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What is it you want again?


I've been asked to write a piece for The Society of Professional Engineers newsletter. I thought it was going to be one of my usual pieces, talking about the things that I usually talk about - but it turned into something a bit more; not exactly a Design Manifesto - its far too woolly for that -  but it certainly raises issues around "What It Is We Want" from those folks responsible for lighting technology. Here's the piece as written (not necessarily in the form that will eventually appear in the SPE newsletter.)

Most of us, for most of the time, just get on with our work, doing the best we can – and enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done when it all turns out more or less as we expected. What most of us don’t do is to analyse what it is that we actually do and why we do it . . .  something that I am having to come to terms with at the beginning of 2015.

I’ve been fortunate enough – if that’s the word I’m looking for – to have been invited by the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) to present a series of CPD seminars in 2015. It’ll be a seminar to each of the English regional groups at fourteen venues, and stretching from Exeter to Gateshead. As I say, ‘fortunate’ may not be the word I’ll be using come December. And in amongst that, I’ve also offered to do local CPD seminars to individual companies in the South West..

What will I be talking about? It seems that everyone wants to know what’s going on in the world of lighting technology, as seen through the eyes of the independent designer. I’ve decided on three principal headings, and that’s what I’m about to share here;

1. what’s happening in lighting technology.

2. what’s happening in lighting design (not the same thing)

3. what should  be happening around the subject of sustainability.

Let’s look at them in that order.

Lighting technology:

This can only be about the rise and rise of the LED. At the time of writing, I’m reading about more light sources being marginalised by luminaire manufacturers (breaking news: ERCO is dropping all metal halide lamps from their range) and this is all down to LED development. And last week I read a piece from CREE, a company happy to promote its Extreme High Power LEDs. These modules, measuring less than 10mmx10mm square will be delivering in excess of 4000lm (at 32W). At that kind of power, they give me the heeby-jeebies; I wait with trepidation to see how the luminaire manufacturers respond. And here is one of the major problems that I, as a specifier, feel is just around the corner; I don’t know if a miniature light source with that kind of power can comfortably be accommodated into an architectural scheme, but I know plenty of manufacturers who’ll give it a try.

I’d like to throw out an anchor against which new technologies can be tethered and tested, allowing us to make some kind of assessment of their true value. And I’d like us to remember some of our history; I’d like us to note that we have only just started to use light that doesn’t rely on setting fire to something (and to all of you generation engineers out there . . . I know, I know, I know).

History in a nutshell, then;

light in a wind-proof bubble (Edison and Swann) happened some hundred and thirty-odd years;

lightning contained in a tube (fluorescent lighting courtesy of GE), came some eighty years ago)

lighting relying on electrons and semi-conductor magic (the practical LED, and we are now obliged to name-check Shuji Nakamura for the development of the blue LED that got everything started) happened all of twenty years ago)

Here’s a thing. If we take the half-million years or so that humankind has had the ability to make fire/light and shrink that period into a single calendar year, then we won’t have seen any electric light until around quarter-past ten on New Year’s Eve – and the LED won’t have come around until we’re taking the in-breath on Auld Lang’s Syne.

If LEDs really do replace every other light source, that will mean we’re sweeping away around half-million years of lighting exploration, understanding and development for something that only happened a heartbeat away. There are aspects of that half-million years that we need to take forward with us, because I believe that there are some absolutes in that history – absolutes that it would benefit the LED community to pretend aren’t absolute at all, so we need to be on our guard.

The primary benefit that incandescent light has handed down (after the simple fact of illumination, of course) is that of its colour qualities, both in its ability to rendition colours and its colour appearance. (there’s a visual image that’s appropriate here: Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting: A Blacksmith’s Shop). Filament lighting demonstrated how the ‘burning temperature’ of an incandescent body determines the value of the light’s colour. It also showed that, regardless of the ‘burning temperature’ of the filament, the colour rendition was always considered ‘appropriate’ – and that’s because its absolutely natural. Light as nature intended. As far as I’m concerned, any new light source needs to demonstrate that it is at least as good as a filament lamp in its colour performance.

The primary benefit of the fluorescent lamp (after the simple fact of illumination) was in its energy performance. Discharge technology showed us that there was a less costly way of generating light than burning a filament in a glass bubble. A technology that can reduce the cost of a lumen by up to 90% is not to be sniffed at and, after the oil+energy crises of the 1970s, the fluorescent lamp certainly came into its own. True – the original colour quality was appalling and we’ve all had to get used to living with correlated colour temperature, but the modern fluorescent lamp and tri-phosphor technology has demonstrated that a less-than-perfect colour performance is often good enough, though I suspect that we only got that improvement because the demand for filament-quality colour was vocal and constant.

Which brings us to the ubiquitous LED. What will the LED ever do for us? Well – for starters, it looks as though the energy performance will soon surpass that of the fluorescent discharge lamp, though on a practical note, it may take so much optical interference to tame the Extreme High Power beast that we’ll actually lose that raw efficacy in the process (so what’s the point, guys?). But the chief problem that we’re witnessing from this new technology is the wild-west nature of the industry that’s been created on the back of it. LED companies often come from an electronics background; people who are more interested in the quantity of light than the quality of light. Well, I’m sorry; but I can’t live without both. Despite the dire warnings of climate change and carbon emissions not being brought under control, I don’t believe that we should sacrifice quality of life to the extent that we are obliged to live under a cold blue-white light. That’ll probably come one day – but not yet.

