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)

“Less Or Else” is Becoming a Bore

November 9, 2009 / no comments

Architectural lighting is poised for a dramatic transition into innovative new applications and approaches to sustainability. To summarize this transition, let’s look at architectural history through the lens of Mies van der Rohe’s famous quip “less is more”:

More is more: classical architecture in an age with limited technical and material capability.

Less is more: modern architecture responding to the abundance of the industrial age.

Less is a bore: post-modern architecture seeking to reconcile minimalism with a consumerist society.

Less or else: the struggle to develop “sustainable” strategies using pre-existing paradigms and technologies.

Let’s propose a new strategy:

More for less: finding a guilt-free, sustainable lifestyle as culturally rich and pleasurable as any previous trend.

It is quite apparent that the lighting design community is tiring of stuffing decades-old technologies and lighting paradigms into the limited metric of ever-decreasing watts per square foot. Lighting designers are hungry for new technologies, new fixture applications and new opportunities to work with architects to develop creative new design approaches.

If we want to find the pleasure inherently possible in living sustainably, then we need to change broader attitudes in the design profession. This requires an approach far more complex then simply forcing down allowed watts per square foot.

Accepting Random Variability and Darkness as Wonderful Things

Encouraged by various sustainable design initiatives, architectural technology is moving from the tectonics-based “isolated shelter: humans versus nature” approach, toward an approach that considers buildings as living, dynamic organisms, constantly exchanging energy and resources with their surrounding ecosystems.

Therefore, designers of buildings need to move beyond their constant drive to create interior environmental stasis and pervasive homogeneity of light and air; they need to explore and exploit natural patterns of variability. In lighting, this means ignoring decades-old “best practices” routed in fixed equipment that was either on or off, with fixed outputs, without any functionality for accommodating change, and instead exploring more naturally derived patterns of light and shadow, variable color palettes, visual patterns, and other forms of dynamic change.

Darkness is wonderful: it helps people see the light. Designers must learn to not be so scared of it. And variability keeps a space alive, long after the design and construction process has ended.


Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi

Jean Nouvel has designed a perforated dome structure to provide shade from the piercing sun of the Persian Gulf. The organic pattern of the perforations softens the light and casts visually rich patterns across the structures below.

The Banality of Average Footcandles

Why must every corner of a building be lit to predetermined, fixed levels? Why have architects come to imagine their designs as compositions set in perfectly uniform environmental conditions with predetermined levels of light? Why have codes reinforced this simplistic thinking?

For example, modern office spaces have become terrible places to work because nothing ever changes. The lighting, the air flow, the ergonomics of the furniture, the sound, and, via constant computer usage, even the focal point of a worker’s gaze has become so fixed that the worker is completely deprived of any natural stimulus. Many commercial and institutional projects have suffered similar fates.

It is ironic that “stimulus deprivation” such as described above is recognized as one of the most effective forms of interrogation. We’re literally torturing the inhabitants of our buildings.

Down with Downlights!

Modernist architects of the 1960s, along with pioneering lighting designers and fixture manufacturers, developed concealed light sources to keep the visual focus on their bold geometric forms and rich materials. They artfully used their exquisite architecture to create pleasurable contrast, sparkle, and perceived brightness.


Four Seasons Restaurant, New York

With lighting design by Richard Kelly and fixtures from Edison Price, this fine example of 1960s International Style uses concealed fixtures to highlight exquisite materials and bold geometric compositions.

That’s fine if you’re Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe designing the famous Four Seasons Restaurant in the classic Seagram Building. The problem is that for the rest of us working on budget-driven commercial and institutional projects, the only materials we often have at our disposal is plain sheetrock and acoustic ceiling tiles. This combination of lost materiality and the lingering desire of many architects for “invisible” light sources (such as recessed downlights) has virtually wiped out tools such as contrast, sparkle, and perceived brightness from many designers’ kit of techniques.

