Out with the old and in with the new thinking

Born and raised in Lebanon, my idea of lighting design was nothing more than someone hanging a few luminaires from a ceiling, ensuring that they glow just enough to brighten a room and get you from one end to the other. The lack of sufficient electricity whilst I was growing up meant that lighting wasn’t something I paid much attention to. Not until my last few semesters at university did I fully grasp the concept of lighting and its importance in relation to people’s lifestyle and well-being. I soon realised that through light, not only am I able to dictate exactly how architecture can be perceived, but I’m also able to influence people’s emotions.

Fast forward six years into my career in design and I find myself living in Dubai, getting to grips with this vast city and witnessing its growth through the lens of a lighting designer. A constant stream of hustle and bustle from dusk till dawn, it never leaves anyone in the dark. You probably think of Dubai as a city that has risen from the desert, and it quite literally has – it is now a sprawling metropolis. Dubai has the power to captivate and mesmerise and I get to see how light plays a significant role in this daily. From vast buildings that twinkle in the night, to the glimmering highways, to perfectly illuminated trees, and the florescent glow that shines into every insignificant corner – light is at the heart of the city, pulsating throughout, day and night.

The growth of Dubai during its short 60-year existence is simply staggering, it’s a city that has been developed at pace and the construction industry has had to move quickly to keep up. Innately, lighting is an industry that constantly evolves, yet when it comes to Dubai, the industry has progressed faster than the city itself. The result of this progression means that there is a rich tapestry of lighting schemes throughout Dubai that sometimes end up having to compete. Despite the city having advanced technologically, older lighting schemes have quickly become in need of updating, and the city must now leapfrog outdated designs and reach modern standards.

Engineers, contractors, and designers alike paid little consideration to ‘Dark Skies’ and glare control during the early development of Dubai. Inevitably, the city is now classified as one of a number of cities that needs to urgently modify its lighting schemes to adhere to the pressing issues of sustainability, light spill, and the impact on people’s well-being. There is no doubt that artificial light is vital to any city, but urban glow can cause irreversible damage. Obtrusive light has a negative impact on a wide variety of plants and animals whose natural life cycles struggle to adapt to loss of true dark time. As lighting designers, we need to consider the effects of glare, over-lighting, and over spill, it’s all about place-making and space-making. However, without urban lighting schemes, we as humans can be limited in our night-time movements, it is vital to Dubai’s economy, as more often than not, artificial light is needed for evening and late-night socialising to take place and for many it creates a feeling of safety in urban areas.

We need to find a careful balance between artificial light and dark skies. There is no doubt that the former is necessary, but we should also advocate for more consideration of its effects on the natural world. Thankfully, the tide is turning, and, in a Dubai-centric context, lighting consultancies are becoming a ‘must-have’, rather than a ‘nice-to-have.’ With this, the impact of lighting is becoming a core consideration in the construction industry. Masterplans are being applied, and as a result, maximum and minimum lux levels are being implemented, optical precision is highly contemplated, and over-illumination is becoming a thing of the past.

Another great step forward is the consideration of our environmental impact and how the industry can work towards a more sustainable approach to design. We should be doing more than simply employing a scheme that is LED-centric, we need to consider a project’s footprint in its entirety and work towards creating a circular economy of repurposing rather than just recycling. Thankfully, the industry is beginning to move in the right direction. Manufacturers are starting to take major strides towards reducing their carbon footprint, with many now researching the impact their production has on the environment and as a result aiming to reduce their emissions. Some brands are also considering a circular economy. They have put in place an ‘end-of-life’ service whereby their products can be sent back to the company if they are no longer working or required – they are then repaired and repurposed back into standard stock. This school of thought is becoming second nature to lighting designers and is growing among manufacturers, but developers also need to start recognising the need to think sustainably and adopt it into their practices. And we as designers need to work to ensure that the industry, as a whole, continuously thinks along environmental lines.

Luckily for those of us in the lighting industry, it often comes down to making small adjustments to our schemes. Using LED luminaires, intentionally keeping some spaces at low light intensity, or most importantly, being mindful of the purpose that light is serving, are all things we can integrate into our practice. As long as we have the willingness to improve, then a positive collective mentality can drive us in the right direction, one towards improving light pollution levels and employing a circular economy.

Dubai is considered the jewel of the Gulf and light is an intrinsic part of its identity, it has and always will shimmer and shine – 24/7. Dubai continues to push boundaries, it’s a city that is constantly evolving, it defies constraints, it’s a place of endless possibilities and light is intrinsic to each and every one of those possibilities. Dubai is a city of wonder and can be known to set standards for lighting design – not bad, for a city that sprung out of the desert only 60 years ago.