Value of Design

July 23, 2012 / no comments

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Fortunately there isn’t an actual checklist or prescribed process that must be followed to create good design; this would assuredly make the architectural process and our built environment rather stagnant and uninspired. Design projects would become repetitive and new boundaries wouldn’t be explored if a prescribed method to achieve good design existed. There may not really even be a universal definition of good design but through the constant exploration of new ideas, new materials and new means for integrating building systems into the fabric of the architecture, high quality design can be achieved.

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Good design is as much about the process of working with others and the quality of problem solving as it is about the beauty of the architectural image that results from the collaborative process. The past experiences and creative thinking of the designer, along with his ability to listen to the client’s vision are what really determine the success of a design project, not pre-determined characteristics.

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Those of us involved in the design industry would like to think that we have a clear sense of what makes good design; certainly convenience, durability, sustainability and beauty are all goals of good design. However, even though meeting the programmatic requirements of a specific project or design challenge is the underlying goal of the project, we know that form must be balanced with function. It’s cliché, but especially in architectural lighting design, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s glare is another person’s sparkle, uniformly lit and appropriately bright could be bland and visually overpowering to someone else. The key is to zero in on the specific needs and wants of the project at hand. Good design must respond directly to the client’s vision and a previous brilliant, successful solution may not be the right approach for a different design challenge with different goals. Design cannot impart a previous message or style onto unrelated context. The design must evolve in response to the specific task at hand and with appropriate language and aesthetics.

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As difficult as it can be to clearly define an image of good design, it can sometimes be even more difficult to convey the value of design. The value of design shouldn’t be diminished based on the project type or scope; there may be a different cost to achieve good design but the value should remain the same. The designer must remember that the value of design has to be a value to the client and not the ideals or objectives that the designer might bring to the table. That value is the service, the collaboration, the listening and the problem solving that we as lighting designers can contribute to our clients to help achieve their visions for the built environment. It is not about having all of the answers and telling the client what they need, it’s about our ability to listen and help the client figure out what they want to achieve. Design is a problem solving process and good design is about solving more problems than just those asked.

As architects and architecturally trained lighting designers here at Lam Partners, we enjoy working in a field that combines art and technology to help realize our clients’ visions. Coming from architectural backgrounds, we integrate seamlessly into the design process and speak the same language. We understand the science of lighting and integrate it with the architecture to paint with light, to artfully craft comfortable, luminous environments and provide value to our clients and their designs.

Photo Credit: Brian Mulloy (1), Jason A. Knowles/Fentress (2), Jordanhill School D&T Dept (3), Stefan Erschwendner (4)

Bill Lam Tribute, IES Banquet (May 24, 2012)

May 29, 2012 / no comments

William Lam

Bill Lam 1924-2012

It is wonderful to be in this room full of people who understand and care about the value of lighting.

I am sure that many of you here tonight knew Bill Lam and were saddened by the news of his passing. Bill was a true legend. He was one of the founders of modern lighting design. Bill was a pioneer, a teacher, a writer, and a great mentor for generations of architects and lighting designers. I suppose you could stay he was a real fixture in our industry, although he wouldn’t like that association with hardware. So I’ll just say he was a shining light.

Here is a little known fact; Bill Lam designed the Pantheon. Well, not really. But he admired the concept. And used it to illustrate an important point…

Before lighting design existed as a profession, and even before there was electric lighting, architects and master builders were lighting designers. They knew how to design with light. With limited resources, they understood techniques for creating wonderful spaces with natural light (the effective distribution of natural light) in ways that enhanced the architectural expression.

When electric lighting arrived on the scene, it was designed in conjunction with natural light and became yet another way to reinforce the architect’s vision. Then, at some point in the post-war boom of the last century, when buildings got a lot bigger, energy was cheap, and fluorescent lighting became widespread, architects began to give up control of the lighting in buildings. Work and school environments became generic spaces where visual comfort was replaced with acres of acoustical tile and uniformly high light levels from lensed fixtures. When the first computers arrived and reflected glare became an issue, these generic spaces went from excessively bright to excessively gloomy.

Integrated lighting? What’s that?!

Throughout Bill’s career, his most enduring message to architects was the need to take back the responsibility for lighting design. Don’t surrender lighting to others who only care about the numbers and who design for the lowest common denominator. His message, like his personality, was clear and persistent: integrate lighting with architectural form. It’s about seeing the light, not the hardware.

Bill’s focus was always on lighting architectural surfaces, including structure, and other features worth highlighting. This meant that the architect had to provide materials and details worth lighting, and also coordinate the mechanical and other systems to create lighting opportunities. It was all about the collaboration and the team process needed to produce the best spaces possible.

