This Series Is Not About Better Residential Lighting. It is about Hope.
By David Warfel
I was first honored and then a little terrified when Randy Reid invited me to write a series for the residential section of designing lighting (dl). What could I, a residential lighting designer of no particular importance, offer such an esteemed community of award-winning designers, successful manufacturers, and hardworking lighting professionals across the world?
But, I am terrible at saying no, so I drummed up a few article ideas and accepted the challenge. I started a first draft and rambled along for a couple hundred words about the need for lighting design in residential construction. Boring stuff, really, and by page three my enthusiasm was gone. Then I realized something I hadn’t before—the solution to the problems plaguing residential lighting will be found not in lighting layout or lighting design, but somewhere in between. And it is going to take courage and cooperation to get there.
Lighting Layout: Installer-focused solutions that ignore human wellbeing. Before I take a stab at plotting a new direction for the entire industry (what is that saying about pride?), allow me to catch up those of you who are largely unfamiliar with residential lighting, as I was for the first fifteen years of my career. A colleague, passionate about light but not in the profession, pointed out to me that architects, interior designers, electricians, showrooms, distributors, and manufacturers were offering a service they called lighting design to homeowners, but the results were entirely different than the service I delivered under the same name. “It shouldn’t be called the same thing,” he claimed, suggesting that lighting layouts were common, but lighting designs were rare.
What is a lighting layout? You can spot them easily. If there are circles drawn in tidy rows and grids in nearly every room, if each bedroom features four cans and a fan, if bathrooms have a downlight over the sink, if kitchens have lights evenly spaced between the counter and island, if there is a downlight above the tub, you are looking at a lighting layout.
Lighting layouts are easy to draw: find the centerlines, make a grid, and put circles where the lines intersect. They are easy to sell: fifteen dollars each if you buy a contractor pack of ten. They are easy to install: twenty-six cans, fourteen j-boxes, two undercabinet bars, done. They help get homes built on time and on budget, but they punish the occupants for decades with glare from wafer lights that should be left in the garage and lumens spilled on the carpet instead of delivered to the countertop. The alternative I sell to clients every day is something we call lighting design.
Lighting Design: Beautiful custom-tailored solutions with out-of-reach price tags. A lighting design (at least how I do it) looks like a mess in plan view. Light fixtures don’t line up neatly. Single recessed downlights seem to hang out in the strangest of places. There are scary absences of recessed lights where they should be, like between the island and the dining table. There are far too many fixtures.
Lighting designs are difficult to draw: aiming angles and ceiling heights and beam spreads and control zones litter the pages. Designs are difficult to sell: those recessed lights are going to cost how much?! They threaten the budget and the timeline in new builds, but they reward the occupants with decades of beautiful, functional, biology-driven lighting that supports wellbeing and life at every turn.
Lighting design is my line of work, and it is a pretty good business. We’re finding plenty of clients to keep our growing team of designers busy and profitable. But profit and busyness are not what makes me truly happy. I want to make the world a better place, and that means my ultimate goal is to put myself out of business. I want lackluster lighting layouts to be abolished and expensive lighting designs to become irrelevant. I want something different, something in between.
Wait, did I just say that I hope to go out of business? Yes, I did, and shouldn’t that be the goal of anyone who wants to help others? When we volunteer our service to help others at a food pantry or with safe housing, do we hope that there are always people in need, or do we hope that someday the need is filled?
Lighting Hope: Scalable, affordable solutions for better lives.
If lighting layouts fail to deliver the benefits of light, and lighting designs are out of reach for most of us, what, then, is the alternative? There is no name for the in between, the third way. This kind of lighting could be called mediocre, or okay, or marginal. It could also be called better, attainable, or sustainable. It could be called lighting help. Today I will call it Lighting Hope.
Lighting Hope is a bit of a dream, a vision, for something in between. It is a strange turn of words that I will use to explore the middle ground and alternatives to the way we light our homes today. Over the course of the next few issues of designing lighting (dl), I will ruminate on the issue under the following titles:
■ Replace Edison & Redesign the Downlight
■ Save Copper through Cooperation
■ The Dimmer is Dead: Long Live the Next Lightswitch
■ Light Readings Against Humanity
■ Plug In to Better Lighting for All
The rather odd-sounding concept of Lighting Hope is an invitation for us to use everything we know about light and lighting to make the world a better place, starting with our friends, family, and neighbors, and extending around the globe. Lighting Hope is not yet easy, popular, or profitable, but it does offer us the opportunity to rethink the tools we use and how we use them. Over the coming months, I hope to at least get closer to answering the following questions.
Why are homeowners and builders reluctant to use recessed downlights with built-in LED modules in place of the beloved 150-year-old E26 base? How could we, as manufacturers, offer them hope instead of fear of incompatibility and premature failure?
Why is low voltage lighting struggling to make headway in residential markets, despite nearly every fixture containing a low voltage LED source? How could we, as an industry, cooperate to change the future and conserve resources like copper?
Why are we still selling traditional switches and dimmers designed for line voltage, fixed white lighting when we know that natural light is a critical source of inspiration? How could we, as inventors, deliver a new light switch that would change the way homeowners interact with light every day?
Why are horizontal illuminance levels our most common calculation for homes, despite no homeowner ever taking a light reading on the floor? How could we, as technical experts, make light more understandable and accessible to the average homeowner?
Why is good lighting found in luxury homes and rarely—if ever—anywhere else? Why do those living in apartments suffer subconscious but very real damage from bad lighting? Why do hundreds of millions of people increase their risk of premature death by relying on light from burning wood and fossil fuels? How could we, as humans, help our neighbors live better lives with better lighting?
Courage is needed, because we need to consider changing everything from the lights we sell to the way we use them, and from the way we do business to the words we use.
I do not have all the answers, though I will ask the questions over the coming months because I believe that we, the lighting industry, do have all the answers. We simply need the courage to consider changing everything, to step outside of the way things are and imagine the way things could be. Together, we can make the world a better place.
And that is reason enough for hope. ■