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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Project Profile: Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

October 22, 2012 / no comments


The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts houses a state-of-the-art concert hall and
performing arts theater, wrapped by a soaring glass-enclosed lobby.

A striking new addition to the Kansas City skyline, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts houses a state-of-the-art concert hall and performing arts theater, wrapped by a soaring glass-enclosed lobby. Safdie Architects worked with BNIM Architects to design the approximately 285,000 square-foot structure. In addition to beautiful performance spaces, the Kauffman Center also contains offices, rehearsal space, warm-up rooms, and dressing rooms.

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Good Lighting Design is Good Business

June 25, 2012 / no comments

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


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

2_Reservoir Woods_Martin.jpg

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

Lam Partners

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

Lam Partners

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

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

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

What About Colored Light?

April 9, 2012 / no comments

Lam Partners Kera Lagios NWS Garage

The rate of growth in LEDs these days is perhaps only exceeded by the rate of growth of colored LEDs. Colored light in itself constitutes a new world, insofar as it is used in a wider architectural context. While destinations like Times Square and Las Vegas (and many rock concerts and laser light shows) have used animated and colored lights for decades, this type of lighting is quickly becoming mainstream and is adding dramatically to the total amount of light in our environments, especially when you take media facades into account. Can we expect colored light to become as ubiquitous as white light? Can our visual landscape handle it? I am both skeptical and intrigued by these recent trends. While there are creative minds out there making the most of it, there’s also a “one-liner” feeling that accompanies many applications, born out of the relative ease of using colored lights and creating effects. Given these competing observations, the topic is definitely worth some critical discussion.

Lam Partners Las Vegas Night

First, I’ll tackle my skepticism. Generally speaking, as human beings, we are conditioned to view things in full-spectrum light, as it most closely resembles daylight. Because colored light is deficient in some parts of the spectrum, it can make many things (like skin and plant life) look unnatural. Given this, it’s hard to use colored light for general illumination. I’m also skeptical of broader use of colored light because it’s visually noisy. Perhaps this is due to our comfort with the way things have been lit “traditionally” (i.e. with white light), but another factor could be that motion or animation often accompanies color. Simple color players make it easy to program fixtures to cycle through a series of routines. So the opposition is not necessarily between white light and, say, red or blue light, but between white and ROYGBIV. It’s also just one step closer to a much “noisier” kind of light: media, which, after all, is just a collection of RGB pixels forming an image. My last hesitation stems from the general lack of imagination with which colored light is most often used. Many installations appear to mostly make use of only a small fraction of colors, and almost always seem to be illuminated at a gaudy 100% brightness. Mixing of colors, subtle shading or highlighting all seem to be nonexistent.

Hong Kong Lights Lam Parters

On a cheerier note, let’s move on to what intrigues me about colored light. I’ll start with the biggest attraction: it’s new, somewhat awkward, and as I mentioned, garish. I’m not totally sure what to make of it. That’s fodder for investigation. Until now, color hasn’t been a big part of the lighting palette. To keep things totally colorless is perhaps to keep us from a challenge or a fruitful new frontier. I might be overly optimistic, but at least it will be interesting to find out.

Another appealing facet of colored light, and all of its cousins, is the way it can be employed deliberately to alter perception. In one particularly alluring approach, many media design firms (like Urban Screen) have used light to create elaborate 3d animations that are mapped onto facades, using projection. Through the deft skills of the artists and the use of light alone, these animations make the facades appear to move. Sure, this is smoke and mirrors and simple illusionistic tricks, but on the other hand, it begs the question of how much of what we know about the world around us is a factor of light. It asks us to consider how much can we change our environment by changing its lighting.

Kera Lagios Lam Partners Room One Color Eliasson

“Room for One Color”, 1997, Olafur Eliasson, Take your Time, MoMA, 2008

The last reason I’ll give for my interest pertains to all LEDs, not just the color-changing type. The delivery systems of all LEDs are increasingly varied and defy the bounds of traditional vessels. It is now possible to do almost anything, from bending LEDs to sewing them. Delivery materials, like metal mesh, make light spatially maneuverable, unlike it’s ever been before.