I expect all LEDs to deliver the kind of consistent colour performance that we’ve come to expect from fluorescent sources. And I look forward to the day when its possible to compare one LED module with another and be able to judge between them using standardised data.

Lighting design:

As the previous section ends with a kind of plea on behalf of aesthetics (though I’d argue that there are some things that go beyond fancy-dan design and echo straight down into health and welfare), I may as well pick up the argument for what the lighting designer is looking for. There’s a specific reason why this is an important topic for discussion today and that, once again, has to do with LED development.

I make the point above that we have a new generation of luminaire manufacturers; people with no history in luminaire design or its purpose. These companies look at the commercial lighting world and simply seek to replicate it via LED technology. And that means that they only see what they see; they have no sense of what light might be, given the opportunity. They also have no sense of where we came from.

Some thirty years ago, I was part of the crusading sales force that was turning the world onto low voltage tungsten halogen lamps in general, and to the recessed downlight in particular. There is a parallel to what we see today in that the real donkey work was happening in laboratories far, far away, where people in white coats were developing highly technical light sources which could then be plugged into all sorts of cheap and shoddy nonsense that required little more than a tin-bashing workshop. Well, we may have burned down a few shops in the process, but the idea stuck . . . and we’re now locked in the death grip that is the downlighter grid. As an architect friend of mine says: “The problem is, John, that any fool can design a downlight scheme.” How true.

I’m encouraging building designers (and anyone else who’ll listen) that the downlight has had its day and its time we got back to some real lighting design, with room lighting that is properly fit for purpose; bedrooms that look like bedrooms; dining rooms like dining rooms, kitchens like kitchens -  and not to have all ceilings looking the same. For this argument to gain traction I need LED manufacturers to look back at history again. The reason why light fittings look the way that they do is because, for the most part, most of them had small fires burning at their centre. Most light fittings echo the radiance at their source. LED luminaires do not need to look like that; LEDs do not have to be that shape. Yes, I understand the argument that there are millions of table lamps, standards and frilly shades out there and - yes, they all need and deserve low energy sources. But that does not change the argument that an LED is not naturally bulb-shaped – and until we get to the point of understanding what shape an LED light actually is, we won’t know what shape an LED luminaire should be.

And I’m not particularly convinced about the ‘smartness’ of the LED light source. Yes, I make regular use of RGB colour-changing and I’m happy to play with that kind of gimcrackery, but that doesn’t make the ‘electronic-ness of everything’ any more real to me. I still have to try to convince some clients that a couple of dimmed circuits in the living room might be a good idea; never mind the idea that their lighting can adjust itself automatically in light output and light tone depending on the TV programme that I’m watching. Beam me out of there, Scotty.

This is an argument about the future. And here’s another argument about the future.


And I’m not talking about the outputs of lighting technology here; I’m talking about the inputs of lighting technology. We’ve been fantastically effective at reducing the environmental cost of a lumen of light, but we’re not so clever about the way that we make things or about how we dispose of them at the end of service.

While the term ‘sustainability’ embraces many aspects of how we exploit the world that we inhabit – its flora, fauna, human communities and mineral wealth – its best to focus in on one simple idea: We’re Running Out Of Stuff. At some point in the near future we will find some products disappearing or becoming grossly more expensive because some component will require a rare earth, or a rationed mineral, or because of the cost of recycling and returning the materials to their original manufacturing state. So I’m hoping to encourage manufacturers to design their products for several iterations. Imagine a light fitting that can be stripped, the metalwork dusted down and re-painted and the whole thing turned into a new generation of luminaire. Only the light source needs to change.

Impossible, you say? Well, I suggest that you look around your own homes and put a date on some of the light fittings that you own. I did that recently and the answer was quite embarrassing. I didn’t realise I was that old. We don’t notice this passage of time because we don’t need to change entire light fixtures when the lamp fails; every lamp change is a renewal. With my argument, I’m just taking this process one step further and suggesting that we don’t need new designs all the time. New decorative parts can be encouraged, of course, but the core technology does not need to be altered. Just design it that way. It’s all it takes.

One example of why this matters. The LED has changed the extent to which the lighting industry use aluminium. Every fixture has its aluminium heatsink, and most get sent for recycling at the end of that luminaire’s life. Why? We are looking at a global increase in the use of aluminium. Jaguar is opening up a new plant in the English Midlands to build the marque’s first all aluminium car. Hoorah!. But it’s estimated that the net global demand for aluminium will increase by 60% in this decade alone. That’s fine . . . do I hear you cry? Surely we can just improve our recycling figures for aluminium. Ah – no, actually. Around 75% of all the aluminium that has ever been produced is still in use somewhere. It’s the most recyclable metal that we have. So we can’t just ‘get better at recycling’ it. We will have to dig that extra 60% out of the ground – some ground, some where; like the Mongolian steppes and the American and African rainforests.

And let’s not forget that every time we smelt a component to make another component, we use energy that we can ill-afford to waste. Its vital for industry that we find ways to keep hold of the aluminium that we use and continue to use it, iteration after iteration. New luminaires built with old components need full co-ordination at all levels. LED modules must stay the same shape so that heatsinks continue to do their job properly. Oh hello – that sounds like a 60W GLS lamp, so we’ve been here before. But we need to get all those LED cowboys, pirates and freebooters on side before any of this makes sense.

It all makes for a challenging future but, provided the sustainability nettle is grasped, it could also be an exciting and positive future.


To learn more about me and (sort of) justify my standing up and talking about stuff like this, click HERE!






RIBA CPD in 2015

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