Looking at Lighting Design International's corporate-style website, you get the impression of a moderate sized office, carpeted plush corridors with flashy wall downlighters illuminating glossy photos of completed projects. All flash and cool. What a contrast when I turned up at their office on Fulham Palace Road to find an underground rabbit warren of small, grey rooms full of designers beavering away, settling in for the onset of dusk, under lighting that could only be described as 'reasonable'.
At only 120 years old, lighting design is still a young profession compared to its architectural cousin.
But with relative youth comes a certain growth and dynamic. And the science and art of lighting design has really taken off in the last few years as concerns about pollution combine with the drive for drama in a finished building.
With its 12-strong staff, Lighting Design International, established in 1981, is one of the more successful consultancy companies. Its portfolio covers hotels in Barbados and Jordan, health spas in London and Newcastle, John Lewis department stores UK-wide and office developments in Mauritius. Its senior designer, Sanjit Bahra, prior to his eight years at LDI, completed an MSc in ergonomics at University College London and then a lighting master's at the Bartlett - apparently the benchmark for good training in his chosen profession.
So, what makes good lighting?
According to Bahra this is not the correct question 'Good lighting design is when you notice the beauty of a space and not the lighting. When you start noticing it, then it doesn't work.' Developing ambient light for a space is one thing, but it's the accents and highlights that signify the space and bring it to life.
Despite it being a fast-growing profession, it is surprising how many architects think they can 'do' lighting themselves, says Bahra. Back in the old days, architects knew their limitations. Limited to old-fashioned General Lamp Service light bulbs, architects knew where and how to hang their pendants and let in their wall-wash slots. It's a different story today. With so much technology available and lighting effects playing an important role in the overall design of a space, there is a real need for specialists. Surprisingly however, there are still a large number of architects and designers who do not understand the role of lighting design and will either take it on themselves or bring the designer on board too late when the structure, bulkheads and ceiling heights as well as the budgets have all been set, leaving the lighting designer to pick their way through the scheme making the best of what they can.
However, just when it seemed that this was going to be yet another Egan-esque call for sub-trades and specialists to be brought in to the design process early on, Bahra issues a corrective. As with other design disciplines, getting the right timing of their involvement is crucial.
But interestingly, in some cases, the lighting designer is brought on board too early when there is not enough information. 'Lighting is all about the presentation of space, ' says Bahra, 'and the architect or designer really needs to have a sense of the structure, the space and a feel for the style first so that they can give a clear direction to the type and style of lighting required to achieve their vision.' To realize this, the lighting designer requires as much information as possible up front. On top of architects' CAD drawings, Bahra will produce reflected ceiling plans and layouts indicating where fixtures, fittings, cable runs, ducting and wall sockets are located. Not easy when the architect or interior designer has not made up his mind about where to place the furniture let alone the art! Quite often, a degree of flexibility is required to re-plan and to re-draw where the five-amp wall sockets should go as the architect makes those inevitable lastminute changes. For some projects, mood boards or computer visualisations are used, giving the client a clear indication of the end vision.
As well as drawings, the lighting designer produces detailed books outlining positions of lamps, socket points and cable runs, all to be coordinated with the architect's information, as well as lengthy specification documents and control schedules for electrical loadings, wiring and circuitry. Brought on board a project at the right time, the lighting designer can help the design team to understand where cabling and ducting routes can be accommodated and work efficiently with the M&E engineers.
After this, involvement may quieten off until the first fix on site and then the final commission. It's this last part of the job that is crucial - ensuring that the sockets have been positioned correctly and not left to the builder's discretion, not to mention foreseeing, and being able to incorporate, the architect's inevitable last-minute changes.
However, it's in the last 10 per cent, during the focusing, that the job comes into its own. Even when a job hasn't run to programme (which it often does) and this valuable slot starts to slip, it becomes a battle to ensure enough time is allowed to make sure the downlighters are washing the walls correctly, the scallops are all even, the beam angles are at the correct width and the external floods are all pointing in the same direction.
Unlike the architect, whose snagging takes place in daylight hours, the lighting designer can only play their part during the hours of darkness - not easy when everyone else wants to knock off at 6pm. 'There has been many a time sitting around until 11pm on a midsummer's night waiting for darkness to fall to complete a project, eventually walking away at 3am, job done, ' says Bahra. 'Ultimately, this is what justifies the role of the lighting designer.' Like most other lighting companies in the UK (though not on the continent), LDI is independent from product suppliers and can pick and choose who it goes to, allowing a greater freedom of choice and budget.
With the luxury of numerous suppliers competing against each other and designing new products and systems, lighting designers can try something new on every job rather than rely on the same old formulas.
So listen up architects and project managers! Bringing a lighting designer in early, subject to there being adequate information, and allowing them to have input into a project programme can help enormously. Why? Well, firstly, too often designers are expected to produce a scheme when there is no information to go on, but if you give them programme input, they can determine how best to sequence their information and coordinate with the relevant parties efficiently.
Secondly, as lighting technology develops, the palettes of tools available are becoming increasingly extensive.
The choices and types of luminaires, from fluorescents to cold cathodes, LEDs, low-voltage downlighters or metal halide discharge lamps are extensive. Combined with stricter regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and light pollution, how would an architect find the time to brush up on all of this? On the environmental side, designers are working ever more closely with service engineers to produce systems that measure and control energy much more effectively than previously.
Within the design industry attitudes to lighting have also changed recently. With the increasing number of new, landmark buildings popping up, trendy regeneration projects going on in practically every city with the glut of boutique hotels on every corner, lighting is playing a vital role in the overall aesthetic of our urban landscapes. According to Bahra, it was LDI's lighting treatment to the hotel at No.1 Aldwych that set the trend for Schrager's hotels and others that followed in their theatrical use of lighting.
With all this convincing talk and portfolio of impressive projects, why doesn't LDI apply a little more of its lighting philosophy to its own offices? However, saying that, I was particularly caught by the silver twigs in the glass vase bathed in a hot pink downlight located by the photocopier - very John Lewis Christmas display!
Katherine Skellon teaches at central St Martin. Contact: katherine@skellon. net