While the above gives a sense of some of the pros and cons that surround colored/dynamic lighting, perhaps the most valuable aspects will be seen in the areas outside its current applications. Dynamic, adaptive, and interactive lighting, quite possibly could have important implications for our environments in terms of health, safety, or post-disaster relief. Because of the ability to change and transform perceptions, it may meet demands for locations or situations where conditions change dramatically and often. The flexibility and adaptability of dynamic, colored lighting fits right into a world in which so little is fixed and constant, but if it’s going to be a lasting and worthwhile development, it is important that we find ways to use it deliberately and critically…at least when we aren’t using it just for fun.

Photo credit: Kera Lagios/Lam Partners (1), woosh2007 (2), Vasenka (3), Kera Lagios (4)

CRI and GAI: A New Way to Look at Color Rendering

January 18, 2012 / no comments

In a demonstration performed at Rensselaer’s Lighting Research Center, observers were asked to view a still life of fresh fruit illuminated by different undisclosed light sources. They were then asked to comment on the appearance of the fruit and on their preferences. Three out of the four sources were considered acceptable, the favorite being an RGB white LED, followed by an incandescent lamp. Observers commented favorably on the vividness of the colors of the fruit under the LED source, while the incandescent scored high in naturalness.


The interesting part of the experiment was the characteristics of each light source. The incandescent had a CRI of 100, the maximum. The LED source only had a CRI of 40, way below the generally accepted range of good CRI for a light source. How is it possible that observers preferred the source with the lower CRI over a source with a CRI of 100?

To answer the question, first we must look at how we define color rendering. Color rendering is not just CRI. CRI is the color rendering index, and is not always reflective of a source’s ability to render color. Sources with the same CRI can have different spectral power distribution (SPD), and therefore render colors differently. For example, two sources, both with a CRI of 85, might have different short and long wavelengths, so that one source will render reds better, while the other source will render blues more vividly.

In order to define what makes up good color rendering, lighting designers must take into account the SPD of a source, the objects that are being illuminated, and the perception of the viewer.

Because CRI has limited ability to predict a person’s perception, another factor must be taken into account to determine a good luminous environment. That factor is called Gamut Area Index, or GAI. GAI is determined by plotting the chromaticity values of the eight color swatches used in CRI definition for a light source. The area of the polygon created by this plot is that source’s GAI, so the larger the area, the higher the GAI. High GAI is characteristic of a source with good color discrimination and saturation of colors, or vividness. Unlike CRI, GAI can be over 100, but this usually means colors appear oversaturated, and observer’s preference declines. In the experiment mentioned earlier, the preferred LED source had a GAI of 80, while the incandescent source had a GAI of only 40.


Examples of gamut area indices for various light sources. Each point of the polygon
represents the chromaticity of one of the eight color swatches used in traditional CRI
definition. The larger the area of the polygon, the higher the GAI of the source.

To ensure a good lighting design, designers should choose sources with high CRI and high GAI. The combination of naturalness provided by high CRI and vividness provided by high GAI ensure high viewer satisfaction for warm and cool sources, both at high and low levels of illumination, for either general illumination or accent lighting.

To achieve the best lighting design, one must also take the application into account. The question “what is being illuminated?” is critically important when choosing a light source. If the object being illuminated is red, you would want to specify a source that will render reds more vividly. But if the application is unknown, or will change over time, choosing a source with high CRI (85 or greater) and a high GAI (80-100) is generally the best approach.

Image credits: Alicia Miksic (1), Lighting Research Center (2)

Basic Sustainable Lighting Concepts: On Electric Lighting

August 22, 2011 / no comments

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


Strike a balance between efficiency and functionality

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

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

LEDs, coming soon…

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

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

Mind the costs.

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

Reduce, reuse, recycle

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

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

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


Dispatches from Lightfair

May 31, 2011 / no comments

Every year, many of us here at Lam attend Lightfair® International, an annual lighting trade show and conference, allowing us to keep up to date with products from hundreds of lighting manufacturers, as well as design tools and technologies, standards and practices, and industry-wide trends and innovations.