Bill considered the design for the Washington Metro one of his finest achievements.

Washington Metro station

Bill applied principles of visual perception to inform decisions about what should be illuminated and why. The principles that he developed and stood for, we take for granted today. Bill may not have invented indirect lighting, but he took it to a whole new level in his quest for glare free environments. Lighting surfaces, like ceilings and walls, expand space and create the perception of brightness, resulting in visual comfort and interest.

Bill was a big advocate for energy efficient lighting design way before it became a popular or a mandated thing to do. He promoted ambient/task solutions and fought the lighting establishment to reduce illuminance standards. The lighting standards we use today are the result of the criteria that Bill fought for and won years ago.

Bill was also a creative designer who could work at any scale. Early in his career, he designed several ingenious pieces of furniture. One of his tables is in the Museum of Modern Art. He was the first to experiment with and produce vacuum formed plastic shades for light fixtures. For the Montreal Expo in1967, Bill created a lighting master plan, which involved a huge array of tethered weather balloons floating over the expo, to be illuminated by spotlights at night so they could be seen all around the city.

Bill’s interest in using indirect lighting was stymied by a lack of available products. So he became a manufacturer of indirect lighting systems and founded Lam Inc in 1951. He developed some of the early modern fixture designs that became classics for schools and offices, establishing a new standard of quality for millions of spaces throughout the country. Some of you will remember the old Lam profile wall valence fixture. Other classic Lam fixture designs included a variety of extruded aluminum uplights and the original hockey puck, which you can still find in gyms and indoor tennis clubs.

In 1959 Bill changed his role from a designer/manufacturer to an architectural lighting consultant. During the course of his career, he collaborated with architects, landscape architects, and urban planners on several thousand projects all over the world. His legacy also includes innovative approaches to building systems and effective strategies for sunlighting design. For those of us who were fortunate enough to work for Bill, he left a lasting impression, sort of like a branding iron! There is a certain distinctive Lam Way of approaching lighting that characterized Bill’s work and can be traced through all of those who worked for Bill.

Some of the principles that Bill promoted have become standards in our industry for describing good lighting.. His lighting principles were illustrated in his 2 books; Perception and Lighting as Formgivers for Architecture, and Sunlighting as Formgiver for Architecture.

We take these principles for granted today.

  • Light the things you want to see and need to see.
  • Put the light where you want it.
  • The quality of illumination is more important than the quantity.
  • Maximize the visual signals, minimize the visual noise.
  • Use lighting for wayfinding.
  • Use task/ambient lighting solutions to save energy.
  • Lighting is applied perception psychology. We see with our brains, not our eyes.
  • Light sources, or apparent light sources, should be things worth looking at.
  • Lighting is like music and food. More isn’t better if the quality is bad. (Our version of that one is: Lighting shouldn’t be an all you can eat buffet in a greasy spoon.)

Industry had Henry Ford. Jazz had Charlie Parker. Food had Julia Child. Lighting had Bill Lam.

Bill was one of those rare individuals who transformed his chosen profession, took it in an unexpected and original direction, and changed the way everyone since has viewed lighting. We embraced the principles he developed. Bill set high standards in his determination to bring lighting back as an integral part of architectural design, making indoor and outdoor environments better with light. In a sense, we are all keeping his legacy alive, and bringing it forward into the future.

He will be missed.

Photo credits: Kwai Lam (c) 2008 (1), O Palsson (2)

Basic Sustainable Lighting Concepts: On Building Design

April 25, 2011 / no comments

Although they say there are no bad ideas, here are a few good ones regarding lighting to help you navigage the greenwash out there and get to the real facts. This is the first part of an ongoing series outlining design principles for sustainable lighting design.

Thin buildings need less help

The thinner your building is, the less it will need to rely on artificial life support systems like HVAC and electric lighting to operate. Standard windows can light twelve to fifteen feet into a space. Windows with a daylight control and delivery system, like a light-shelf, can push it even further, up to thirty feet in some instances. More daylight = less electric light.

Orient your building east-west

The path of the sun has changed little over the past few millennia. By now we have a pretty good idea of where the sun goes and of the most effective methods for using that sunlight. Of course, east- and west-facing windows get sunlight, but only for half the day. If the major axis of a building is oriented east to west, the southern exposure will be able to harness that energy almost all day long – if designed correctly (not too much, not too little).

Easy does it on the glass

High-performance glass is a wonderful thing, but it’s still no replacement for a solid wall, in terms of insulation and reasonable cost. In these energy-crunching design times, we need to optimize our building designs so they accept just enough daylight and reject the rest. Too much glass and you could end up with heat-gain and heat-loss problems and glare issues. Too little and you could have a cave.