Post-modernism only worsened the problem, treating visible light fixtures as kitschy historical references while using “invisible” sources to do the “real lighting”. Hence we are left with a legacy of recessed, concealed fixtures that waste nearly half of the light from the lamp in a desperate attempt to look “invisible”, along with decorative pendants and sconces, a duo ultimately derived from gaslight fixtures circa 1900.

The most positive benefit of LED lighting is the plethora of new formats LEDs are spawning, such as grids of tiny direct-view point sources, super-compact linear fixtures, or glowing panel systems. LEDs are encouraging designers to treat light as a material, which helps them to explore new forms of self-illuminated architectural elements.


Jason Bruges Studio, Hotel Puerta America, Madrid

This excellent example of a light source integrated into an architectural wall system also demonstrates cutting-edge control: cameras integrated into the wall track a person’s movement and create animated “digital shadow” effects.

Experience Designers (Formerly Known as Lighting Designers)

Digitally controlled, intelligent lighting systems are becoming inexpensive and widespread. Savvy, creative use of daylight is being included far more extensively in architectural design. Hence, designers must reincorporate the dynamic and experiential element of time into their thinking.

Once an architectural composition is considered as a dynamic scene, a range of questions spring up: When can an area be dark? When must it be bright? Should the lighting respond to the external environment? Will a fade between two colors achieve the same visual effect with lower wattage? Will an animated surface make a space feel more natural?

Because of the wide crossover between the theatrical lighting and architectural lighting professions, most lighting designers are already well equipped to handle such dynamic design strategies. The challenge is to incorporate novel ideas for energy conservation into the client’s preconceived notions and within the restrictions of outmoded code requirements. Another challenge is far more pragmatic: How do you document the element of time in an architectural drawing set?

The core question becomes: How can we, as lighting designers, enrich an occupant’s temporal experience of a place while using fewer resources?

With Love, Bill Gates: Lighting Design Becomes Interface Design

Architecture, by its very nature, interfaces with the natural environment. But there is another highly variable environment that architecture must also address: the digital realm.

Buildings must now be considered not only as shelters but as portals to digital content. How will new lighting technologies and media displays enable richer, more variable portals between the human world and the digital world? How will buildings exchange data with their inhabitants?


Interactive wall and table concept, Microsoft Office Labs

Microsoft’s stunning view of the future shows non-luminous, multi-touch interactive wall and table displays set in natural daylight.

Lighting designers will soon have to adopt a wide range of new technologies – including thin-film light sources, low- and high-resolution video displays, digital content servers, and interactive proximity-based control systems – into their range of commonly used tools. Lighting designers are also well positioned to help clients integrate photovoltaic solar cells into a building’s façade systems.

With the lack of high-level innovation in the lighting industry, lighting designers increasingly have to depend on technology coming from outside of the industry in order to stay relevant to their client’s needs. All of this technology, however, will have to be integrated into architecture with the highest levels of sustainable design. What will digital media systems, integrated into architectural building systems and developed in a true, cradle-to-cradle sustainable fashion, ultimately look like?



Simone Giostra & Partners Architects, GreenPix Zero Energy Media Wall, Beijing

The GreenPix project includes photovoltaic solar cells artfully integrated into a glass rain screen system, with each panel backlit with an LED pixel. During the day, it collects all the energy it needs; at night, it dazzles with textural “low-resolution” video effects.


The intersection of digital media design and green building systems poses an area of development rich with innovative opportunities for designers and manufacturers alike. The next generation of buildings will be living, breathing organisms, respirating and conserving energy and light through naturally derived exchanges, full of dynamic variability, and rich with digital content. The future for lighting systems has never been brighter.

Photo Credits: Ateliers Jean Nouvel (1), Four Seasons Restaurant (2), Jason Bruges Studio (3), Microsoft Corporation (4), Simone Giostra & Partners Architects (5-6)

Solar Decathlon: Not So Sunny, But Full of Energy!

October 19, 2009 / no comments


Interior honeycomb shades provide privacy and additional insulation, and are a part of the nighttime ambient lighting system in Team Boston's house.

I was fortunate to be able to spend the weekend visiting the Solar Decathlon houses on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (see the Solar Decathlon website and Amber’s last blog article “Curious” About Sustainable Design?).