The following are some of our impressions of this year’s event:


Lightfair seems to be turning into more of an electronics show than a lighting show. But, I saw a lot of LED products this year that gave me hope about LED lighting in general. My favorite: retrofit LED lamps that are actually a good replacement for incandescent lamps! Sure, these things have been around for years now. They cost a fortune, last about a month, produce hardly any light, and the light they do produce is garish. But what I saw at Lightfair was lamps that dim, have good color, produce useful light, and are affordable! This is very encouraging. There are lots of wonderful products that can produce a low-power-density lighting design for a new project – but the majority of square footage in the world is not new, it’s existing. Affordable retrofit products that are actually starting to look good is a great step forward. We may even be able to reach the Architecture 2030 Challenge!

Other LED products I saw that give me hope are interchangeable light engines. They’re like LED light bulbs. There’s an industry-wide movement, called Zhaga, that is trying to standardize the specifications for the interfaces of these light engines. So instead of throwing the whole luminaire into a landfill, we can now recycle and replace just the LED module.

The trade show itself was also encouraging. I was in New Orleans to attend the AIA convention the week prior, where the floor was dead compared to Lightfair. Is it because architecture is still hurting economically and there were just not as many people attending? Or is it that architects are chasing CEUs and attending more seminars rather than walking the trade show floor? Either way, Lightfair was wonderfully crowded and vibrant this year. People in almost every booth gave me hope that the industry is coming back. I ran into a lot of colleagues who said work was picking up, or that they were very busy. A sense of optimism seemed to be the brightest luminaire at Lightfair this year.

– Keith

I had two basic missions at Lightfair. The first was to check out innovations in current and upcoming lighting design software, and the second was to attend the IES Daylighting Metrics Committee meeting.

Tools to evaluate lighting are in a state of flux. Some lighting and daylighting metrics have progressed in sophistication, but the software has not yet been developed to employ all of them. Revit is becoming not only popular, but required on many projects, however, coordination of lighting into Revit models is still far from commonplace. This was clear in the short session I attended about BIM modeling, which showed many important capabilities of a variety of softwares, while also showing that in practice, transferring information between programs can be tedious and time-consuming (though one particularly bright spot revealed at Lightfair is a plug-in being developed for Revit which allows lighting analysis of Revit models without manually transferring the model into AGi32 and back).

On the other hand, there are good software tools available, but most designers have not yet learned how to use them. Researchers have developed robust and valuable new daylighting metrics that can only be used by a select few with advanced expertise of difficult, esoteric software. This is especially problematic when working with codes like IgCC and LEED. Better metrics can help foster better design, but it’s impractical to require compliance based on software that’s not widely known or easily available. Furthermore, as the Daylighting Metrics Committee discussed, there is a need to standardize metrics so that everyone is working from the same basic assumptions.

The rise of Revit and BIM provides new opportunities as well as challenges. In principle, it should facilitate coordination among architects, engineers, and consultants, but in its nascent stages, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear.

– Kera

After walking the many aisles of lighting booths at Lightfair, I was left with a feeling of brightness. Not with a sense of novelty or originality, but literally, glaring brightness. There was a vast display of LED site lighting pole fixtures looming above, packed with bright LEDs, and causing overpowering glare at almost every corner. As manufacturers touted the universal suitability of LEDs, the fixtures actually on display overwhelmingly revealed some of their biggest disadvantages, with high-angle glare and excessively cool color temperatures.

Even though it was slightly frustrating to walk around the exhibition hall, squinting my eyes to dodge bright LED fixtures, I found the experience to be, in a way, eye-opening, as the ever-present LEDs on display demonstrated the need for much continuing development and innovation before these products become practical.

On the other hand, it was interesting to see some of the manufacturers that are implementing LEDs into thin forms and planar fixtures, taking advantage of LEDs’ unique characteristics and compact quality.

The part of Lightfair I enjoyed the most, the part that left the biggest impression on me, was the keynote speaker luncheons. I enjoyed the camaraderie of sharing design experiences, and learning about the design process from visualization to concept to schematics, mock-ups, and final design. It’s great to simply get to know other designers, and to appreciate the projects from various points of view, with more than just a final photo of the result.