Bring up that window sill, too! The glass that extends to the floor has little practical value except aesthetics, which is a debatable, fickle thing. There’s nothing like seeing that trash can pushed up against the glass…

Lower partition heights and fewer offices, please

Private offices are sought-after the world over by the power climbers, but they stink for utilizing the space as well as possible. Consider opening up your office design to more community spaces, putting the bosses right out there with everyone else. Private spaces will still be necessary, but limit them.

Workstation heights have to come down too. It’s kind of a corporate slap in the face to be given an office without a door or window – you sit at the bottom of a cubicle well all day. By lowering the heights of the partitions, you open up people’s views to perimeter glass, let the daylight penetrate deeper into the space, and encourage more interaction and camaraderie.

Lighten up!

How would you like being told what your favorite color is? People take it very personally – designers especially. Whatever your preference is, we, as lighting designers, respectfully ask that you pick light colors with higher reflectances. How building surfaces reflect light has a lot to do with how the space feels, either with daylight or electric light. If the finishes are too dark you create a cave, and then need to pump in way more energy to light the space adequately.


A DALI Checklist: Things to Keep in Mind

January 5, 2011 / no comments

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DALI is one of the latest buzz words in the lighting industry. Widely used in Europe, DALI is still in its infancy in the U.S., even though it was first introduced in the late ’90s. DALI stands for “digital addressable lighting interface”, a control protocol based on digital commands that are sent between ballasts and the control system. DALI has many benefits which make it a very attractive system for commercial lighting applications, however, there are a number of things to keep in mind when designing a DALI system.

How does DALI work? DALI is a standard digital communication protocol which allows DALI-compliant devices, regardless of manufacturer, to talk to one another. These devices include controllers, ballasts, switches and sensors. Since DALI is an open protocol rather than a proprietary system, there are a number of ballast manufacturers and control companies that offer DALI products.

A DALI system can include up to 64 individual DALI devices on a single loop, with each device having its own address. DALI ballasts can be individually configured, and that custom configuration resides in the electronics within the ballast itself. DALI ballasts are able to set light levels, fade time and fade rate, and individual address. These ballasts are able to be configured as part of multiple lighting scenes which can be selected by wallbox control devices or a central control system.

DALI ballasts feature two-way communication, which means that they receive digital signals from the control system telling them how to operate, while also allowing the ballast to provide feedback through the network, for instance, indicating if the ballast is on or off, how much energy it is using, and whether the lamp and ballast are functioning.

DALI systems have many attributes which make them worthy of consideration for commercial applications:

  • With DALI, wiring is easier than in a traditional system and there is less of it. The electricians don’t have to care about how they circuit the fixtures. They just run power to fixtures the easiest way they can until they load up a circuit. Fixtures are controlled solely through the digital control wire, which can also be run arbitrarily to each device.
  • The ballasts are individually addressable, allowing for control zones to be configured in the field – rather than on paper, prior to construction. Because control zones are not hard-wired, they can be easily reconfigured based on real usage. Programming zones and scenes is done through software, regardless of how the fixtures are circuited.
  • DALI ballasts can be tied into Building Management Systems, which can monitor energy usage and identify lamp failures, making DALI an ideal system for clients interested in sustainability.
  • DALI ballasts can dim to 1% for linear lamps and 3% for compact fluorescent lamps – this is of particular interest when considering daylight dimming along perimeter zones.

While there are quite a few positive features to a DALI system, there are a number of things to keep in mind when designing such a system:

  • At the moment, there are a limited number of ballast types available. While the choices are vast in Europe, as of this writing, U.S. manufacturers only offer DALI ballasts for four-foot linear fluorescent lamps (T8, T5, and T5H0), two-foot T5 lamps, 18/26/32-watt quad- and triple-tube compact fluorescent lamps, and 40-watt biax lamps. There are no manufacturers in the U.S. currently offering a three-foot linear fluorescent DALI ballast. This proves problematic if designing continuous coves or slots, which can require three-foot units to make up a continuous lighted run.
  • Something else to consider is the inability to locate a DALI-compliant ballast remotely. Lighting fixtures are becoming smaller and smaller due to the demands of both designers and architects, and in some cases the ballasts just don’t fit inside the fixture housings. For a DALI system, designers can select only fixtures with integral ballasts, because as of this writing, DALI ballasts cannot be located outside the fixture.
  • Another factor is that many people are hesitant about implementing a DALI system because they just don’t know enough about how it works. There is the notion that a DALI system will cost more than a traditional system, however, one must consider the lower cost of installation and simplified wiring configurations.

