Commercial design Awards

How do we make use of light in design?

Indu Varanasi from IR Design explains how lighting has illuminated humanity's rapid progress, and why inadequate lighting is a matter of urgency

As an integral part of our existence, light is often taken for granted as we sometimes forget where it comes from if it wasn’t for fixtures and luminaires.

The sun is our only source of daylight, a spectrum that is unmatched by any other, while man-made sources remain many. Man-made light should always exist alongside the sun’s natural energy.

Man’s ability to manipulate light in various ways led to numerous socioeconomic changes. Hence, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that light is a driving factor for society’s rapid progress. But how do we make use of this resource in planning and design today? The mere question triggers a debate bordering beyond the components and technology of a fixture, but rather its efficiency and its efficacy.

Lighting and the design Industry

In the industry, designers and architects can choose one of two routes. They can either call in a lighting fixture supplier who assesses the design and puts a lay on the number of required luminaires – they get paid based on the number of fixtures sold, so the more, the merrier. On the other hand, there are designers who emphasize on sensible usage rather than quantity.

Despite having two methodologies, they’re still lacking, we often forget to walk through the space while taking different aspects hand in hand. Sometimes, we forget to incorporate usage patterns, daylight factors and lighting control, which is more than just creating distinct levels of light.

Inadequate lighting levels – a matter of urgency

We desperately need to address current lighting levels, determine how much we need, and at what time and place. Studies show that our cities are over-lit and that lighting makes up over 30% of electricity consumption in buildings.

This is interfering with circadian rhythms and creating light pollution as it negatively impacts the workplace, our economy and us as humans beings.

On a larger scale, reducing light usage allows us to create a smaller carbon footprint to preserve the Earth. On a smaller scale, companies can save on building operation and manufacturing expenses, benefit from reduced waste levels, contribute to societal betterment and build harmony with nature.

Making use of daylight

With the proliferation of ‘daylight hour’ campaigns throughout the world, people are realizing that we should make efficient use of daylight and that it is an integral part of design.

But before we do that, we need to understand that this is no mere ‘lighting problem’. Architects and the lighting industry have a collective responsibility to address this issue and incorporate sensitivity in the design process.

The road to light sensitivity

The design realm must first embrace an attitude of light sensitivity. Start by determining the amount of light needed for an activity so that people can notice and become habitual of lighting variations.

To illuminate different parts of a building like corridors or workstations, designers often use a subjective blanket lux level calculation because there aren’t any universal standards.

Multiple factors need to be taken into account – daylight conditions and how a lighting designer harnesses daylight and supplements light in the non-daylight hours. Lighting design shouldn’t be exclusive for ‘star’ buildings, it needs to be universal.

Overly lit buildings have negative effects on occupants and their surroundings, and a major cause is due to corridors being lit 24 hours a day. Instead, designers must consider solutions like windows and clear-story lighting near a daylight source, as well as away from it.

I’m not saying we get rid of well-lit corridors, because this is a necessity. Rather than promoting excessive energy consumption, designers need to carefully evaluate the amount of lighting needed at different levels.

During the day, buildings will have ambient lighting levels when no movement is detected, but this increases when there is movement in the corridor. When ambient light is available, sensor controls should be limited to motion control.

Implementing thoughtful solutions

All it takes is undertaking simple lighting studies and seamless elements like technological light sensors to understand and assess the amount of light required during the day versus at night. Meanwhile, movement sensors can generate data on occupancy rates, which implies that AI will play a major role in paving the way for light-sensitive solutions.

Residential design is very crucial for understanding what facilities and management occupants require. In mass developments, lighting fixtures should provide ambient light using the same bulbs to keep inventory low. Additional feature lighting should be left up to the occupants.

In purpose-built residences built for individualistic needs, designers have to make a choice between ambient light sources and feature light sources. The benefits of both should be studied carefully – lighting designers should draw a clear distinction between them to allow easy budgeting and maintenance.

Drawing the distinction between target and ambient lighting

Target lighting only works when designers need to create a focus on an object or scene by defining its presence with the help of a shining beam. The object should be able to captivate attention, while the light enhances quality, as seen in art, color, and vistas.

On the other hand, ambient lighting has a universal aspect, like the sun. It needs to be there as a constant factor for orientation by providing a consistent blanket of light. For this, the light source, when artificial, should be discreet and subtle, yet integral to the design. By this definition, one can understand that mile-long corridors filled with downlights aren’t a necessity once ambient light is considered rightfully.

The duality of lighting – public and private spaces

Using similar light fixtures for both public and private spaces doesn’t provide adequate results, because both places have a different context. It’s a folly of the design process; we don’t consider a distinct approach for these two different spaces and instead, merge their needs.

Designers need to be there physically i.e. walk through the space to get a better understanding of the areas’ user patterns, its circulation patterns, and spatial quality rather than only studying lux level compliance as standard practice.

The question is whether lighting can create new features in public spaces. And the answer is yes, it creates distinctive settings.

It’s an essential element of our lives, so shouldn’t we consider the need for unique aspects rather than a bland row of street lights? For example, how about relying on light fixtures at differing levels and diversifying the pattern at intersections?

Nevertheless, this is just the beginning of an intense discourse; ultimately, we need action and initiative from designers of various specialties, working together, to reach for higher sustainability goals and not just lux level standard compliance.