– Amber

My biggest impression at Lightfair was “who are these guys”? There were so many companies that I had never heard of. Seems like everyone sees this big market opportunity in LEDs, and if they can stick a chip into something and make it glow, they are a lighting company!

I was happy to see the development of small-aperture LED recessed fixtures with a choice of beam-spreads, as an alternative to MR halogen fixtures. They are still much more expensive, but the price should come down, and potential payback in energy savings can help. Of course, the lack of standardization in outputs and beam-spreads continues to be frustrating.

Speaking of lack of standards, let’s talk about controls. Unfortunately in this country there is no standard lighting control architecture or protocol. Add to this some really fascinating out-there control systems (low-voltage DC power, power-line carrier, wireless) and it gets really crazy. It will be interesting to see how this will settle out – but in the meantime, we’ve got to design control systems… sigh.

As usual I was disappointed by the lack of new, innovative fixture designs – sure, there were a few things, but none of my colleagues I bumped into were saying “you’ve got to go see this!”. And when it comes to LED (which is pretty much all anyone was showing), this means that I saw very few fixtures that took advantage of the unique form and electrical characteristics of LED. Sure, we need (cost-effective) LED downlights and troffers – but come on guys, use a little imagination!

– Glenn

Meh. Let me put my curmudgeon hat on:

Unfortunately, I feel this way more and more about each successive Lightfair I attend. Perhaps it’s because Lightfair happens too often (try a two-year rotation), but the last three I’ve seen have been dominated by the same theme: everyone trying to convert their standard products to LEDs. The problem is that LEDs are STILL only half-baked as replacements for standard sources and, until the industry agrees on some basic standards (like a replaceable LED module), it’s just the Wild West out there.

What’s more is that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and copying everyone else. Where there were once two or three LED downlights, now there are 50, all making crazy claims of energy savings and unrealistic lifespans. The copy-catting was so bad this year that I had to walk up and down the aisles ignoring any company I hadn’t heard of before, because the probability is high that you won’t see them at the next Lightfair.

It’s not even a fad, it’s a frenzy. Most don’t even try to innovate – they just use the same old housings and stuff LEDs into them. Those that did their LED homework and are doing some ground-breaking stuff command some respect, and I was impressed to see their recent improvements. Still others, who have built their companies around standard light sources, are proceeding more cautiously, and I can respect them for that as well. But those that simply do it because everyone else is doing it – both specifiers and manufacturers – may end up getting burned in five years when everything needs to be replaced. There will be a glut of crap out there for several years to come. I’m not an LED hater. They have their time and place, but proceed with caution – now more than ever.

Curmudgeon hat off, optimist hat on:

I did see noted improvement in the more design-ey LED stuff. Some manufacturers have embraced the LED’s discreet nature and have developed fixtures around new forms. I saw some three-dimensional forms, curves, planes, stuff sandwiched between panes of glass, and other crazy shapes that really catch your eye (not like those that try to snare you into their booths by impairing your vision with LED headlights). That’s the kind of ingenuity we need to see.

As for controls, I saw a marked improvement in promotion of digital addressable systems, which are definitely game-changing technology. Just like for LEDs, there is currently no regulation or standardization out there, but those manufacturers that really get it are making significant headway. It’s a lot to sort out, but we’re finally seeing progress where for twenty years there had been none. Keep it coming.

– Matt

Image credit: LIGHTFAIR® International (photo by Lam Partners)

The Color of Light

November 15, 2010 / no comments

Despite some of their current shortcomings, we are all enamored with the hope and promise of LEDs. When we begin a design session with a client these days, it’s a matter of minutes until someone asks “can we use LEDs for that?!” We respond with the usual overview that there are some very good LED products on the market now, but there are also a lot of poorly-made products, snake-oil sales claims, and companies without a proven track record. In essence, “proceed with caution” is our approach.