Miserable weather meant that the houses weren’t generating much electricity, but the energy produced by the students attracted many people like me willing to stand in long lines in the rain and mud to see their work. I was impressed by the sheer immensity of what the students had accomplished (none more so than the Lam-sponsored Team Boston!) and the many ways in which each team solved the same sets of design problems. It was fascinating to see how they balanced the tensions between having to make a highly efficient house that also functions well, would be a nice place to live in, and is beautiful. You could see the compromises: the house that was super-insulated but didn’t have many windows, or the house with large south-facing windows but no architecturally integrated shading to block the summer sun (perhaps because it would have violated the purity of the architecture) – or the house that kept the lighting energy so low that the lighting quality suffered.


Team Boston's southern façade featured an integrated shading overhang and innovative roll-up exterior louvers for no summer solar heat gain.

But the thing that struck me most about the competition was not something I saw on the Mall, but an entry in Thursday’s Daily Journal on the Solar Decathlon website. In describing the winners of the Lighting Design competition, it said: “A Minnesota team member commented that their goal was to use only 500 watts (or the equivalent of five incandescent light bulbs) to light the entire house”. Now, I appreciate the attempt to make the information accessible to the average consumer, but this comment is so telling about the incorrect way that the world considers lighting energy efficiency.


This type of vanity mirror seen in Penn State's bathroom showed up in a few other houses, too. Love the skylights!

The Solar Decathlon is a contest that measures (among many things) energy-efficiency, not total watts. Energy is Watts x Time (see my blog article Fight the Power! ) So I could have 2,000 watts of total lighting in my Solar Decathlon house, but if I only needed to turn some of it on for a small amount of time each day, I could use less energy than a house with 200 watts of total lighting that had to have all the lights on most of the time. If they only measured watts at the Solar Decathlon, then all they’d need to do is hook up the houses to a meter, make them turn on every system and appliance, and the house with the lowest wattage would be the winner. Well, that would be easy – but it would be dumb. So why, then, do we talk about lighting performance this way?!

So there I was on Saturday in one of the houses and a charming student tells us that all their lighting uses only 200 watts. Sigh. And then later that afternoon, in another house a student tells us how their LED fixtures use just 3 watts each. Arrgghh. So OK, we’ve done a bad job educating our students about how to measure lighting energy efficiency, but this also brings up another timely issue: lighting quality. What if you only use 200 watts but lighting quality is poor?


Finelite's LED task lights provide great bedtime reading lights for Team Boston.

And then, as expected, the LEDs were everywhere along with the hype. Several houses proclaimed that all their lighting was LED, as if just saying that indicates some special level of energy efficiency. And of course, as we were told at one house, “LEDs are seven times more efficient than an incandescent light”, when realistically they are maybe half that. Where do they get this stuff? And it’s not just efficiency misinformation, but the lighting quality issue too. Far too often, the LED sources that I observed were glary and had a ghoulish cool color. If the Solar Decathlon is a predictor of trends in residential lighting, then we might conclude that we have a lot of glare in our future.

Another comment I overheard that I thought was telling went something like this, from a gentleman standing below one of those glary LED accent lights: “Gee, if we could only get LEDs that were good for ambient lighting”. I almost went up to him and said, “You have a much better source already – linear fluorescent – twice as efficacious as LED, and much less expensive.” But I kept my mouth shut and wandered out into the rain and mud thinking that we Lighting Designers have to do a much better job educating students and the world about how to achieve true lighting energy efficiency and lighting quality.


Some serious lighting bling from Team Germany.

Photos Credit: Glenn Heinmiller / Lam Partners Inc

Photo of the Month: October 2009

October 13, 2009 / no comments


It’s All Relative

Brightness, color, and contrast all play a role in any visual composition. This is especially true of lighted nighttime environments; the interplay of these three characteristics determines the quality and character of the lighted environment.

