Lighting and Global Warming Part 2 – A Mindset for Future Practice

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don't see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things

From the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu
translation by Stephen Mitchell

In Part 1 I talked about the overwhelming size and seeming insolubility of the global warming problem. In this post I make suggestions on how deal with this on a personal level if you work in lighting or the building industry. There are many industries you can work in, jobs you can do, and spiritual paths you can take to apply your skills and energy to this global issue – for me the building industry and lighting in particular present great opportunities to make an impact because buildings use so much energy in their construction and maintenance. And with buildings you must act locally, get your hands dirty, and make tangible things that are visible, complex, problematic, social, transformative, and an integral part of our natural habitat- the built environment.

I’ve always liked Lao-Tzu’s mystical practicality. It’s somehow reassuring to me that at the time he wrote, probably around the 5th Century BCE, ideas were in play that aren’t foreign to us today in our apprehension of things like quantum physics. “Have faith in the way things are” doesn’t mean “don’t worry be happy,” for me it means be a scientist, observe reality and work with, rather than against it. The most important reality to observe and incorporate into design is human behavior, experience, and emotions. It’s also often the hardest to observe accurately, especially for engineers and people trained in math, physics, and materials science. “Hope is as hollow as fear” to me means that neither fear of apocalypse or hope in techno utopia has much relevance to our daily lives or helps us solve the global problems we face. We need to distance ourselves from automatic and unconscious emotional responses, like “why am I even trying, we’re all doomed anyway?” difficult as this may be (and it’s definitely difficult, sometimes impossible). “See the world as your self” means finding a way to connect your actions and thoughts to the world- the planet, environment, and the world of other countries and your tribe and family. Another line in the Tao Te Ching says “the world is perfect the way it is.” This is so antithetical to our western mindset of endless growth, endless change, and crusading for saving the pandas that it’s irresistible to me. I doesn’t mean don’t save the pandas, it means that in order to function today you have to be able to hold and maybe even believe two diametrically opposed ideas in your mind at once and remain balanced- it’s kind of like light being both wave and particle simultaneously. Before enlightment, chop wood, carry water: after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Enough already – I’ll lose the shakuhachi soundtrack.

Below are some basic big ideas around which you may organize a world view that informs your practice of design for the built environment.

1. Lead with Lighting
Since I do a lot of work in the lighting industry, it’s pretty easy to score points with my tight circle of colleagues and collaborators by talking about how fundamentally important lighting is. But as they say in Texas- it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true. As I pointed out in Part 1, lighting is the most visible, tangible use of energy for most of us in the built environment – it’s sublimated fire, sublimated sunlight, and we have a deep biological relationship to the sun and to fire. Lighting presents a unique opportunity to demonstrate that improved efficiency and quality can coexist and reinforce each other in every project you do. When for instance, building owners think about energy efficiency retrofits, they often start with lighting and move on to other things like HVAC and building envelope measures once they have success with lighting efficiency, which is pretty easy to do these days. If people see efficient lighting as better and healthier, which in the end is our responsibility because it’s really a matter of design, adoption of efficiency measures will move more quickly and we’ll be making more progress toward carbon goals. There’s a direct connection, and you can impact it. This message alone is often hard to keep in mind, but when you have the awareness of the potential consequences of your actions you can make better decisions.

2. Do Daylight!
In the discussion of lighting in architecture, the elephant in the building for me is what we today call “daylighting.” I even object to this term, as it’s now a specialty consulting practice for which there are very few good practitioners, and as such is more vulnerable to VE and to being an “additive” layer done after the primary massing, siting, and fenestration for a building are decided by the architect and client. The glass curtain wall, advances in glass technology, and the rise of the modernist aesthetic have all contributed to marginalizing what used to be seen as a primary function of architecture – delivering the right levels of beautiful, healthy light to people. Our great architect heroes like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright spoke often about the primary role of light in architecture, even thinking of it as a fundamental building material.