One of the things that has bothered me most about LED fixtures is their visual color temperature. The products that I have seen and tested give off a light that is too cool for my preference. But, the world is changing and perhaps my perspective is starting to change a bit too. The following is A Tale of Two Task Lights: a Recently Acquired Fixture and the Lessons Learned.


Good tales often begin with a historic perspective, and so shall this one. Throughout the ages, people have associated low-level lighting with the warmth of firelight or of a candle. I confess that I love the warmer color temperature of a halogen task light. My desk lamps and even the under-cabinet lighting in my kitchen have always been halogen.

The indirect fluorescent lighting that I also have in the kitchen provides a very energy-efficient and comfortable ambient light level in the evenings, but the color does not deliver the same warm glow as the halogen. When the under-cabinet halogen lights are dimmed, they get even warmer and more ‘buttery’. I have yet to achieve that same warm, low light level with LED, compact fluorescent, or linear fluorescent products.

From among the outpouring of new LED products, I purchased my first LED task light this year. I did this to begin to wean myself off of my halogen diet, or at least to try in good faith to live with this new technology. Perhaps it also relates to the overall picture of striving to live healthier and in a more sustainable way. I suppose a parallel could be made with eating healthier – using less butter and more olive oil, for example. Yes, I started to compost as well.


I put my 50-watt, 2850K halogen task light into storage, and began to use my sleek new 9-watt LED desk fixture. The color temperature is specified at 3000K. For the first month or two I had a knee-jerk negative reaction whenever I turned it on. Too cool – as in temperature, not hip factor. I missed that warm buttery glow. However, over the course of a few months, I am beginning to grow accustomed to its cooler cast. The fixture has excellent glare control and the output is comfortable. If the fixture produced glare, or was either too dim or too bright, those factors would have certainly biased me against the LED task light. But I couldn’t find fault with it in those areas.

It has been about six months and I am now acclimated to the light quality of my new task light. I enjoy using it and the color temperature has sort of grown on me. Does making healthy choices involve accommodation and adjusting our standards, or is it the retooling our thinking and attitudes, which open us up to new options?


I believe that, as LEDs become more widespread in offices and homes, retail, street lighting, parking garages, etc. in the next few years, their shortcomings – particularly in the area of color temperature and glare control – will cause a backlash among users. The marvels and mysteries of LEDs as the great hope for our future will be tarnished by products that don’t live up to their promises and our expectations. While I do believe that the industry will have to deal with these shortcomings, what I have learned is that people are surprisingly adaptable to new technologies.

The visual issues that manufacturer’s have been dealing with – glare, multiple shadowing, effective dimming, cooler color temperature, and that strong desire for warmer color temperatures when dimmed – will get worked out over time as we grow accustomed to a new light.

Photo Credits: Schani (1), Lam Partners (2, 3)

Specification Grade Sustainability

September 13, 2010 / no comments


Recently a lighting company came into our office to show us their new LED fixture. I prepared myself for the usual spiel: tight quality binning, a high-performance heat sink, ELV dimming option. However, this particular fixture had been designed in a way that we haven’t seen from many other companies: the entire fixture, an LED cove/grazer product, was actually designed along sustainable manufacturing principles. Its connected load is more energy-efficient than that of its fluorescent counterparts (finally), but more impressively, the materials used to construct it had been thought through in a way few other products seem to manage.

The housing was not anodized aluminum, the standard seen in LED fixtures required for heat dissipation, but a zinc-based alloy that is less energy-intensive to make, and requires none of the toxic anodizing processes. The fixture is highly segmented for adaptability, and all components may easily be removed if failure occurs, allowing for easy replacement of parts. I was shocked.

Two years ago, before I left Lam Partners to pursue a Masters of Architecture at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture, white LEDs were standard in steplights and other specialty fixtures, but only just catching on in mainstream lighting design, with a few linear fixtures, floods and downlights. Those fixtures were not terribly competitive at the time.

Since returning to the firm for the summer, at least once a week a manufacturer has come to promote their new LED products. As one lighting manufacturer’s representative correctly noted, I’ve stepped into the future. The once over-priced and under-performing LEDs now stand beside traditional sources, and in many cases outperform them; costs are dropping while efficiencies continue to rise.