In the foreground of this image, on the right-hand side, is a brightly lighted mock-up of what is soon to be a prominent architectural feature of a new high-rise building under construction in Boston. The color-changing LED fixtures seen at the bottom of the image will highlight this building feature at different intervals, adding a playful element to the Boston skyline at night. The property owners will determine which colors to accent this element with, and therefore can control how subtle or dynamic this feature for different occasions. The use of color helps distinguish this lighted portion of the building from the sea of white light spilling from the windows of surrounding buildings in the skyline.

The overall brightness can be adjusted by dimming the LED fixtures. In the middle of the night, when most are asleep, the brightness can be reduced by dimming, giving a more subtle appearance than what might be desired earlier in the evening during prime viewing hours.

The contrast within a photograph taken shortly after dusk often produces the most striking images of lighted environments. The deep color of the sky enlivens the image, while it is the contrast between the sky glow and the dark silhouettes of buildings that defines the city skyline. A few minutes later in the day, and the sky will be too dark, the contrast is reduced, and the perception of the building forms is lost.

As designers we never want to use color or increase brightness just for the sake of doing so; more is not necessarily better. However, all of the lighted environments that we design must balance these characteristics – brightness, color, and contrast – and use them carefully to hopefully create architectural projects that become stunning images.

Photo Credit: Jamie Perry / Lam Partners Inc

“Curious” About Sustainable Design?

October 5, 2009 / no comments


A local group of students from the Boston Architectural College and Tufts University are more than just curious. These students have combined creative efforts, engineering skills, and a shared passion to jump-start a wave of curiosity in others; Team Boston was formed to propose, design, and build an actual solar-powered model home. The Curio House took on its motto, “live curious”, to inspire others to seek out energy-saving, sustainable architecture.


Curio is Team Boston’s entry at the upcoming Solar Decathlon, an internationally recognized biannual competition that works to promote, educate, and foster sustainable innovations in building technology. The competition is sponsored by the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It calls for student groups to build a solar-powered house that will compete in ten categories. The house will be evaluated on its overall energy performance in simulated “daily living” scenarios, on the basis of the quality of its architecture, market viability, engineering, lighting design, communications, indoor comfort, hot water production, appliances, home entertainment, and energy production/consumption through net metering.

The construction site at Tufts University has enjoyed enthusiastic support from other local students, professionals, and community members. Inspired by the students’ bold efforts, and by the innovative nature and challenge of the project, Lam Partners has proudly sponsored Team Boston in their quest for the most energy-efficient solar-powered house at the Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.


Over the past couple of months we have had the privilege of getting to know and work with some of the dedicated and high-spirited members of Team Boston to help refine and execute their lighting design goals and strategy. We supported their efforts through computer modeling, mock-up studies, and fixture selection advice, and by arranging generous donations from lighting manufacturers. We’ve collaborated with the team to realize a lighting design with high aspirations for the competition.

Curio takes advantage of many energy-saving, green technologies, such as passive solar design, daylighting, a solar thermal hot water system, and a photovoltaic panel array to generate the home’s electricity. The energy-conscious electric lighting system takes advantage of efficient fluorescent and LED fixtures, occupancy sensors, and dimming to further reduce energy use while enhancing occupant comfort.


The lighting portion of the competition focuses on the quality of a functional, efficient, pleasing lighting design. The lighting concept for the main living space expands on the idea of the house as a central space with a lot of user flexibility. The main ambient light is provided by linear LED fixtures concealed in architectural coves that define the perimeter. There are also several instances of task lighting provided throughout the main living area to accommodate various user needs.

Lighting at the exterior is minimal, with LEDs providing soft, appropriate light levels on the ramp surfaces for wayfinding, and LED downlights to highlight the entries. The exterior is lit exclusively with LED sources to minimize energy consumption. This strategy is used to emphasize the energy savings, as well as to enhance the overall perception of the lighting technologies employed throughout the design.


The house is also engineered in such a way that it can be disassembled, transported, and reassembled for competition. Currently Team Boston is disassembling the house and heading to Washington D.C. to finish construction, compete, inspire curiosity, and exhibit their hard work, from October 8th through the 16th.

