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)

The Specification Conundrum

November 16, 2009 / no comments


It’s a well-known fact that publicly sponsored, even some private or public/private construction projects demand a multi-name specification on equipment: everything from toilets and faucets, carpet and tile, to light fixtures and lamps. As lighting designers, we deal exclusively with the latter but this requirement applies to all products.

On one side of the argument are the multi-name spec supporters. They intend to encourage competition by shopping for the same basic product offered by multiple suppliers, which can then be bought at the best price. Since the public money comes from the taxpayers, these projects have a responsibility to deliver the best quality building for the least amount of money, and the best quality lighting for the least amount of money.

Patent holders or design sympathizers make up the other side of the argument (including patents pending, or even just original ideas). The patent is a universal, government-sponsored method for recognizing and protecting intellectual property, giving credit to groups or individuals whose ideas are new, original, and innovative. Patents are strong reinforcers, although costly, in encouraging development of new products and methods, and they usually allow those new products to enjoy market exclusivity for seven years. Without them, inventors would have little incentive to introduce their brainstorms to the world for fear that the next guy will simply copy it and sell it first – they get rich on your idea. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

To put it into consumer terms, take the iPhone for example. It wouldn’t be here if Apple couldn’t wield its patents. The protection they are ensured by federal law allows them to enjoy exclusivity for their inventions for that seven-year grace period. But, the patent system isn’t perfect and there are lots of loopholes to wiggle out of infringement, for better or worse. Perhaps it’s those very loopholes that keep technology moving. If Apple was able to infinitely sit on their patents, they would have a monopoly, allowing for artificial price inflation of their products (they’re more expensive than PC, aren’t they…). Good for them, bad for consumers, although if we want something badly enough we’ll pay almost any price. Since patents do expire and design tweaks beget new patents, other people are able to build off of what Apple has started, generally making improvements for the good of the industry. Everyone one-ups the previous invention. Since the iPhone’s release there’s been a rush to bring other touch phones to market – now look at your choices. Sometimes, patents are infringed upon to make a quick buck, but the determined defend them fiercely with teams of lawyers – more hassle than it’s worth.

2_RGB LEDs_Kaibara87.jpg

So what are these two camps fighting over? They’re in conflict with each other because you can’t employ certain methods, use certain products, or basically use anything patented on multi-name specification projects because there are no equals. In the past this was not as big an issue as it is now, at least for the lighting world. Light bulbs were light bulbs and sockets were sockets. But now, the sustainability movement and the widespread adoption of the LEED programs, sometimes effectively required by law, have pushed building designs to perform better, use less energy, and otherwise be more ‘sustainable’, so that within the past decade or so, there have been technological advances and refinements in the lighting industry to address the new requirements. Those manufacturers that have done so, who have gone the extra step, have patented their products – making them inaccessible for those public projects.

Now, to close the loop, those same public projects that want the biggest bang for the buck also require sustainability measures. How can you have a multi-name specification and employ patented sustainability measures at the same time? Here the conundrum exists! The industry has been muddling its way through, making exceptions and allowances, but the same problem is raised time and time again with each new project – cost and accountability versus sustainability.

Is there an answer? I’m not sure. For now, we’ll have to keep making those arguments for the greater good – but which greater good is it: the planet or money?

Photo Credits: gcbb (1), Kaibara87 (2)