Have you seen the light?

22 December 2018

In terms of the source itself, and the development tools used in its implementation, arguably no architectural field had been altered so dramatically by technological advancements in the digital age than lighting. Elly Earls meets lighting designers Mark Major, Jeff Shaw and Kevan Shaw to find out why, amid so much change, it is crucial that conversations continue to be driven by the relationship between architecture and light.

The physics of light hasn’t changed. Nor has the lighting-design industry’s focus on how lighting makes buildings’ inhabitants feel. Yet the discipline looks entirely different than it did just ten years ago, thanks almost entirely to a single technological advancement: LEDs.

Where lighting designers used to have a choice between, for example, incandescent or fluorescent, dim tungsten or warm metal halide, there’s now rarely a question over which light source would be specified.

LED technology has evolved to such a level of quality and performance that it has saturated the market. This has led to a paradigm shift so significant that Mark Major, who co-founded international lighting-design practice Speirs + Major in 1993, goes so far as to compare it in scale with the move from gas to electricity.

The knock-on effects of the digitisation of light have driven innovation in everything from colour to control.

“In the past it was much harder to change the colour of lights,” says lighting designer Jeff Shaw, associate director at Arup and former president of the Society of Light and Lighting. “Now that it is much easier, there has been a lot of exploration into what happens if you subtly change the colour of lights throughout the day. At the same time, there’s been a lot of research, discussion and awareness built over the connection between lighting and health.

“For almost all of human history, we have spent the majority of our lives outside, and it is only relatively recently that we’ve started spending most of our time inside under electric light. What difference has that made to our physiology and what difference can lighting make? And now that we can easily shift the colour of light, should we? That’s still an open question, but something we’re exploring quite a lot.”

The shift from mechanical and chemical to electrical methods of creating light has also led to huge developments in lighting control, which continues to become more sophisticated.

“We’re asking how can we better control lighting, and how can we make it more intuitive? How can we ensure it’s only on when it’s needed? But also what else can we use lighting for?” Jeff Shaw says. “Do we start using it to help locate people in buildings where each fitting can communicate with people’s phones? Where does it go with the internet of things?”

Due to these advancements, Major believes that it has become much more difficult to discriminate between the fields of architectural lighting, media and information.

“Light has always been a form of information, but I think that’s become more prevalent now that there is such crossover between various fields,” he says. “We’re all working with stateof- the-art technology on our projects and there are a lot of cross-currents between these different threads.”

The quality argument

While the move to LED has made things such as dimming, tuning and changing the colour of light much easier, it has also added new layers of complexity to lighting designers’ day-to-day jobs.

“Nowadays you have to very meticulously specify the performance of the LED because there is such a wide range of quality and performance in terms of the quality of the light, the colour, the frequency of the flickering of the LEDs when you dim them and the lifetime of the LEDs,” Jeff Shaw says.

Finding fixtures that bring out LED technology’s true potential is also a challenge, suggests Major.

“At the moment, the industry is still shoehorning LEDs into what I consider to be former paradigms in terms of light fixtures,” he says. “Although, things are improving and we are beginning to see more innovative ideas around light fixtures than we have previously.”

Major also believes that the quality of the light from artificial sources needs to become a greater discussion point within the industry.

“LED light is a very particular type of light, which has a particular character,” he says. “And I think that while the industry now offers a range of colour appearances – from very warm to very cool – along with tuneable whites and warm dim technology, there is still insufficient focus on the actual quality of the light itself within the industry.

“The questions we should be asking are: how is LED changing the character of our outdoor public spaces? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? And are there ways to deal with that? There’s hasn’t been enough debate yet about the quality of light.”

Intelligent lighting

Kevan Shaw is design director at independent architectural lightingdesign consultancy KSLD. He thinks that one of the most interesting areas to watch will be how the lighting business model changes now that “lighting is turned upside down”.

“Previously, we’d put a light fitting up in the ceiling and the fitting would have a very long life, but every now and then we’d have to change the lamp,” he explains. “Now we’ve got LED light sources that have got a very long life, but the electronics behind them have to be replaced regularly. That’s an interesting-looking business model.”

He’s also excited by the potential of Bluetooth mesh systems for wireless lighting control, although, just like with radio microphones back in the day, there are still questions over interference and available frequency.

“Lighting isn’t the only thing that’s become ‘intelligent’, so we’re going to end up with situations where we’re going to saturate wavelengths and start losing connectivity because there’s just too much noise there.” Kevan Shaw says. “If we put in a Bluetooth mesh system now and there is plenty of wavelength available, there’s nothing to say that five years down the line, someone isn’t going to put something else in next door.”

At Arup, too, the team is exploring some of the interesting technological things that can be done with wireless lighting controls. At the Royal Academy in London, for example, the spotlight system has recently been retrofitted with a Bluetooth mesh network so that the fittings can all communicate with each other.

There are also starting to be more discussions around how lighting can be used to help people find their way around airport terminals or railway stations.

“This is both literally in the sense of how we lay out the lighting, which is what we’ve always done, but also in the sense that each fitting could have a Bluetooth chip in it that could communicate with people’s mobile devices, know where they are in the space, and direct them to the platform or the terminal or the gate they have to go to,” Jeff Shaw explains.

It is here that the lighting design industry needs to push back a bit, he believes.

“We want to always make sure that we put the lighting where it’s needed to light the space, not where it’s needed to create an ideal IT network,” he says.

A dialogue between technology and design

Two factors are beginning to combine to grow the influence of lighting designers within architecture, according to Jeff Shaw.

First, the fact that LEDs are so much easier to integrate into architectural details means lighting designers are becoming more intrinsically involved in projects. And second, the growing public awareness about the impact that light can have on the comfort and appearance of spaces – and their human inhabitants – means that more clients are asking questions about circadian lighting and looking for specialists to help them implement it.

On a less-positive note, there’s a danger that as the technological side of lighting increasingly encroaches on the creative side, lighting designers will start to be seen as technicians rather than designers, something Kevan Shaw for one, is keen to avoid.

“There’s two parts to lighting design – the left brain and the right brain bit. I don’t want to be a lighting designer who’s just a technician,” he says. “The schizophrenic bit of lighting design is part of what makes it such an interesting area to work in.”

For Major, it comes down to the fact that while lighting designers’ toolkits may have improved, conversations still need to be driven not by technological considerations, but by the time-honoured language of the relationship between light and architecture.

Not that there aren’t benefits to the developments that have transformed the field over recent years.

“Design that moves things forward has to have an element of bravery to it, and we can be increasingly confident that as long as we don’t break the laws of physics that we will be able to deliver on some of the crazier ideas that we come up with,” he says.

“By consistently being informed about what is possible in technological terms, you can be quietly confident that you’re not suggesting the impossible. Ultimately, it’s a kind of dialogue between our knowledge of technology and our passion for design and architecture, and the influence that light has on that.”

Arup has fitted a Bluetooth mesh network of spotlights inside the Royal Academy of Arts.
Wireless lighting at the Royal Academy.
The light fittings at the Royal Academy of Arts are able to communicate with each other.

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