John Bullock Lighting Design
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Designing Without Downlights - redux


It’s been a year since I first introduced this topic and I’ve been surprised at the level of support that I’ve had for the subject - its become a regular feature of my seminar schedule and will have its latest outing at the forthcoming lighting exhibition:

LightSpace.London at ExCel London
Wednesday 18th and Thursday 19th November

I’ll be opening the day’s seminar programme with
Designing Without Downlighting
at 10am on Thursday 19th November.

Its intriguing that no one – and I mean no one – has been prepared to argue in favour of the downlight grid, despite it becoming the default lighting system for many homes / hotels / restaurants / shops. In fact – you name it, and downlights are illuminating it. How did we get here?

I have an idea.

Back in the early 1960s, the UK badly needed a standard for our homes and that was fulfilled by The Parker Morris Standards, which were set out in the Ministry of Housing's "Design Bulletin 6 – Space in the Home".
Ah me: a Ministry of Housing . . . whatever went wrong there, I wonder?

Anyway, the PMS didn’t have a lot to say about room lighting, other than it was good idea – which at least improved on the decrepit state of much of our pre-war housing. In practice, it meant the introduction of the central ceiling pendant. Not a work of genius, perhaps, but an efficient way of going about things. But within twenty years, most households had evolved to table lamps and standard lamps, with a few intrepid souls introducing wall lights, with all of the ker-fuffle that entailed – and so the life of the central pendant was reduced to vacuuming and lost pennies.

And so to the downlight. Interior decoration in the early 80s was begging for something with a bit of an edge, and what better than a small, sparkly, light source that could be tucked into ceilings in a generally discreet fashion. The revolution had begun.

Twenty or so years later – let’s call it The Millennium – and the downlight was available over the wholesaler counter for next to nothing; the burden of the low voltage transformer having been spirited away courtesy of the mains voltage lamp version  (the GU10). And regardless of the fact that it’s never been a particularly good lamp, it was good enough to win over a supine audience.

What began as a great piece of domestic theatre, highlighting into the dimmer corners of the room, became the modern version of Parker Morris’ central pendant lamp – a mindless grid of illumination possessing a ceiling – any ceiling – any venue – any purpose. And that’s what I’ve been complaining about all this time.

One final thing: the cost. There’s an idea that downlighting is somehow cheaper than any alternative (apart from no lighting at all). This is not true.
Here’s an example for you; take a modest utility room and even there you’ll find four or six of these downlighting critters, where a single fixture would easily suffice. The installing contractor will usually cost a job on a per point basis, so four downlight could cost £200-£300 just to install – and that’s before you’ve bought the fixtures. If that groupuscle was to be replaced with a single light fixture, you’re already £200-ish better off, and half of that would give you a perfectly acceptable fixture for that space.
Now imagine what you might be able to do in the kitchen – the dining room – the bedroom . . .  you get my point?

Of course, the real question that now needs asking is: if not downlights, then what?
And that’s where a bit of imagination and adventure is called for . . . and that’s no bad thing. Here's an idea for you. . . three standard pendant fixtures suspended into a bespoke ceiling recess in a lift lobby. They accentuate the architectural detailing simply by aligning with the lift doors. But there's no need for additional highlighting . .  . the job is done.
And yes - for the eagle-eyed amongst you, there are a few downlights in the background, doing service as escape lighting - since you ask.

RIBA CPD in 2015

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John Bullock Lighting Design
4 Miller Way

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