The LED revolution is obviously the greatest thing since sliced bread, the introduction of fluorescence, or of incandescence before that. But just as growing pains occurred at those phase-changes, this revolution too has seen a dark side. In this new world, the slightly ignorant marketer walks into our conference room spouting how their fixture is ‘sustainable’ simply because it uses LEDs, or maybe includes some recycled decorative glass. It seems fair to say that many manufacturers misuse the term ‘sustainable’ as a marketing ploy, with mixed knowledge of what is needed to create truly sustainable products.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised when this particular company actually walked the walk. They’ve produced a product that begins to address some unspoken facts of the lighting industry: lighting fixtures require vast quantities of energy to produce, ship, and install, and poorly designed fixtures equal waste.


The discourse on life-cycle costing was made popular by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book “Cradle to Cradle,” and for some manufacturers of architectural materials, it transformed the way in which their product is conceived, produced, bought, and utilized. Moreover, the general adoption of LEED standards has greatly influenced the purchasing power of clients, who, through their architects, now regularly seek architectural products that account for embodied energy in some way, such as sustainably harvested wood or recycled or re-purposed metals.

However, LEED does not currently allow MEP equipment to count toward credits for material usage, with the understanding that the material quantities are considered negligible, they are not permanent to the architecture, and ultimately their ability to efficiently use energy trumps any material concerns. This seems like a missed opportunity, as the material in MEP equipment is hardly insignificant, and in many cases could comprise recycled or re-purposed materials.

While operational energy accounts for the amount of energy consumed (power x time) by the product during use, embodied energy represents energy required to produce and transport the fixture, and how that energy becomes ‘trapped’ when the product enters the waste stream. A brick, for instance, has a relatively low embodied energy, requiring only the energy to collect the clay, fire it, and transport it, and then may be used multiple times before it crumbles and must be reformed (of course never once requiring connected load). The light fixture by comparison must be fabricated from an array of energy-intensive materials, like aluminum, steel, glass, plastics, and mined phosphorous (reserves of which, according to Wikipedia, we’re on track to deplete sometime in the next 100 to 300 years). These materials must then be assembled, requiring additional energy-consuming processes.


The current debate over LED lamps and fixtures exemplifies the necessity to think more constructively about lamp/fixture embodied energies and life-cycle costs. This is a two-part issue. First, LEDs are finding homes as retrofits: replacement lamps for old fixtures, and complete fixture replacements (as have also been seen with compact fluorescent or metal halide retrofits). If the fixture must be completely removed, the old product is often sent to the landfill, and in large-scale retrofits, this may be quite a sizable quantity of wasted metals.

Secondly, in the rush to get products out to market (for both retrofit and new construction), many manufacturers have created LED products with no option to replace failed components in the field, notably LED boards and drivers. Manufacturers tend to argue that, in order to achieve the desired output and long life, LED boards must be permanently attached to their heat-sinks, usually with some sort of thermal glue. This then gets extended to additional aspects of the fixture, including housings or reflectors. Apparently, to most manufacturers, in some glorious undetermined future utopia we won’t even have to worry about waste disposal… LEDs will last until our civilizations have long since perished, so it’s not even worth bothering with end-of-life issues. Unfortunately this leaves the end user with only one option when the fixture does, some time in the next 20 years (a brief blip in the realistic lifespan of a building), fail: completely remove the dead fixture and replace it with a new one. No governing body exists that demands that old MEP or lighting equipment be recycled or re-used in any way, so the manufacturer is off the hook.

One manufacturer suggested, as an option until they “figure out their policy on refurbishing dead fixtures”, that the specifier add the phone number of an ‘approved’ recycler into the notes column of the fixture specification, for the end user to contact at failure. This option certainly plays into the notion of American capitalism, but it is ultimately laziness on the part of the manufacturer. I would much rather put a note into the fixture schedule recommending that the end user contact the manufacturer or local representative to buy a replacement, at a discount in return for the dead fixture (assuming the fixture dies after the warranty period).