The fundamental strategy for green building is to assess and use a site’s available assets and ecosystem services (in Natural Capitalism’s sense of the term) first- including light, solar energy & heat, water, wind, free cooling, before making systems to provide them. Except in extreme latitudes that are in darkness for long periods, daylight is the most obvious and abundant free resource for any building almost anywhere on the planet. I advocate for lighting designers to be at the table very early on in the design process and to fully own the daylighting function. The energy efficiency implications of reversing our design priorities (daylight first, then electric, rather than vice versa) are ultimately quite large.

This is a difficult thing for design practitioners to deal with, as daylighting now is kind of an orphan. Lighting designers as a rule aren’t trained in it, and most architects don’t know how to do it well anymore. Knowing how to deliver the best natural light to a building requires a deep understanding of architecture, which is something lighting designers need anyway. And lighting designers are focused almost completely on providing electric lighting and all the equipment and systems that come with it- changing this involves even more disruption to an industry that is already undergoing a high level of disruption, but better now than never. This is the time for lighting industry to completely reinvent itself, and incorporating daylight fully into lighting design practice is one big part of that.

3. Practice Evidence Based Design
I like Ideo founder David Kelly’s idea that the most exciting and relevant part of design is figuring out what problems are worth solving in the first place. Much, if not most, of our technology ecosystem today is basically a massive firehose of new solutions that aren’t yet connected to real problems, and this doesn’t seem to bother anyone much. Gathering real and useful evidence about the unique set of interactions and challenges in a project, especially a building project, is indeed where design really starts. Great design researchers like Jan Gehl, William Whyte, and his disciple Paco Underhill led the way for advances in urban design and retailing by their relentless and extensive firsthand observations of how people behave in public spaces and stores. Nothing can quite replace one-on-one interviews with real customers or watching how they navigate the built environment and make decisions. I’ve done a considerable amount of this myself and never tire of gathering the basic material necessary for good design.

Unfortunately, research is not really a fully embedded practice in most design organizations or in most U.S. corporations. Two other problems with much research today are the confirmation bias, whereby only results that support an existing conclusion are noticed, and jumping to conclusions from very small data sets. So when you can, do your own research. And happily, technology can come to your aid. Surveillance technology like ubiquitous cameras and data analytics, while certainly scary and sinister, can also be used to eliminate the tedious hiding-in-the-bushes-with-your-clipboard kind of research and provide us with much very useful data on how people behave in spaces and even how they’re feeling.

4. Go Beyond Efficiency
Ideas like this rattle the cages of obsessive watt-chasers, the ones whose job it is to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of a system -bless their hearts. It’s possible to ignore beauty, practicality and human comfort, experience, and emotions by overdoing the emphasis on efficiency, like when it impacts quality and experience and gives efficiency efforts a bad name. PR problems with LEED and poor quality LEDs are two examples that come to mind easily. But this isn’t necessary. Most of the time, we can have high efficiency and high quality without significant tradeoffs. And more importantly, associating high quality with efficiency promotes adoption of efficiency measures. The new better LEDS will certainly succeed in doing this as their quality (and efficiency improve. The connection between green buildings and higher value is very well established.  

5. Bust Silos
Such a pugnacious American phrase- one can imagine a Jolly Green Giant gleefully kicking over those hulking bad old grain elevators somewhere in Nebraska, with corn spilling out in massive yellow waves! Seriously, professional overspecialization, fragmentation of disciplines and lack of collaboration and awareness gets in the way all the time. Ask any design professional how often they’re frustrated by not knowing what other consultants are doing on a project. One of the great best practice ideas that evolved in the green building movement was the notion of “integrated design” or integrated project delivery. This of course is partly driven by BIM and LEED, for better or for worse (mostly for better) and it’s still not standard practice despite all the talk about it, although there is progress.

