, or that people should stop working on their computers or watching TV at least an hour before going to bed, because of blue-rich light emanating from the visual displays.


And then there is the psychological side. Most people prefer a warm tone for low levels of illumination. It feels more natural. The sun gets warmer closer to sunset. Firelight has a nice warm glow. Dimming an incandescent lamp warms its color temperature. Kruithof’s amenity curve reinforces the notion of relating color temperature to the illuminance level.

Just to complicate matters, many exterior applications are beginning to embrace the burgeoning technology of the LED. It seems to make sense from a maintenance standpoint, since LEDs have a very long lamp life. However in order for these diodes to be very efficacious, they must be in the very cool or blue end of the spectrum, about 6000K. When this color temperature is used for outdoor applications of 10lux or less, the resultant lighting system looks very unnatural, not to mention what it does to skin tones.

On the Boston Common, like in many communities across the nation, there is a mock-up of several different styles and manufacturers of LED pedestrian lanterns. One evening, as we were observing the differences between the luminaires, we received an unsolicited opinion from a passer-by who commented on how the warm-white LED lantern looked the best. I tend to agree. The blue light at night simply looks unnatural. I often wonder why induction lighting is not more common for exterior lighting applications – the color temperature and rendering properties are superb, and it is rated at twice the life of most LED systems.

Ultimately it comes down to good lighting design:

1. Identify what needs to be illuminated and what can remain dark, in order to create useful contrast and manage energy usage wisely.

2. Highlight features to reinforce a hierarchy of events and provide orientation for the user.

3. Arrange light sources in clear, understandable patterns to create optical guidance for wayfinding.


A comprehensive nighttime visual environment must provide safety, foster a sense of security, be convenient for performing tasks, and appear aesthetically pleasing. When it comes to choosing the source, it should have a high color-rendering index and a nice warm color somewhere in the 2700K range. And, remember the rule of “everything in moderation”! Providing low levels of well-considered lighting will reveal the environment to the user much more effectively than flooding an area with high levels of potentially glary light, and chances are we’ll all be healthier for it. We won’t be breathing air that is polluted by power plants used to produce electricity to power exterior lighting, and we won’t be subjected to luminous energy that disrupts our biological rhythms. A win-win situation for everyone!

Photo Credits: longhorndave (1), *melody* (2), kevindooley (3), Lam Partners Inc (4)

The Next Big Step

May 24, 2010 / no comments


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.

Photo Credits: ume-y (1), code_martial (2), BLW Photography (3)

Lessons Learned: Big Picture Clarity Requires Small Detail Focus

December 28, 2009 / no comments


Being able to see the beauty of the ‘big picture’ often requires focus on small details. This is especially true in architectural lighting, where successful projects are a collaborative integration of lighting into architecture, rather than lighting hardware applied to the built form. Hidden uplights, concealed cove fixtures, silhouetted planes, and lighted niches can all enhance and animate a space by accenting the architectural surfaces. This layering of lighted planes creates depth within the visual environment, while creating a balanced background for more ornate fixtures to be added to the composition when appropriate.

Sometimes, however, it isn’t just the composition of light and architecture but, rather, the execution of the smallest details that completes the picture. Balancing the grand gestures and features of a space with the construction of details is what allows an architectural lighting project to truly shine, for instance, detailing cove fixtures so that they are completely concealed from sight:


Other examples: perfectly aligning a pendant with an architectural datum, or matching a custom paint finish so that the hardware blends smoothly with its background. Equally important, ensuring that a junction box and its faceplate align with a minimalist fixture:


Or, coordinating the location of a switchplate:


Botching these minute details can transform the elegance of a design into an assortment of missed opportunities that cause visual clutter instead of visual clarity. An excellent design requires excellent craftsmanship and coordinated construction to reach its full potential. This responsibility falls on every member of the design team and construction team, to work together diligently to ensure that beautiful ideas on paper are transformed into beautifully lit environments.