The manufacturer should be thrilled at this concept. They potentially regain a host of usable parts, which should be refurbishable, and moreover, they retain the business of the customer. This is already happening in the computer industry, as an alternative to shipping dead electronics to third-world countries where workers strip equipment under highly hazardous conditions.

For example, I currently have a three-year-old Macbook Pro. Still works, but running slow, and I’ll need to upgrade soon for school. Recently I went onto Apple’s website, and found that I could get a quote for my old laptop based on the model and working quality of specific parts (even if it was dead for some reason, I’d still get money back). By offering a trade-in for my old laptop that can be put toward the purchase of a new computer, Apple is not only able to recapture the energy they spent creating the old one (which can be refurbished and resold, or stripped for individual components), but they also retain my business for the new product.

Granted, Apple’s ubiquitous presence in local retail far exceeds that of any fixture manufacturer, so an alternative might involve local lighting representatives to build up quantities before shipping, which suggests that buying local MEP equipment also matters. Regardless, few if any lighting manufacturers have thus far marketed their products in this way.

The push to create highly energy-efficient, long-lasting LED replacements for inefficient technologies does allow for minimization of waste. But countless inefficient light fixtures are currently being pulled from ceilings in an effort to reduce energy consumption, arriving either in landfills (to be mined by future generations) or at recycling plants that must perform energy-intensive procedures to recapture materials. I would like to see future companies retrofitting old light fixtures with new light source technologies in the factory setting, and selling them alongside ‘new’ products. I look forward to the day when a high-visibility architectural project has only refurbished light fixtures installed. It may be my project.



As I implore manufacturers and lighting designers to consider life cycle as well as aesthetics and connected-load performance, the following are recommendations I would like to see incorporated into the ethos of the lighting industry:

To the Manufacturers:

In order to meet current LEED criteria pertaining to lighting, lighting must be incorporated into a design by an experienced design professional who is able to balance connected load energy usage and reduce light pollution across a complete layout of fixtures. In no way can an individual fixture really “help meet LEED” on its own terms. Blanket statements like these reveal the manufacturer as using jargon and marketing instead of truly attempting to make sustainable products.

Regardless of current LEED criteria, every material choice within a lighting product requires energy for production and disposal, beyond just connected load. These choices will begin to matter more to consumers in coming years. Prove that your fixtures were created sustainably, shipped sustainably, and can easily adapt to changes in technology or component failure for the lifetime of the architecture.

Components that may fail must be replaceable without requiring costly and wasteful entire fixture assemblies. When a fixture truly reaches the end of its useful life, provide robust programs that allow end users to return fixtures beyond warranty periods for rebates on replacements. Refurbishing the components of dead fixtures equal potential savings by keeping highly usable materials out of the landfill.

If in fact your products do go the distance, market these specifications! Is the fixture made of 100% recycled aluminum? Put that on the spec sheet! Can the plastics be disassembled and recycled? Clearly stamp those materials with the well-known ‘recyclable’ symbol with material type (in a location that will not affect light performance).

And finally, or course all manufacturers should commit to ‘greening’ operations and products – but do not roll out one product as your ‘sustainable fixture’ without also providing a plan to overhaul the rest of your product line and manufacturing operations. It’s hypocritical.

To the Designers:

Why not specify refurbished lighting products? Must the back-of-house troffers be made of pristine aluminum? Actively look for ways to minimize not only watts, but material-heavy fixtures, with preference given to the lighter, refurbished, or recycled products. Minimize the use of fixtures made from materials with energy-intensive or toxic manufacturing processes.

How can the architecture itself serve as a lighting system? Thoughful design can allow for replacement of the minimum quantity of material when technology changes, and allows renewable materials to do some of the lighting work, such as in valances or coves.

Finally, demand more from your product manufacturers. Lighting may be a relatively small piece of the puzzle, but it’s the piece over which you have control. Make the most of it. Specify high-performance sustainability.

Photo Credits: Dan Weissman / Lam Partners Inc


Healthy Exterior Night Lighting – Is There Such a Thing?

June 7, 2010 / no comments


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ultimately it comes down to good lighting design:

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

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

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


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

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