Leading Luminaries

Seven of our top lighting designers talk about new tools, new technologies, new challenges, and the way forward.

Today’s lighting designers may feel like they’ve taken a page out of Charles Dickens: it’s the proverbial best and worst of times. At the precise moment when the tools and techniques of the field have reached an unprecedented level of sophistication, the fiscal squeeze is on. Lighting budgets increasingly fall prey to last-minute cuts. State-of-the-art systems are seen as extravagances. At the same time, and in seeming contradiction, clients want more function, more efficiency, and more beauty—if possible, for less. We asked seven leading lighting designers about these curious times, the most promising new technologies, and the challenges ahead. –M.P.

About five years ago, we identified day-lighting as the next big thing in lighting. What is today’s next big thing?

Rogier van der Heide: The other next big thing is integrated lighting. At Philips, we’re already looking into building materials that contain functional lighting, we’re looking into stretchable light, and I would love to see luminous wallpaper. As light sources are now so small and versatile, why should we be limited to the existing paradigm when we create our fixtures?

James Benya: It’s hard to say. I would love to think architects are finding ways to do daylighting better, but unfortunately we still have to contend with the misbelief that good daylighting is being practiced by firms with great PR departments. The classic example is the Art Institute of Chicago. The modern wing there was a technical disaster. There was a significant lawsuit filed against the engineers—who are taking the hit on this. But the fact of the matter is, it was not a good idea. You don’t put a glass roof on a building in Chicago without significant thermal problems. I remember looking at the plans and thinking, This is a disaster waiting to happen. How come no one’s caught this one? Because it was Renzo Piano’s! We’ve got to break the cycle of saying things are efficient because daylight is involved. Daylight can be efficient or very inefficient. It depends on how it’s executed.

Nancy Clanton: In the past, designs were geared around lighting levels, versus lighting quality. But if we’re going toward net-zero buildings, we have to light with a lot of choices and layers. We once separated all these different systems: daylighting, electric, ambient, task. Now they’re all working in concert with one another, which produces better visual environments and reduces energy use.

Hervé Descottes: The next big thing is less. Less is definitely a lot more: less color, less uniformity. It’s about customization and precision. Lighting hasn’t been precise. It’s been about quantity and light levels and creating multiple surfaces of light, about using technology at its maximum extravagance. Nothing has been done subtly.

What new lighting technology are you excited about?

Van der Heide: Organic LEDs create such a different quality of light compared to normal LEDs. It’s not a successor to LEDs but a technology that we can develop next to existing offerings. With organic LEDs, you can create flattering, gentle light with very soft shadows and warm skin tones. LEDs have a great future in architecture, as they’re very suited to focus. They’re ideal for manipulated light. Organic LEDs, on the other hand, represent “pure light” for me.

Suzan Tillotson: Definitely LEDs and organic LEDs. I think the typical way we’ve been lighting spaces is slowly going to disappear. Instead of using four fluorescent strip lights, you can now use a tiny two-by-three LED package and light up the ceiling. For years, we’ve all been thinking in a linear sort of way, and I’m not sure we have to continue to do that.

Benya: The thing I’ve been trying to explain to students is, if you don’t understand the basic principles, there isn’t a magic tool or material or technology out there that’s going make it easier. A primary example is the revolution caused by high-performance low-E glass. When it started to become part of the lexicon of architecture, it made architects feel like, “Oh, I don’t need to worry about solar gain any-more, I can design 100-percent-glass buildings.” Not true. Glass is a lousy insulator. When you have glass walls, the building is going to leak cool air in the summer and hot air in the winter. It’s unavoidable. That’s why a window-to-wall ratio between 25 and 40 percent is a reasonable compromise. A 100 percent ratio is nuts. You can overglaze a building, so any savings you achieve by turning off lights are more than eaten up by the solar gain.

Have LEDs lived up to their promise?

Clanton: Yes and no. Where they haven’t lived up to their potential is the complexity of putting LED systems into existing power or distribution systems. I also think the jury’s still out on controllability. There are numerous LEDs that flicker. We’re beginning to see products that produce better quality light. But LEDs will need a partner, and I feel organic LEDs will be that beautiful partner, because everywhere LEDs have weaknesses, the organic LEDs have strengths, and vice versa.

Keith Bradshaw: There was an early promise, and then an enormous drop in faith in the market, because the manufacturers hadn’t had time to test those promises. So there was a period of time when they had to work even harder to reconvince people. But over the past two to three years, the consistency of LEDs has improved dramatically.