The Curio House is a great example of learning, refining, and implementing energy-efficient strategies within daily home life. As part of the continuously evolving “green design” movement, the project defines and proposes viable building solutions for sustainable living, such that the future of the house itself is also evolving.

After a rigorous and exciting cycle of competition in D.C., the house will find a permanent home on Cape Cod as one of the first structures in a new green housing development, where it will be able to live out and expand upon its green foundation and ideals. To follow the progress of Live Curio, throughout the competition and beyond, check out the website at


Image Credits: Team Boston (1, 4, 6); Allison Fisk (2, 5), Glenn Heinmiller / Lam Partners Inc (3)

Lighting Concept: Video Cascades

September 14, 2009 / no comments


Lam Partners was asked to submit a concept for an upcoming Boston Globe article seeking creative, temporary lighting installations to spruce up four stalled construction sites throughout Boston. We chose to undertake the former Filene’s site, located right in the middle of Downtown Crossing.

To celebrate the urban basin that has been created by the construction process, we proposed draping a series of super-sized LED video screens over the exposed steel.

Using rental equipment often used on concert tours, we would create a dramatic digital canvas of large fabric drapes with integrated LED video pixels, which can be quickly hung off the steel structure. Color-changing LED floodlights would accent the remaining structure.

A variety of stunning digital compositions could be shown, including massive ten-story-high waterfalls. Local artists could be commissioned to produce animations reflecting the spirit of Downtown Crossing.

Our concept is based on LED curtains from a company called Main Light. Main Light takes LED strings from Color Kinetics (which actually used to be located right in Downtown Crossing) and integrates them into the “fabric” curtains for rock concerts and events. They could be quickly hung from the steel frame of the building. So, surprisingly given the dramatic effect, the concept is actually quite realistic to accomplish.



Our proposal suggests installation-specific advertising, which could be readily sold to compensate for the cost of the project. Macy’s, DSW, and H&M all run major national advertising campaigns, and each has a location flanking the site. It is easy to imagine the creative possibilities – each company could use the screens for really unique advertising. How about the waterfalls turn into a cascade of shoes for DSW? Or maybe Macy’s or H&M engage with an artist like Julian Opie for ten-story-tall “walking people” animations?


We estimate that the cost of a four-week-long installation could range from $350,000 to $650,000, depending on the quantity and the resolution of the screens used.

Image Credits: Brad Koerner / Lam Partners Inc (1), Main Light Industries Inc. (2-4)

Custom House Tower: Relighting a Boston Landmark

July 27, 2009 / no comments


Custom House after lighting restoration

In the Fall of 2008, Boston’s oldest skyscraper was showing its age. Originally completed in 1849, the twenty-year-old façade lighting on the 1915 tower addition was in disrepair. The building maintenance budget could not keep up with the required frequency of re-lamping in such precarious locations, and only a few of the lights were still operating, as seen below.


Lighting in disrepair before restoration

Motivated by the lighting festival, IlluminaleBoston 08, and the promise of reduced building maintenance costs, the design team and building ownership endeavored to restore the landmark’s night image to prominence in the Boston skyline – but more than a few obstacles stood in our way, and chief among them were budget and time. Though planning for the event began in February 2008, design for the Custom House site did not begin until May. This left less than five months to complete the site analysis, design documentation, and installation. The majority of project funding would come from donations and sponsorship, so the budget was both modest and unpredictable.

To maximize the impact of the project, the team focused available resources on the top of the tower, which is visible all over the city. The main shaft of the tower, up through the 16th floor, was softly illuminated from below with ceramic metal halide floodlights to keep the tower grounded. Narrow-beam LED spotlights with clear lenses uplight the colonnade above from the sides of each column, spilling light onto the entablature above and revealing the granite dentils that confirm its precedent in classical architecture. Two additional fixtures highlight each corner to complete the tower’s form.


Custom House after completed renovation

Linear LED wall-grazers are concealed to wash the balcony-level façade below the clock, and adjustable LED spotlights extended on rotating outriggers light the sculpted eagles and highlight the corners of the clock tower. The outriggers swing over to the accessible balcony for maintenance.