While DALI might not be right for every application, and it does indeed have some drawbacks, the time might be right for more DALI installations in the U.S., and perhaps the U.S. ballast manufacturers will soon start developing and offering more options for DALI ballast/lamp combinations – especially when it comes to three-foot lamps!

Photo Credit: © Carlene Geraci/Lam Partners

Transitions in Thailand

August 3, 2010 / no comments


On a recent trip to Thailand, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to experience traditional responses to local design challenges, unique architectural expressions of place. Upon arrival, one of the first things you notice is the very hot tropical climate. Then, as you explore, you start to notice the particular cultural responses to this climate – that there is a recognizable characteristic, developed out of necessity, present throughout regional design traditions.

There is a continuous theme of architectural techniques that respond directly to climate with a simplicity and completeness of expression, especially evident in visits to some of the many magnificent Thai temples.


Approaching the temples, there is a sense of grandeur as bright sun shimmers off of the brightly colored tiles, among an array of sweeping roof structures and light exterior surfaces. The journey of enlightenment begins with this first glimpse of the temple complex, and continues inside with a smooth progression from the bright outdoors, through shady verandas, to serene interiors.


The temples use deep overhangs and verandas to provide vitally important shade, in response to the direct sun and persistent hot weather. These elements mediate the tremendous brightness contrast, while at the same time, acting as a threshold to solemnize the moment of entering the sacred space.


Inside, surfaces are defined by dark wood, in less reflective colors and textures. This transition has a phenomenological effect of coolness, and establishes your focus on the gleaming Buddha that reflects indirect daylight from the windows. The dazzling reflections emanating from golden surfaces are a beautiful visual expression of the Buddha’s spiritual magnitude.


The traditional Thai temples are filled with only a subdued sense of natural daylight, which is an interesting contrast to contemporary thinking, but the dark walls and ceiling are not perceived as blank planes; there is just enough ambient light to pick up ornate, glossy details which define the structure. The effect, though subdued, creates an inspiring, pleasing atmosphere.


During my travels in Thailand, there were many new experiences, but throughout them all, what I enjoyed the most was this collaborative expression of daylight and transition, and the harmony with which the local architectural style transcends necessity.

Photo Credits: Fai Dechavas (1,4), Amber Hepner (2, 5, 6), Truly Asia (3)

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)

Daylighting Reduces Heat Gain – Pantheon Redesign?

June 14, 2009 / no comments

 In our June Photo of the Month article, we talked about the daylighting in the Pantheon. Let’s do some numbers just for fun: on a partly-cloudy March day in the mid-afternoon there will be about 1.2 million lumens streaming through the Pantheon’s 700-square-foot oculus. The interior light levels are fine. If we tried to equal that with large metal-halide indirect floodlights, it would take about 15,000 watts. The heat energy in the daylight will be about 10,000 watts. So if heat gain is a negative, the daylight is winning on that count.

But we can make it even better: let’s renovate the Pantheon, so we have glazing, not an open aperture. The right glass can help. First, we’d need to increase the aperture area to compensate for the light transmission of the glass. So we increase the Pantheon aperture to 1,000 square feet to make up for a light transmission of 70%. Now we still have the original amount of visible light, but what about heat? Using a high-quality low-E insulating glass, the heat gain per square foot would be reduced to about 35% of what the same aperture would admit with no glass. So despite the increased aperture area we actually have only half the heat gain of the original open oculus, with the same amount of admitted daylight.

Let’s compare that to the electric lighting equivalent. All of the daylight is going to eventually end up as heat in the space, and so will the electric light and the electricity used to produce it. So with the new glazing our daylight is adding 5,000 watts of heat gain. The equivalent metal-halide system is adding 15,000 watts. So the daylighting is now creating only about one-third as much heat gain as the electric lighting that would achieve the same light level.

So that’s a big win for the daylight, right? Maybe. It’s a win only if we assume that the daylight light levels and the electric light levels are the same, and that’s tricky. Clearly, if the daylight levels are higher there will be more heat gain; if they’re three times higher the daylight will produce the same heat gain as the electric system. This is not as unlikely as it may sound. It’s easy to design an electric lighting system that maintains virtually the same desired light level all the time – it’s not at all easy to do that with a daylighting system.


For the Pantheon, what happens on a nice sunny May afternoon around 2:00? Now we have well over 5 million lumens coming in through the oculus, and even with the new glass the heat energy in the daylight will be about 22,000 watts, or about 75,000 BTU per hour. But the electric lighting system would still be plugging along at the same 15,000 watts. Sure, the daylight level is now higher than the electric light level, but we don’t need that extra light, and now the daylight is producing more heat gain than the electric lighting would. And that means we’re going to increase the amount of energy we have to use to air-condition that heat away (did I mention we’re adding air conditioning, too?). And by June the problem will be even worse.