Tillotson: We have many jobs where we still use standard fluorescent technology, because you do a life-cycle cost analysis and see that LED just doesn’t pay back. It’s too expensive, still.

Benya: The one thing I want LEDs to accomplish, more than anything else, is to cause us to completely re-think lighting. For example, there is no reason for us to keep downlights. Why was the downlight invented? Other than the need to throw light downward? It was invented to take a big, hot lightbulb and hide it. But if we don’t have a big, hot lightbulb, why have downlights? This whole idea that we don’t need to use lighting systems the way we’ve always used them will be one of the revolutionary ideas moving forward.

Are there applications that LEDs just aren’t well suited for?

Paul Gregory: Yes. Dimming. We invited the head of Hyatt to the studio and conducted an experiment. We had a fake bed, two table-side lamps, and two pendants in the room. One side was LED. The other was incandescent. They looked identical until you dimmed them. The incandescent light got warm and beautiful, and the LED didn’t. It stayed the same color. So if you’re trying to create incredibly fine dining or a candlelit idea, LEDs have a way to go.

Van der Heide: LEDs are suitable for almost anything. However, in sports and theatrical lighting, specialized high-intensity discharge lamps are still the norm. But that’s the only application I can think of where LED has not yet surpassed conventional technologies.

Descottes: I still don’t feel comfortable using LEDs in every downlight or wall-washing application. But anything integrated into the architecture works very well.

Benya: LEDs are not good for projecting narrow beams of light of any significant candlepower. And I’m not sure they ever will be. Maybe there’s a fundamental physical limitation to the technology.

What’s the future of solar-powered lighting? Are there other “green” lighting technologies with promise?

Van der Heide: Solar-powered lighting is one of the possible future scenarios, but photovoltaics (PVs) have to increase in efficiency first. There are many other promising green technologies, and one of the most exciting ones is bioluminescence. Would it be possible to illuminate our homes with bioluminescent proteins? It seems like science fiction, but in the laboratory it’s already a probable scenario. The best way to become greener now, though, is to create applications that value darkness as a quality, and that do not consider illumination a “default solution.”

Gregory: The problem with solar-powered lighting is that the battery technology just isn’t there. I went to Germany and looked at solar technology. All of the exterior lights had AA batteries in them as their method of storage. And it’s not a good method.

Bradshaw: We worked with Foster + Partners on Masdar, the world’s first sustainable city, in Abu Dhabi. The energy experts told us that small areas of PV are not efficient. This has less to do with where you put them and more to do with the energy required to produce a single PV panel. To make PVs work, you need whole roofs full of them. So if we have this conversation with clients, we’ll say to them, “Don’t consider solar power on the light fixture. Think about it more in terms of finding an area of the project on which to put a PV farm.”

What will emerge as the biggest challenge for lighting designers in the future?

Clanton: It will be understanding how the different elements of lighting impact environments, especially when we start being asked to design for net-zero buildings. What does that mean? What load or energy reduction does that entail? How do we model it? How do we know what our predictability is in our visual environment with regard to the energy reduction goals? How do utility companies play in? What happens when peak demand becomes the most critical issue? Do lighting designers even know when the peak demand happens, and how do they design for it?

Tillotson: Each year we’re asked to provide the same light levels using a lot less power. Consequently, a lot of our solutions start looking the same, because they’re the only thing that works with this lamp, this ceiling light, this wattage, this light level. So how do you create beautiful environments if the solution is always cookie-cutter? It’s difficult.

Bradshaw: The biggest issue facing lighting design is whether clients still see its value when push comes to shove, economically. We’re in a period where the old technology still remains cheaper than the new. And in these tough economic times, I don’t know whether people are willing to make the investment.

Descottes: As a lighting designer, you have to work on 20 projects when an architect is working on two. For 20 projects, you have to meet 20 times at different places, because at one point in the project you have to meet the people. You have to present the concept. You have to set up the lighting. Time is the main issue for lighting designers, which is an irony, because light is one of the fastest moving particles on the planet.

Gregory: There used to be a lamp book this big. It had all the lamps in it. Those were your tools. Now there are infinitely more tools. So, what’s the best way to light that painting? There’s the color on the canvas, and how do you bring it out? There’s the degradation to the art, and how do you limit it? There’s the maintenance. There’s the amount of power the fixture uses. There are a lot of questions, and a lot of potential answers. So filtering through to find the right answer is the big challenge.

Related: The legendary lighting designer Jennifer Tipton offers a counterpoint to the growing popularity of LEDs, In Defense of the Incandescent.

Read the rest of Barbara Eldredge’s lively conversation with Hervé Descottes here.

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