The clock face retained its original lighting. A low pressure sodium lamp in each number provides an orange glow, and blue compact fluorescent backlights the minute marks. At the observation deck above, the columns are silhouetted with LED spotlights behind the base of each column to add depth to the façade and hide the fixtures from visitors’ view. Additional outriggers are located at the corners to accentuate entablature ornaments.


Lighting at the peak was restricted by FAA requirements, but LED floodlights with frosted lenses were concealed at the base of the crown to graze the towers’ cap and expose the pyramid of dormer windows. These fixtures are accessible from the windows at the base of the pyramid.

The completed project has successfully restored the Custom House Tower to its rightful place as one of the crown jewels of the Boston skyline, while drastically reducing the lighting energy consumption and maintenance costs. The building is expected to save 19,000 kWh annually, and to use only 30% of the energy consumed by the previous design over its expected 20-year lifespan.


Location: Boston, Massachusetts

Project size: 496 feet, overall height of tower

Project cost: $75,000 labor and installation / $160,000 donated lighting equipment

Photo Credits: Brad Koerner / Lam Partners Inc (1, 4, 5), Lam Partners (2), Brandon Miller (3)

Lite-Brite ™

June 14, 2009 / no comments

Remember when you would assemble those little translucent pegs in any configuration possible to create a luminous image of your wildest imagination? There were no limits to how the pieces could be arranged within the board boundary; each glowing pixel of plastic contributed to the overall illumination from an assembled light source.


Some manufacturers are starting to realize this same freedom as they research and develop new lighting hardware utilizing LEDs. Taking a new technology or light source and inserting it into an existing fixture design doesn’t take advantage of the technology, though, and this is where many new LED products fall short. The fixture must exploit the benefits specific to the new light source and utilize them creatively to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with these assembled light sources.
There are still heat issues, light color, lamp efficacy, and lamp life issues that need to be dealt with and carefully understood. Not all claims are accurate, however, there’s no question that these factors are rapidly improving and the quality lighting manufacturers are developing new and exciting products.

Where LEDs, within architectural lighting applications, can really excel is in the optical design of the fixture. No longer do we need to bend sheet metal around a lamp to form a reflector that redirects the light in a particular direction. Clever LED configurations and mini-optical lenses can be and are being designed to precisely control light distribution. This Lite-Brite™ approach allows the fixture design, both optically and aesthetically, to develop without being constrained by traditional forms.


Manufacturers of parking garage, roadway, and some exterior area light fixtures are beginning to thoughtfully explore possible LED configurations and tailor the luminous distribution in ways that begin to make LEDs a viable replacement for some lamp sources. Extremely wide and precise fixture distributions can be achieved, creating excellent uniformity ratios. While lamp efficacies (lumens per watt) of LEDs are not yet outperforming standard HID and linear fluorescent sources, it is possible to design LED fixtures with a higher overall system efficacy. Again, this is achieved by the mini-optic on each diode or the precise configuration of the LEDs themselves, rather than a bent metal reflector around a bare lamp.


Don’t be fooled; I haven’t jumped on board the LED bandwagon entirely. One of the biggest downsides of many new LED fixtures is the increased glare and fixture brightness. Often, the wide distribution and increased uniformity is achieved at the cost of higher angle glare and less cut-off to the lamp source. With the lamp source right at the fixture aperture and the optics designed to maximize the lateral distribution, some LED fixtures are so bright that their negative impact on the nighttime visual environment is far greater than the potential benefits of the new technology.


There is a long way to go, and the designed balance between optical performance, lamp source technology, and fixture aesthetics is no easy goal to achieve. It is very clear that the endless creativity inspired by those assembled toys of luminosity point to an exciting time in fixture design and architectural lighting applications. The possibilities are limitless, so explore the design boundaries without introducing bright light!
Photo Credits: Crystl (1), HessAmerica (2), Beta Lighting (3), Jamie Perry / Lam Partners Inc (4)

LED HypeBusting

June 14, 2009 / no comments

Our clients often wonder why we haven’t switched to specifying LED lighting altogether for all our projects, especially when they see the steady stream of glowing LED hype being produced by the popular media. For both interior and exterior projects, we are taking a cautious approach to adopting LED products into our stable of recommended fixtures.