Silos are deeply entrenched, especially for the building industry, so the busting thing is a tall order. You can contribute by sharing information on building projects with all team members, especially early in a project. New modeling tools make rapid prototyping and iterations and detailed, shared visualization cheap or free, and this can really help to make integrated design more of a standard practice.

6. Don’t Work for Tech, Make Tech Work for You
I got this piquant motto from Josh Bradshaw, and it helps me to remember who’s boss. But this is really hard to remember these days, when we are utterly inundated with technology, technology companies natural drive the discourse about it, and basically everything is becoming a technology company. The phenomena of way too many solutions looking for problems isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many transformative inventions in history were actually conceived as solutions to different problems than they ended up solving in wide application. It’s difficult to create broad predictive theories about how technologies get adopted, and lot more of this process is completely accidental and beyond our control than we want to admit, and Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory has suffered mightily lately yet has left a deep impression on how Silicon Valley thinks. Steve Jobs’ comment that people didn’t want iPhones until they saw them is as valid as a rational approach of determining customers’ problems and then delivering solutions. Still, most of us feel today that we’re tied to our smartphones, that work and play often seem to be an unending stream of new paradigms constantly disrupted by newer technologies.

One area where it’s crucially important to make better decisions that aren’t driven by technology alone is building controls. The lighting industry is in something of a crisis around controls on several levels – I can’t go into it in detail here – as what was already a complicated situation is suddenly getting way more complicated by a large factor.

7. Remember the IOL in IOE
Right, so the “Internet Of…” acronym thing is spiraling out of control, like technology itself. Having said that, I want to make IOL (Internet of Light) a thing – I hereby declare it’s a Thing, OK? #IOL. My idea behind this is that we have to remember the lighting, even though it’s clear that lighting is a leading application and network “backbone” for Internet of Everything. It’s easy to lose sight of the rich possibilities in lighting alone if you get distracted by all the other applications that can and will be living on lighting systems and networks.  Not to sound too sinister or alarmist, but you need to know a lot about them, as this new ecosystem might just eat your job in a few months or years if you’re a lighting person. But the new lighting technology, including the stuff that connects everything with everything, ultimately allows designers and specifiers to do a much better job of providing high quality affordable lighting in many new and inventive ways never before seen or imagined. We can’t forget the lighting part of the equation, or let the connected data part of it become more important.

8. Connect Every Decision to the Future and to Scale
In the last decade, I’ve been more and more conscious of the downstream consequences of every little decision I make when working on projects. I’ve been in many environments with teams that are busy innovating, which can be difficult in the building industry, where big changes are viewed skeptically, for good reasons. It kind of means treating every project as a pilot, demo, or proof of concept. I got used to it and now realize it can be a permanent condition for creativity. How you decide to characterize a proposal, illustrate a system, specify a component, or describe ROI all contribute to the whole project, which can contribute to evolving best practices. And while it’s totally beyond cliché to ask “but will it scale?” this frame of mind too is important. In energy efficient design, we’re always thinking that if one pilot site proves out, it can be the model for five or 50 or 500 more, and we love to calculate the aggregate energy saved like chickens before the eggs are hatched. For those of you who work with any regulatory activity, scale is a primary issue, since seemingly small decisions like minimum efficiency rates for devices or components always have massive energy implications.

Finally, as a design professional, if you’re a good one, you’re so used to paying attention to other people’s emotions, behavior, and experience that it’s easy to forget about your own, especially when you fall into a trap of thinking and believing that your own seemingly measly little contribution to a problem as big as the fate of the entire planet is simply ridiculous to contemplate. We need to remember why we work in the built environment in the first place- I believe that much of our motivation is deeply altruistic. The good news on altruism from an evolutionary standpoint is that the odds generally favor it. Darwin and others have worked this out pretty well. And more than ever now we need to remember that we can get sometimes get a little distance from our emotions as the main drivers for our decisions, and that when we do, we can sometimes make better decisions, as individuals and as humanity.