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Base Zero Lighting Design: Start from darkness

This month, our lighting design team received the jumbo copy of The Lighting Handbook, 10th Edition by the Illuminating Engineering Society. It is almost four inches thick and weighs about 10 pounds. It is the accumulated knowledge of the organization dubs itself "The Lighting Authority." It is impressively massive and cumbersome, ironically not a "handbook" at all.

Unfortunately, it is also a metaphor for how lighting design is typically practiced. Conventionally, the emphasis has been on making buildings attractive. This has driven lighting designers to an approach that endeavors to maximize the lighting budget and energy allowance to create beautiful architectural compositions while meeting standardized illuminance targets. As energy codes have become more stringent, designers who start with a "maximum energy" approach will always be resentful of energy codes as a creative constraint.

Instead, I have been steadily working toward a different design philosophy that comes from the opposite direction. Using a "Base Zero" lighting design approach means that I start from scratch.  I build up a lighting system from baseline darkness. By beginning from zero light (and zero energy consumption) it is possible to develop a lighting design that serves the visual experience for the building occupants while using the least amount of equipment and energy consumption. By understanding the purpose of the building and the visual needs of its occupants, a designer can start by optimizing daylighting and task lighting, before adding accent lighting and ambient lighting, then finally a judicious application of decorative lighting. By lighting for people first, then for architectural effect, I can clearly prioritize my design strategies. By treating light as a precious environmental resource, I can advise my clients on the most effective and valuable light sources, luminaires, and controls for their projects.

The human visual system is very accommodating. We can adapt to 100,000 lux of sunlight and 0.1 lux of full moonlight and everything in between. We naturally prefer a variation of luminance patterns over uniformity. We tend to like lighting of vertical planes to delineate interior space. Daylight is free, but must be treated with respect. Windows and skylights are not just simple openings in walls and ceilings. Daylight dynamically combines direct sunlight, indirect skylight, and diffuse cloudy light. It continually shifts - predictably by location, date, and time and unpredictably by climate and weather. Reflective interior finishes and smart space planning improve the effectiveness of daylighting and architectural lighting systems.

By clustering similar visual tasks and taking advantage of perimeter fenestration, lighting can be most efficiently organized and controlled. The smart selection of light sources and luminaires can provide suitable intensity, direction, diffusion, and color to supplement daylight during daytime and to create desirable visual environments after dark.

The 15th century Gallarus Castle on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland, is simply illuminated during daytime by tall, narrow-slot window openings. The thick stone walls are straight vertical surfaces on the outside, but splayed and whitewashed on the inside to amplify and spread the light well into the castle interior.  Benches built into the walls adjoining the window would have enabled occupants to see well during the day within the otherwise dark confines. The light is sufficient for modern visitors to climb the interior 4-story stairs without the need for flashlights or electric lighting. These relatively tiny windows provided view, strategic ports for archers to defend the castle, and surprisingly generous illuminance so that valuable candles or torches could be saved for nighttime. While I wouldn't want to spend an Irish winter in Gallarus Castle, it has some valuable lessons about light as an essential building material and a precious environmental resource.

The next few lighting articles will explore "Base Zero" design approaches for integrating daylighting and electric lighting to correlate with new understandings of the human visual system. By addressing essential visual needs in creatively pragmatic ways, lighting systems can perform well within energy code constraints. Stay tuned.

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Expanding the idea of “green,” dual-purpose performance, reuse, must-reads & great dMASS examples: The latest dMASS newsletter

What's "Green"?  Going beyond materials to context, process & measurement

A writer for the Los Angeles Times asked, “If you plop a green building in the middle of nowhere, is it still green?”  It’s an excellent question that reflects a growing sophistication in the way we view material resources.  It’s not just about the resources contained in a product or building itself, or the resources used in the making of that product or building, or even the resources used during the operation of that product or building.  It’s also about context, process, and measurement. In the case of green buildings, there’s a movement to consider the energy occupants use to travel to a building as part of that building’s efficiency.  The ASHRAE standard (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) for high-performing buildings looks at the availability of services and transportation within walking distance of a building.  Location matters.  

Process matters too.  New developments in the science of behavior change can help designers figure out how to create “enabling environments” that encourage more sustainable behaviors.  And new technologies that focus on process changes, such as smart building systems, can bring about dramatic resource savings.  In transportation, the “restricted crossing U-turn intersection” is a design that uses a process solution to ease traffic rather than building more lanes.  The key in each of these cases is that they are about significantly reducing resource use while delivering the same (or better) benefits.  They’re not add-ons and do not tie up additional resources that could be deployed in producing wealth elsewhere.

Finally, as the field of green building, green product labels, and metrics matures, people are thinking about how to make adjustments that will bring about the intended results. suggests basing residential energy codes and energy incentives on total predicted energy consumption rather than energy intensity (per square foot) to reward smaller homes, not just more efficient large ones.  Cascadia Green Building Council’s Living Building Challenge requires that buildings be operational for at least 12 months before they can gain certification, so certification is based on actual rather than modeled performance.

Overall, these activities indicate a trend towards a more holistic approach to sustainable design, one that looks beyond embodied materials and takes a more critical look at how a product or building is actually used.

Reclaim, Repurpose, Redeploy

The reclamation and repurposing of materials is a critical aspect of dMASS.  We must work to recover and reuse resources already in service and then redeploy them to generate more wealth.  So, it’s exciting to see so many innovative new technologies and businesses finding new uses for “waste.”  D-Build (great name!) focuses on green demolitions and also links buyers to reclaimed materials and new products made from those materials.

Designer Diana Eng uses reclaimed leather scraps in her creations, making the material the central part of the product’s story.

Think about the products you’re making right now.  What will happen to them after their useful life?  Can the materials in them be reclaimed easily?  Is there “waste” from your process that could become a valuable material input for someone else?  Looking at your inputs, can you identify a reclaimed material that can substitute for a virgin material?  See Howard’s latest post for more on mining above grade.

Dual Purpose Performance

Toyota is working on a new motor that illustrates how you can simultaneously address multiple resource-related issues.  To increase its resource security and decrease its dependence on China, Toyota is developing an electric motor that does not require rare earth elements.  Their solution is also designed to be more efficient and less costly.

In Philadelphia, the Four Seasons Hotel is demonstrating how small-scale turbines can generate power and much more.  The microturbines installed on the roof of the hotel use a combined heat and power (CHP) technology that not only provides 30 percent of the hotel’s electricity needs, but also 100 percent of domestic hot water and 15 percent of heating needs.

Must Reads

Here are four works worth a quick read:

  • The Number One Key to Innovation: Scarcity” from the Harvard Business Review describes a project in which researchers identified no less than 162 factors in innovation, but found one critical element: “the value of scarcity as a spur to creative problem-solving.”
  • A chart from The Economist shows energy intensity (the energy required to produce a unit of GDP) declining across most of the globe and predicts that the current differences in energy intensity between nations will even out by 2030.
  • Materiality Analysis and Conflict Minerals” offers a short discussion on the relationship between materials, supply chain, sustainability, and corporate responsibility.
  • Good has a thoughtful article on economic development, the global demand for energy, and the need for an immense breakthrough in technology.

For Fun: Go Retro

If you’re a designer or if you just like to marvel at how much music technology has changed in a short time, check out this vintage Sony Walkman ad.  It’s interesting to see how they designed the device down to the size of a cassette, eliminating unneeded mass.

dMASS Examples

Finally, some interesting dMASS finds from the week: