Redefining White

January 29, 2013 / no comments

I remember my first trip to Paris, The City of Lights. But, because I’m a lighting nerd, I couldn’t help finding the yellow headlights on automobiles particularly striking. Probably because it was so different from the headlights I was used to in the United States at the time. Today, however, I’m seeing more and more headlights in the blue range as opposed to the standard incandescent halogen range of about 2900K. Do we see better under cool light, or is it simply a function of the electric source generating the light? Up until the 1940’s or thereabouts, ‘white light’ for interior architectural applications has had a predominantly warm cast to it, mostly because it was generated by candles or incandescent sources. Since World War II and the widespread use of fluorescent sources, we’ve seen our interiors take on cooler color temperatures. With the advent of LED light sources, it is more efficacious to generate light in the blue range than in the warm range. Are we looking at an even ‘cooler’ future in architectural lighting?

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Technology: Friend or Foe?

August 10, 2011 / no comments

Architects were the first lighting designers, and the first daylighting experts. The sun was once the only thing we had to illuminate the interiors of our architecture. We understood its character, its movement, its color and changeability. Until about seventy years ago or so, daylighting was still the primary source of energy used for illumination.

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Sure, we had candles, gas lanterns, and finally electric incandescent sources, but it wasn’t until the confluence of air conditioning and the fluorescent tube that we stopped designing our architecture to receive air and light from the great outdoors. Technology has given us wonderful inventions that make our lives on earth easier, happier, more comfortable, and more productive – but for a price. The energy needed to power all of this technology is being depleted. We can heat, cool, and light our buildings in any climate, in any architectural style, but only as long as we have enough fuel.

Indigenous or vernacular architecture was born from solving programmatic needs, using whatever natural resources were immediately available. With the advent of air conditioning in early 1900 and the invention of the fluorescent tube in 1938, we could virtually turn our backs to the outside world and create environments inside our buildings to our liking. As a result, we saw our architecture dramatically change. Office blocks became very large and, consequently, the resulting interior spaces were further removed from the perimeters of buildings. Interior spaces were almost entirely illuminated by electric lighting. It was easier and more economical to use fluorescent lighting than to design a building with more perimeter space that got its light from the sun.


As the years rolled on, we started to realize that these environments were not as desirable as the ones created by nature. Studies started revealing that productivity was suffering, that students’ test scores were in decline, and that people’s health was being sacrificed – all based on a separation from the sun, which helped us to produce vitamin D, set our circadian rhythms, and provided balance to our physical and psychological well-being.

It’s not all a doom-and-gloom story however. Fluorescent lighting is still, by far, the most popular way of illuminating the interiors of our buildings, but with new technologies it is even more efficient than ever before. Furthermore, fluorescence plays well with daylighting. Instead of replacing it, fluorescent and daylight coexist in very efficient and comfortable ways through advanced control technologies and thoughtful design. Dimmable ballasts, photocells, vacancy sensors, individually addressable equipment, and proper design techniques all make it easy to save energy and create wonderful luminous interior environments.


In addition, technology gives us design tools and simulation programs that allow us to forecast energy savings and previsualize our designs in unprecedented ways.


But, in order to take full advantage of these available technologies, architects must reclaim daylighting in their design domain. Unfortunately, the history of architecture in the last century is tragically described as a continual delamination between art and science, because architects passed these technologies into the hands of specialist consultants.

Reyner Banham, in his book The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment writes: “… the idea that architecture belongs in one place and technology in another is comparatively new in history, and its effect on architecture, which should be the most complete of the arts of mankind, has been crippling… the art of architecture became increasingly divorced from the practice of making and operating buildings.”

Today the profession is filled with competent and useful consultants and specialists, but the architect must use them, just as technology itself, in a manner that supports the art, and the human being living within that art. We must learn from history, but also embrace technology in ways we’ve never done before, to create beautifully daylit architecture, completely integrated to produce a true balance between art and science.

Photo Credits: Prasad Kholkute (1), Lam Partners (2-4)


Measure Twice, Cut Once

April 11, 2011 / no comments


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

Avid Technology Corporate Headquarters

February 28, 2011 / no comments

It has been said that you cannot get through a single day without interacting with something that has been influenced by Avid. Since its inception in the late 1980s, Avid Technology has revolutionized the way films and moving images are put together, to become the world leaders in digital video and audio editing tools on both professional and consumer levels.


When Avid decided to move their headquarters to Burlington, Massachusetts, a 200,000-square-foot office space was re-designed with a high-tech polish and bold visuals to reflect the work and accomplishments of this innovative media firm.

The public/client experience begins at the entry lobby, where visitors can watch video feeds projected onto two-story glass vitrines.


The main event is supplied by high-powered projectors; it was necessary to downplay the ambient light in the space in order to avoid conflicting with and washing out the images. A spare array of recessed linear downlights beneath the bridge indicate the beginnings of a recurring visual motif, without overpowering the displays. Incandescent furniture lighting adds warmth and creates a more intimate scale within the tall volume.


Recessed linear fluorescent fixtures define intensely colored portals connecting public areas with semi-private ones. The diffuse acrylic lenses create a crisp, flangeless outline. The corner detail was carefully coordinated, with overlapping fixture configurations ensuring that the glow would wrap uninterrupted into the corners.


The primary program for the project is open offices along the perimeter, with private offices at the core. Product training and conference rooms are designed around the latest in A/V equipment, with a focus on web-based video communication. Low partition walls and nine-foot ceilings allowed the use of a fully indirect, glare-free lighting scheme, with target light levels kept to a minimum to accommodate the high volume of work done on computer screens instead of paper.

Furniture-mounted fixtures relate to team meeting nodes. Wallwashers along the core walls highlight graphics and displays, and help balance the brightness against vast perimeter windows. The unusually wide spacing of the indirect pendant fixtures is due to high-efficiency fixture design with very wide lateral distribution; the minimalist arrangement, combined with concealed furniture-integrated lighting in core offices, puts the emphasis on illuminated surfaces rather than visible hardware.


The main conference room has a broad range of functional requirements, including video-conferencing, large rear-projection video, diverse meetings, and the occasional after-hours cocktail parties. An undulating ceiling was developed to break up the monotonous ceiling plane, and to provide functional lighting from an eye-catching structure. Efficient and economical fluorescent strips provide an ambient glow throughout the room from above stretch fabric panels.

The custom spines crossing the ceiling organize and conceal linear fluorescent downlights interspersed with adjustable halogen downlights, allowing for varying levels of illumination to enable presentations, note-taking, or special events when a little sparkle is needed.

Photo Credits: Nathanael Doak / Lam Partners (1), Andrew Bordwin (2-5)