On every project, there will always be lessons learned and ‘a-ha’ moments that contribute to our future projects. It is this continual learning process and devoted attention to detail that elevates our designs. It is too easy during construction to view these examples as oversights and to point blame.

Was it the design team, the contractor, a last-minute change by the owner, a field conflict that couldn’t be resolved? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that each case is viewed as a reminder to us all, that without careful execution and attention to even the smallest of details, the true brilliance of the big picture cannot be brought into focus.


Photo Credits: Jon W. Denker/CAPS (1, 5), Lam Partners (2, 3, 4)

The Specification Conundrum

November 16, 2009 / no comments


It’s a well-known fact that publicly sponsored, even some private or public/private construction projects demand a multi-name specification on equipment: everything from toilets and faucets, carpet and tile, to light fixtures and lamps. As lighting designers, we deal exclusively with the latter but this requirement applies to all products.

On one side of the argument are the multi-name spec supporters. They intend to encourage competition by shopping for the same basic product offered by multiple suppliers, which can then be bought at the best price. Since the public money comes from the taxpayers, these projects have a responsibility to deliver the best quality building for the least amount of money, and the best quality lighting for the least amount of money.

Patent holders or design sympathizers make up the other side of the argument (including patents pending, or even just original ideas). The patent is a universal, government-sponsored method for recognizing and protecting intellectual property, giving credit to groups or individuals whose ideas are new, original, and innovative. Patents are strong reinforcers, although costly, in encouraging development of new products and methods, and they usually allow those new products to enjoy market exclusivity for seven years. Without them, inventors would have little incentive to introduce their brainstorms to the world for fear that the next guy will simply copy it and sell it first – they get rich on your idea. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

To put it into consumer terms, take the iPhone for example. It wouldn’t be here if Apple couldn’t wield its patents. The protection they are ensured by federal law allows them to enjoy exclusivity for their inventions for that seven-year grace period. But, the patent system isn’t perfect and there are lots of loopholes to wiggle out of infringement, for better or worse. Perhaps it’s those very loopholes that keep technology moving. If Apple was able to infinitely sit on their patents, they would have a monopoly, allowing for artificial price inflation of their products (they’re more expensive than PC, aren’t they…). Good for them, bad for consumers, although if we want something badly enough we’ll pay almost any price. Since patents do expire and design tweaks beget new patents, other people are able to build off of what Apple has started, generally making improvements for the good of the industry. Everyone one-ups the previous invention. Since the iPhone’s release there’s been a rush to bring other touch phones to market – now look at your choices. Sometimes, patents are infringed upon to make a quick buck, but the determined defend them fiercely with teams of lawyers – more hassle than it’s worth.

2_RGB LEDs_Kaibara87.jpg

So what are these two camps fighting over? They’re in conflict with each other because you can’t employ certain methods, use certain products, or basically use anything patented on multi-name specification projects because there are no equals. In the past this was not as big an issue as it is now, at least for the lighting world. Light bulbs were light bulbs and sockets were sockets. But now, the sustainability movement and the widespread adoption of the LEED programs, sometimes effectively required by law, have pushed building designs to perform better, use less energy, and otherwise be more ‘sustainable’, so that within the past decade or so, there have been technological advances and refinements in the lighting industry to address the new requirements. Those manufacturers that have done so, who have gone the extra step, have patented their products – making them inaccessible for those public projects.

Now, to close the loop, those same public projects that want the biggest bang for the buck also require sustainability measures. How can you have a multi-name specification and employ patented sustainability measures at the same time? Here the conundrum exists! The industry has been muddling its way through, making exceptions and allowances, but the same problem is raised time and time again with each new project – cost and accountability versus sustainability.

Is there an answer? I’m not sure. For now, we’ll have to keep making those arguments for the greater good – but which greater good is it: the planet or money?

Photo Credits: gcbb (1), Kaibara87 (2)