This illustrates one of the important challenges of designing daylighting: maintaining reasonably consistent light levels at different times of day and different times of year (and also under different weather conditions). There is a related design challenge: maintaining consistent light levels at a given time but in different parts of the space. Because the Pantheon aperture is at the center and high above the floor, light levels at the floor will generally be very uniform (although occasionally on mid-days in summer direct sun will hit the floor, and all bets are off).

But in multistory buildings the daylight often has to enter from the sides, and we don’t usually have 142-foot-high ceilings, so daylight levels near the windows tend to be much higher than those farther away. The issue is the same for both challenges: if we design for an adequate daylight level for less-than-favorable conditions or locations, we can end up with much higher than needed daylight levels for the favorable conditions or locations.

There is also a tendency to simply overdesign daylight levels under all conditions. Our Pantheon example had a daylight aperture of only about 4.5% of floor area: a glass curtain-wall building could easily have a ratio of 40%. Without extensive shading and low-transmission glass, that is very likely to result in daylight levels much higher than needed. And those higher levels bring higher heat gain. They can also be visually uncomfortable, but that’s another subject.

Photo Credits: Irene (2), OliverN5 (3)

In Defense of Design

June 14, 2009 / no comments

Throughout my professional career I’ve always enjoyed making comparisons between good lighting and good food. We obviously need food to sustain our lives, as we need light to sustain our lives. But evaluating “good” lighting on simplistic numerical quantifications such as footcandles or lumens per watt is similar to evaluating a good meal on calories or nutrients alone. Although these metrics are important, they do not complete the overall picture.

Neon Pie

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Food”. Besides being a very enjoyable and enlightening read, I was struck by the parallels between the food industry and the architectural profession. It seems as “logical” beings, we are constantly trying to break down the components of complex systems in order to extract and identify the good or positive elements. Food scientists in the last hundred years or so have been able to identify parts of whole foods such as proteins and vitamins that are supposedly good for us, and to reintroduce them back into our refined and industrialized foods, since processing expels most of these nutrients. However studies have shown that even after adding all of these nutrients back into our processed foods, the original whole food is still more healthful. This scientific reductionism that breaks food into its component parts ignores subtle interactions and context. The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.

Elevator Lobby

Architecture is also a complex system. There are a host of parallel professions involved with designing and constructing the built environment. Since humans spend a majority of their lives indoors or in a man-made world, architecture too has been analyzed and dissected. But when architecture is evaluated solely on the sum of its parts rather than its synergy of systems, we lose the soul of architecture, the thing that separates true architecture from, simply, a building.
Our latest architectural evaluation system is LEED, essentially a scorecard to evaluate a building’s sustainability. I’m not suggesting that LEED is a bad thing. It has identified many critical elements of design, and made the profession more aware of the importance of sustainability since we’ve been operating in a world of blissfully bountiful energy. But to evaluate architecture solely on its LEED score is like evaluating a meal at a restaurant by how many calories it contains.
Why is it that “eaters” trust scientists or food manufacturers for the “healthfulness” of our eating habits instead of our rich historic culture? Why does a client trust reams of calculations generated by a technician before trusting the good judgment of an architect? Why would a homeowner with a custom addition project hire a builder before (or instead of) hiring an architect? And why would an architect have an engineer or lighting manufacturer’s representative design their lighting?

Billy Wilder Theater

All of these specialists are important to the overall success of the project. But just as with architecture, lighting design is not only about the numbers. Sure, we have to satisfy certain illuminance and power density criteria, but real lighting design starts with design: a true understanding of the architectural concept and a constant weaving of lighting hardware into the architectural fabric so that, especially in the case of daylighting, the light and architecture are inseparable.
Oil subsidies and unnaturally low energy prices could be blamed for western industrialized food, energy-inefficient buildings, urban sprawl, and the general attitude of us all. Recycling, turning lights off, using public transportation – they’re all contributing to a more sustainable world. With the current economic situation, our design practices have geared up for new challenges in sustainability and energy savings. But designers cannot depend on emerging technologies alone. The real innovations will come from the architects and designers themselves and from how these technologies are creatively employed to produce wonderful environments where humans can flourish and live more harmoniously with nature. Long live design!

MIT Brain & Cog

Photo Credit: Keith Yancey / Lam Partners Inc (1), Stephen M. Lee (2), Wil Carson / Michael Maltzan Architecture (3), Peter Vanderwarker (4)