Let’s stop ticking regulatory boxes and consider the user

I love light. Most of us that work within the lighting industry live and breathe light. Unfortunately, right now I don’t feel that I love light quite as much as I used to – let me tell you why.

I studied lighting design for performance and was fascinated by the interplay of contrast and drama, dark and light, the ability to use light to tell a story and change a space. For me, it was an epiphany moment when I realised that these qualities of light could be experienced, not just objectively as art, such as when an audience watches a play, but also in an everyday context. By influencing the spaces in which people exist, the same qualities could be experienced subjectively by people from the inside – all the world really is a stage. The key to this is people and how light and space affect people.

I have a growing sense of frustration caused by a feeling that, as an industry, we are starting to forget the people for whom we are designing.

Flicking through lighting magazines it strikes me that many of the latest projects are spaces with little contrast; lighting is provided by a single layer of background fluorescent illumination with virtually no punctuation, accent or emphasis. It seems to me that the latest energy regulations are pushing us down this bland, soulless lighting route, creating lighting that is primarily designed to tick boxes, rather than meet the needs of the user.

In the 1990s we suffered LG3, whereby we were persuaded that cut-off and low glare was the key to successful workplace lighting, only to realise that we had gone too far when our workplaces started to resemble gloomy caves. We have come a long way since then as we now consider the visual comfort of the user (note the user, not the space or task).

However, I fear that history is repeating itself. I absolutely agree that we all have a moral and social obligation to respect and preserve our environment, and minimising energy usage is key, but are we taking it too far, to the extent that we forget the requirements of people?

We are human after all, and have developed a culture, and a clear requirement of our culture is design – we appreciate nice things! I didn’t purchase my new suit because it uses the least amount of thread. I bought it because it served a number of purposes. I look good in it (well I think so anyway). I enjoy wearing it, its style gives me an air of confidence and enables me to fit in with my contemporaries and, ethically speaking, it wasn’t made in a sweat shop on the other side of the globe. It wasn’t the cheapest suit in the shop but I could afford it and decided it was worth the investment.

Should we be installing a lighting scheme purely because it uses the lowest energy it possibly can? Or should we consider visual interest, drama, enjoyment and the social and cultural requirements of the user?

I’m not suggesting we start getting all frivolous and demand a return of the 100W GLS bulb, but I do believe we have an obligation to deliver the best solution for the user of any given space. Of course, the user’s requirement may be ultra functional, ultra low-energy, but should that not be their choice? I am being a little dramatic here, but I maintain that we really must not lose site of the need to light for people and not to tick boxes.

If there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel (pun intended) it is the increasing awareness that darkness within our night-time environment is as important as light. External lighting schemes with increased contrast, drama and theatricality are using less energy than traditional solutions. The importance of lighting control is also finally being realised, but I would suggest that even the latest energy codes could do more to accept and embrace control.

Of course LEDs also offer hope, in that they will eventually come of age to provide genuine, good quality, consistent, low-energy lighting solutions. But the real danger is that as lower energy solutions become available, the energy codes will reduce accordingly and we’ll still end up with a tick-box solution rather than truly considering the needs of people.