Viewing entries tagged


The Future of Lighting: Performance vs. nostalgia

Please join us in welcoming a new contributor to, Mark Loeffler of Atelier Ten.  Mark is a lighting and environmental designer who has consulted on many significant green building projects both in the United States and globally.  We're excited he's able to share his insights with the dMASS community.

Note: Please also see a July 2013 update, below.

Lighting is about appeal, it is about vision, and it is about energy.  I'm a professional lighting designer whose job is to create lighting systems that enhance the attractiveness of buildings, the visual performance of the inhabitants, and the effective use of energy.  In my 30-something-year career, I've seen the development of many new technologies that have reduced the size and mass of lamps and luminaires (aka light bulbs and fixtures) while increasing the efficacy (lumens per watt) and efficiency (percentage of light emitted by a luminaire) of lighting equipment.

The technology leap that’s generated most of the public attention in the last few years is solid state lighting: LEDs (light emitting diodes).  In development for at least as long as I've been a lighting designer, it’s only been in the last decade that "white" LEDs have become commercially available and viable.  Following the pattern of other solid-state technologies, there have been rapid and significant improvements in performance: color quality, lumen output and efficacy, controllability, heat management, consistency, and rated life.

The best and most cost-effective applications for LED lighting have been for signage, display, task, and small-scale accent lighting using linear arrays that take advantage of the small, intense, directional, point source nature of this technology.  We are also seeing intriguing advances in general area lighting, street lighting, high-output directional lighting, and many other applications.  The top resource (at least in the US) for keeping track of LED developments and performance standards is the US DOE Commercially Available LED Product Evaluation and Reporting (CALiPER) program. Our lighting practice monitors this program for the latest authoritative information about the testing and performance of a wide range of LED products.  For example, the CALiPER-endorsed Finelite PLS LED task light is a low-mass, low-energy, high-performance alternative to typical desk lamps and a good application of this technology.

But we live in a world of billions of medium-screw sockets looking for lamps that produce the instantaneous, warm, and flattering illumination of incandescent light with less energy and waste heat.  Because consumers have only reluctantly accepted compact fluorescents as a semi-acceptable substitute, all the major (and minor) lamp manufacturers have put enormous R&D investment into a solid state "light bulb."  Nostalgia for the light bulb is proving to be a powerful force.  CALiPER's most popular contest is the L Prize competition which "aims to accelerate development and adoption of SSL products to replace the common (60 watt) light bulb."  Philips was first company to enter a product in 2009 and we are all waiting for the final test results.  In the meantime, Philips recently announced that its 12.5 watt AmbientLED meets US DOE Energy Star criteria.  Lighting giants General Electric and Osram Sylvania are marketing their own lower-output versions of a screw-based LED light bulb that will soon equal the 60 watt incandescent.  Many other manufacturers, including big-name consumer electronics companies like Toshiba, are in the mix as well.

The future-fitting of existing table lamps, downlights, and all those medium-screw sockets is headed toward affordable LED light bulbs, despite the fact that this isn't the best application or mass-reduction strategy for that technology.  But it is generating consumer excitement for LEDs.  My role as a lighting designer is to steer more advanced projects toward products that take advantage of the inherent material and energy efficiency of solid state lighting.  While nostalgia will likely keep those medium screw sockets in our homes for decades to come, the challenge for the LED lighting industry is to make a new generation of luminous products so cool that consumers jump onto more optimal ways to use this technology.  Stay tuned.

Updated July 2013

Despite my grumpy concern for “nostalgic”  medium-screw based LED retrofit lamps way back in 2011, I am impressed with the convenience, availability, appearance, color quality, output, and low cost of Cree’s 800 lumen, 9.5 watt, warm-white, 25,000 hour, Made in the USA, mercury-free, 60 watt equivalent, basic light bulb. It is a familiar shape with instant-on and dimmable operation at cost comparable to CFLs make this an easy bit of nostalgia I can indulge.



Performance vs. Efficiency: dMASS thinking for better design

When you design something from the standpoint of benefits, or function, you are much more likely to come up with a solution that performs better, not just something that’s more efficient. 

A friend just forwarded me an article about Aviointeriors' new "stand-up" airplane seat.  The design requires people to lean or stand in a partially reclined position on relatively short flights (up to four hours).  It decreases the amount of horizontal space required per person from 31" to 23".  Airlines would be able to get more people on a plane, save fuel use per passenger, and reduce the number of planes required.  When my friend asked me if this was an example of dMASS, I said, "No!"  But it does provide a good opportunity to explain this central principle: dMass is not the same as efficiency

dMASS is about improving the ratio of value to mass.  More value delivered with less mass.  dMASS can be a means to achieve efficiency, but rarely to optimize it.  It can also be a great way to improve profits, but not necessarily to maximize them.  dMASS is about performance, and performance is about delivering what matters to people who need it.  

How might a designer approach this situation differently and come up with a solution that performs better?  The simplest answer is to design for the whole system.  You might look at the largest system in this case - transportation - and think about better alternatives for transporting people over medium distances.  The least-mass solution is not moving people at all.  Instead, I would focus on enabling people to transfer data and ideas to others, trying to minimize the gap between telecommunications and face-to-face interaction, and making the benefits of face-to-face over virtual interaction negligible compared to the costs.  I regularly work with colleagues in Europe, the Middle East, and North America through Skype and online tools like Central Desktop, something that's occurring on a scale barely imaginable 20 years ago. 

Of course, there are other reasons we travel.  When we do, we benefit from better design.  dMASS thinking requires considering multiple criteria.  A plane should be fast, safe, fuel efficient, and at least reasonably comfortable.  Engineers need to look at the whole and design for all of these factors.  We tend to falter when we take one piece out of something and focus on one criterion.  In this case, it was looking at just seats and space.  The seat design also just seemed to consider one customer - the airline buying seats.  But there's another customer - the person buying a ticket to sit in a seat.  People will put up with a lot of discomfort in order to get to their destination a little more cheaply, but we all have our limits. 

If you're designing a component that's part of a larger system, you still have to consider multiple criteria.  An airline seat that's more like the new Herman Miller chair could be more comfortable, safer, waste less room for padding, and weigh much less, saving fuel. 

When we ask "How can we make something more efficient?" I think the tendency is to get stuck in a box, tweaking the existing design and sometimes making it worse.  Instead, we should be asking "How can we deliver the same or better benefits using fewer resources?"  When you think of something from the standpoint of benefits, or function, you are much more likely to come up with a solution that performs better, not just something that's more efficient.