Good Lighting Design is Good Business

June 25, 2012 / no comments

Thomas Watson, the long-time CEO of IBM was credited with the phrase, “Good design is good business” back in the 1950’s. Today, we still recognize its relevance. Well-designed products sell: cars, appliances, clothing, and of course, anything from Apple. They ‘get’ design. Even the packaging is attractive. Architecture is no different, but architecture tends to be a bit more complex than products. The design and construction of a building has so many facets that quality control is often difficult to manage. Well-designed commercial products are plentiful and often incorporated into well-designed architecture. But the true measure of successful architecture is how all of these products and materials come together. This arrangement still rests in the artful hands of the architectural or interior designer.

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Tom Friedman has written many times that America has to keep up its entrepreneurial spirit and creative energy, or else we’ll quickly fall behind in a world we helped invent. He also states that we have to manage energy consumption and climate change. Architectural decisions early in the design process can dramatically affect this outcome. The many new technologies can help us reduce energy consumption, but once again, it’s through thoughtful design and creative applications that the picture is fully developed.

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Like architecture itself, the lighting field has many products and components available to the design professional. Light fixtures themselves come in all shapes, sizes, wattages, and colors to appeal to the buyer. They look quite attractive in catalogs or on the web. Lighting designers are often asked by architects, interior designers, or even building owners to consider using a particular type or style of fixture that they may have seen, but lighting design is different than lighting fixture design. Sure lighting designers have to select something, and if it’s a conspicuous part of the visual aesthetics, it should probably look good. But the optical and energy performance, first cost, and life-cycle cost of that fixture must also be considered. Beyond that, as with architecture, it’s the careful integration of this lighting hardware and all the associated components into the fabric of the architectural design that will result in a successful luminous environment.

Lam Partners

Expanding on the phrase “good design is good business”, let’s say “good lighting design is good business”. A lighting design firm that performs good lighting design, will likely have a thriving business. Clients will come back to them based on their creative problem solving and technical expertise. “Good lighting design is also good for business”. It implicates that good lighting design can be a vehicle to enhance a company’s bottom line. We’ve all seen the pie chart statistics that illustrate the fact that employee’s salaries are the number one operating expense for any company. If we can improve that function ever so slightly with well-designed, comfortable, glare-free lighting, we can improve the profitability of the company. Beautifully designed spaces command higher rents and can improve worker productivity. Sure, new technologies such as LED’s might help reduce energy costs, but the designer must be able to synthesize these technologies into a beautiful architectural environment that’s good for people.

Lam Partners

In addition to products for construction, we have an infinite toolbox of technologies, support, and access for performing lighting design, such as modeling capabilities, photometrically accurate software, and on-line catalogs. But being technically competent is not enough anymore. Obviously computer modeling skills and rendering capabilities are important in our careers, but even these skills are being off-shored by major design firms. Creativity will not only make a better workplace, but also keep us marketable in that workplace.

The outlook looks optimistic for good quality design. Many argue that basic education today trains us to think logically by associating related concepts, thus reducing our ability to be creative. However most designers in the architectural field attended schools where creativity and approaching problems in new or different ways are the norm. As a creative profession, we must constantly strive for innovative solutions to everyday architectural issues. Good design will help us produce beautiful architecture, save energy, be more sustainable… and will be good for business.

Photo Credits: Glenn Batuyong (1), © Bruce T. Martin (2), Lam Partners (3), © Andrew Bordwin / Gensler (4)

Animation as a Lighting Design Tool

November 28, 2011 / no comments

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No one can dispute that AGi32, Photoshop, and Illustrator are a lighting designer’s best friends, but as we strive to give clients more reasons to demand lighting design, we should be looking at new ways to convey lighting design’s importance.



Many visualization techniques have been adopted from architectural conventions, but, as we all know, light and lighting present different and unique challenges to representation. Given that light is immaterial, dynamic, and ephemeral, designing with light means contending with aspects of time, intensity, and gradients. All these elements elude the static formats of drawings or diagrams. Especially when it comes to daylighting, giving a client a complete idea of lighting performance in a space is almost impossible without resorting to a stupefying series of image after image, calc after calc.

Until a few years ago, animation or video seemed too expensive and impractical for all but the most critical circumstances. Today, however, these are becoming integral tools of our trade. Tools and techniques are becoming available that previously only highly skilled animators and film editors had at their disposal, and they are easier to use than ever before. Software like QuickTime and Photoshop allows easy access to impressive tools for composing ideas into dynamic form. More sophisticated software like After Effects and 3ds Max allows limitless possibilities. Documentation of elements in the analog environment can also be helpful and illuminating. Most digital cameras and phones have video capabilities, making it easy to spontaneously capture anything.