Unfortunately, there is a tremendous disconnect between the promise of general white LED lighting and the reality of the products that are out on the market today. Here are the three biggest problems with LED products today:

  1. Misleading claims about performance
  2. Difficulty in proving actual fixture lifetime claims
  3. Lighting fixtures designed as “disposable” products

The good news: industry standards are finally taking hold that, if adhered to by the manufacturers, prevent the shenanigans and level the playing field. General white LED lighting is beginning to mature to the point of useful, consistent products. The bad news: right now, the landscape is still littered with unproven fixtures and performance claims that run the gamut from realistic to ludicrous.

Let’s break down the problems:

Misleading claims about performance

Numerous manufacturers (out of questionable ethics or outright ignorance) have commonly used two ways to significantly cheat output claims:

Firstly, raw LED chips are rated at room temperature in perfect laboratory conditions. LED fixtures need to be rated at a stabilized, real world operating temperature. When LED chips are put into fixtures and run for a period of time, they generate a lot of heat, which means they run significantly less efficiently then their laboratory output ratings. You need to ensure that manufacturers are giving you real world performance numbers, not just the raw LED output.


Second, cool-white LEDs have significantly higher efficiency then warm-white LEDs. Many manufacturers highlight the cool-white output ratings, but try to sell you the nice, incandescent-looking warm-white products. Be sure to know what the efficiency “hit” is with the warm-white output.

Added together, the impact of heat management and color temperature selection can easily mean you are getting half as much light as the specifications claim.

Difficulty in proving actual fixture lifetime claims

As mentioned above, heat is the enemy of LEDs. Good fixture design carefully mates LEDs to large, well-designed metal heatsinks to dissipate the waste heat created by the actual LED chips.

Lifetime predictions are gauged by the temperature at which the heatsink maintains the LEDs. Hopefully, all the other critical components around the LEDs are rated to last just as long as the LEDs themselves. Hopefully!

Here’s the problem: most of the lifetime claims are predicted lifetimes for just-released products with few, if any, real world installations. Manufacturers are trying to launch LED products so fast that they are essentially using their customers as lab rats to prove their products. Do you want to be the lab rat?

Lighting fixtures designed as “disposable” products

Traditional lighting fixtures are relatively easy to make: take a standardized lamp, a standardized socket, a standardized ballast, and throw them in some sheet metal. Presto, you have a product with highly predictable performance.


LED fixtures, on the other hand, are “finicky fillies.” They require very careful engineering to ensure that the waste heat properly flows from the LED chip, through the circuit board, across the “air gap” to the heatsink, and that the heatsink is sized and shaped properly to radiate/convect the heat to the air around the fixture. Because they are so refined, with such tight operating tolerances, engineers are loath to design LED fixtures with modular, swappable components. Plus, it costs money to make a well-designed, repairable fixture; it is a lot cheaper to make a non-repairable product, and have a sales guy sidestep the whole maintenance problem by simply saying “don’t worry… it practically lasts forever!”

Not all doom and gloom…

In summary, the single biggest challenge with LEDs is heat. Contrary to misleading claims in the media, LEDs generate significant waste heat. It drastically reduces the operating efficiency and reduces the overall lifetime of LED chips. LED fixtures need to be carefully designed with generous, efficient heatsinks to dissipate the heat and maintain claimed output and lifetime ratings.

There are a lot of great, proven, reliable LED products out on the market; a quick look at a company’s showcase will give you a good sense of how long they have been out in the real world proving their products. Many are indeed ready for primetime. But be very wary when the sales rep comes calling with the latest, greatest, most amazing new LED product ever… you might get burned.

Photo Credit: Brad Koerner / Lam Partners Inc