Light up your life

Paul Nulty takes a look at the world of lighting and discusses how new technology can be used to transform spaces, improve wellbeing and save energy

Light is (quite literally) a hot topic right now. Not only is it the visual embodiment of wasted energy, it’s also a symbol of wasted money. Electricity costs a lot, and it isn’t getting cheaper. In a time of austerity for businesses and authorities the world over, this is an important issue and the scramble is on to address it.

Enter the LED… Firmly established as the bastion of low-energy lighting, it has been an extremely useful lighting tool and most lighting schemes we design are almost 100 per cent LED these days. But LEDs are not without their own problems.

Much vaunted as lasting over 100,000 hours, it now seems that in real terms white LEDs will last around 35,000-50,000 hours. That’s still a very long time but a long way short of some claims. Consider, also, that LED phosphors also degrade at different rates which leads to inconsistent colour temperature.

Colour rendering is also another area that, until recently, LEDs have somewhat struggled with. Poor colour rendering may well be OK for a roadway at night but it doesn’t lend itself to the kind of warm and cosy lighting one might want to experience at home. Nor does it render merchandise well in a retail environment.

So, a good quality LED has good colour consistency, high colour rendering and excellent thermal management to maximise life. It comes as no surprise, then, that you very much get what you pay for. Good quality products come with a premium price.

Decent products also allow for a better and easier installation – control systems and protocols such as Digital Addressable Lighting Interface (DALI) and Power Over Ethernet (POE) require significantly less cabling than traditional lighting schemes and they have the advantage of providing real-time feedback. This makes emergency testing or failure monitoring very easy. Such technology also makes lighting absolutely prime for the Internet of Things (IoE): we can now turn on our lights whilst sitting on a beach on holiday, we can easily hook lights up to emergency systems for example to have the whole house ‘flash’ in an emergency.

LEDs can be pulsed extremely quickly – faster than the eye can perceive. Such on/off actions can be easily interpreted as 1’s and 0’s and thus light fittings can be used to transmit data. Imagine walking into a supermarket, not knowing where the toothpaste is. Now you can tap it into your smartphone, hold up the phone and a light adjacent to the toothpaste will be flashing on your screen.

Using the same technology lights can be used to track your phone and guide you around an unknown space while other sensors, such as IR, Radar, cameras and LiFi, can be incorporated into luminaires.

Prices are always dropping but, on average, it seems an LED scheme costs around 30 per cent higher capex than a traditional lighting installation. So long as this is factored into the budget it’s fine, not least because of the potential energy and maintenance savings achieved throughout the life of the installation. But against a backdrop of austerity, many businesses and authorities still struggle to finance lighting improvements. That is until now…

If you thought you couldn’t afford to replace your lights you now can… In the form of Light as a Service (LaaS) schemes, you can now rent your lights and pay the cost out of the money you’ve saved on electricity. It’s potentially a win/win!

LaaS does come with several warnings: not only is a ‘client’ locked in to the lighting scheme for set period of time, the lighting scheme is likely to be supplied by a single source supplier. This potentially means a limited selection of luminaires and the proverbial square peg in round holes (or downlight if that’s your thing). You’ll also need a large enough lighting installation to make it worthwhile to the finance companies that are ultimately underwriting such incentives.

However, LaaS does provide access for some to up-todate lighting technologies and ultimately that can only a good thing, particularly with further external pressures in the form of British Standards, CIBSE Lighting Guides and all manor of other certification such as LEED, BREEAM, WELL, SCAR, ECOHOMES and so on.

With the advent of such guidance, standards and design aspirations a practicing lighting designer or engineer must navigate a lot of considerations. It’s fairly easy to design super-efficient lighting schemes that comply (and often exceed) the good intentions that are within such documentation. However, we have to be sure that we don’t over-optimise our designs. The fewest number of lights possible might look great on the energy calculation but what if it makes a space feel gloomy? Or that superefficient streetlight that’s actually uncomfortably dazzling?

As is often the case, in designing to comply with written aspiration we lose sight of the thing that matters the most – the people that actually use the spaces we design. It’s important that we design for the users of each space and not just the use – there is a subtle but very important difference that includes health and wellbeing, perception and emotional connection.

A good lighting designer will take good product and carefully decide where to spend energy (and money) to best reveal each space and will specifically have the end user in mind. That may mean a few extra lights or spending a touch more capex on high-quality products or controversially argue against certification credits to get the right look and feel.

Lighting design is ultimately a fine balancing act at the crossroads of technology and creativity, and the job of the lighting designer is part psychologist, part sociologist, part engineer, part creative, part project manager and quantity surveyor to name just a few of the facets.

I’d like to think that the numerous technologies available to us combined with our knowledge means that we’re able to improve the way we light our built environment and, as Shakespeare almost said, ‘If all the world’s a stage, it deserves better lighting.’

Paul Nulty is the founder of Nulty, a leading-edge lighting design consultancy working with some of the world’s foremost architects and interior designers. Collaboration and teamwork is at the heart of the practice; improving life through light, no matter what the scale, is its goal. A Nulty project is defined by its originality and attention to detail.

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