There are a range of out-of-the-box animation tools readily accessible today. Shadow studies are one of the most effective means of beginning a discussion about daylighting strategies with a client. These simple studies can be performed in any number of programs like Google SketchUp, AGi32 , or Revit. Photoshop and QuickTime have functions which allow the user to string a series of still images together to form an animation. For example, they can be used to show design variants, transitions from daylighting to electric lighting schemes, different lighting scenes over the course of a day or night, or the effects of colored light on a space. Programs like 3ds Max, DIVA-for-Grasshopper, and After Effects or Premiere allow even more options.



Another reason we should be looking to new methods of representation is that clients are desirous of information about performance and appearance. As the time of day changes, the lighting and the performance change. Being able to visually convey these changes is extremely helpful to clients, and is a service that other consultants may not be able to provide. Animation may even help us to provide lighting design services in new ways and to fill new market needs.

The economics of animation and video can still be a challenge. It is difficult to set aside time on a project to learn and employ new methods, but while we always have to keep the bottom line in mind, animation can be a more efficient way to convey information. The video format may elucidate questions the client hasn’t formulated or uncover costly issues that might otherwise come up later. Like the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” perhaps, literally and figuratively, a video is worth a thousand pictures.

While it is true that new technologies always involve some level of time invested in learning them, I would argue that it seems well worth it, given the obvious needs in our industry, and these new techniques may eventually make getting your point across to the client more timely and efficient. Animation can help build a client’s confidence in a design, and it can reveal lighting’s capacity to alter the feeling of a space dynamically, in ways that the client may not have imagined.

Image and video credits: Kera Lagios / Lam Partners

Deceptive Simplicity

November 7, 2011 / no comments

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I’ve been thinking about the relationship between simplicity and complexity in design. Why do some design problems initially appear simple but then upon investigation, turn out to be very complex? Why does the solution to a complex problem often, after lengthy analysis, turn out to be the most simple answer? Or why does it sometimes take a very complex technical solution to produce an elegantly simple visible end result?

During the design and construction of a recently completed project, I asked myself some of these questions. Although I don’t have all the answers, this project provides some examples to demonstrate what I’m talking about. The project is the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., designed by Safdie Architects.

Here is one of the design challenges presented to us: make it look like the architectural model – make that translucent roof glow at night. And, oh by the way, you have to light the space underneath at the same time. It seems simple, right? But it’s really complicated.

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We did lots and lots of computer modeling to test out different ideas. Now, you’re probably wondering, why is there a picture of the Lincoln Memorial? Well it turns out, the roof couldn’t be any brighter than any of the surrounding monuments and memorials, so we had to do a complete luminance study and a presentation at the National Capital Planning Commission to show that our roof wouldn’t be any brighter than the memorials.

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Then we had to estimate the transmittance and reflectance of the roof, and it turned out the roof system was going to be in two layers: an outer layer of translucent glass and an inner layer of fabric membrane. So, estimating this was actually quite complicated because of the inter-reflections. We started with back-of-the-napkin sketches and then moved on to tabletop mockups with some of the possible materials for the roof.

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Then we moved on to full-scale mockups, and these had to be done in Germany because that’s where the roof was being built (at Seele, outside of Munich). First we looked at the mockup in daytime to see how the different combinations of possible inner and outer materials would perform.

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Then we tested the different material options outdoors at night with the proposed lighting solutions. And we did visual evaluations of how it looked outside and inside, took all kinds of meter readings, and of course when we were done, since we were in Munich, we had to have a beer!

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So after that very complicated design process here is the solution – really simple: for the interior portions of the roof, linear fluorescent forward-throw cove fixtures. And for the exterior overhangs, in-ground metal halide adjustable accent lights.

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And here’s the visible end result: very simple and elegant. Architectural forms are revealed and the space is well illuminated. I knew we were successful when a visitor said to me, “So, you’re making the roof glow, but I don’t see any light fixtures.”

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Moshe Safdie’s vision was realized, and we’re a good neighbor to the surrounding memorials and monuments. So was all this complicated design process really necessary to reach this beautiful end result? That’s what I’m thinking about. I think it was. All the modeling and mockups and testing and head-scratching gave us much, much more confidence that our very simple solution would work. Without it, I think we would have been inclined to make the solution much more complicated, and in the end, that could have given us a final result that was cluttered and incoherent.

Photo Credits: Safdie Architects (1), Glenn Heinmiller/Lam Partners (2-10)

Lighting Design and Revit: Part 1

July 25, 2011 / no comments

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Worth a Thousand Words

July 5, 2010 / no comments

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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