Sustainable cities require sustainable communities as well as care for the environment. Brazilian architect, Jorge Mario Jauregui has been working in Rio de Janiero for the last fifteen years to use his skills as an architect to bring infrastructure and community facilities to the informal communities throughout the city known as favelas. Favelas, which house about 20% of the city’s population, have been growing in pockets of unclaimed land throughout the city for the past 100 years. However, since unplanned and originally unsanctioned by the government, these communities lack infrastructure and public social spaces.
Jorge has coined the phrase “favela-barrio” to describe his approach to urban design in the favelas. Literally translated as ‘slum-neighborhood’, it expresses the idea that these informal developments, or shanty towns, are here to stay and are thriving communities; and with some infrastructure and public space can be transformed into neighborhoods. Jorge envisions the potential of the existing network of paths and roads. His architectural interventions involve providing basic services such as water, electricity, and footpaths, and often incorporate the creation of facilities that promote interaction in the form of recreational and community centers. The structures proposed and built by Jorge’s firm are bold and iconic, creating a strong sense of place.
In a project currently underway, Jorge is creating public space in the Manguinhos favela on existing train tracks that bound the community on one side. These train tracks will be elevated and the space below will become a linear park, defined by the conjugation of spaces, activites, buildings and vegetation. Facilities in the park will include sport, cultural, and income generating facilities, with a focus on providing children and teenagers with alternative attractions that will integrate them into the community. The space will also incorporate a new public transportation hub.
This new metropolitan park will be an articulator, attracting favela residents as well as a larger public from the surrounding communities. As an integrated public space it eliminates the existing barrier and transforms the space from divider to connector. By directly intervening at the physical boundary of the favela, Jorge is directly confronting the deeper socio-economic divide that has plagued the city for decades.
Read more on Jorge’s website at: http://www.jauregui.arq.br/
Bridgett Shank works at Feldman Architecture. She had the opportunity to work with Jorge Jauregui in Rio De Janiero.
Those people who want energy efficiency but are turned off by the compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) that they are finding at their local home stores should take a look at cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs). They come in the shapes that we all use, such as household bulbs, flame tip and globe; and are available in numerous color temperatures. My personal favorite color is the 2250K.
The household bulb version of this lamp is the Micro-Brite by Litetronics (www.litetronics.com) is the MB-801DL-2250K, which is a beautiful warm incandescent yellow. These dim with a standard incandescent dimmer and have close to full range dimming capabilities. They last from 18,000 to 25,000 hours and retail for around $12.00; saving from $33.00 to $73.00 in energy costs over the life of the bulb. They can be purchased on-line at such websites as www.1000bulbs.com.
A note about the accompanying images- The CCFLs pictured here have clear glass envelopes to show what is going on inside but are available with white glass envelopes as well, so that they look like their incandescent counterparts.
CCFLs come in the most popular sizes
- This CCFL globe light shows the warm color
- This sconce uses an 8-watt CCFL
- This six foot pendant uses (3) 8-watt CCFLs
To get more tips on lighting or to learn more about our services go to www.randallwhitehead.com
Randall Whitehead IALD is an internationally known architectural lighting designer, based in San Francisco. He is not only a prolific author, but an enlightening and humorous speaker on the world of design as well. His work has appeared in Architectural Digest, Art & Antiques, House Beautiful, Kiplinger’s, Horticulture Magazine, Designs for Living, Metropolitan Home, Better Homes & Gardens, The Journal of Light Construction and many more.
Randall appears regularly as a guest expert on the Discovery Channel, CNN, HGTV and Martha Stewart Living Radio. He also writes a monthly column called “The Last Word in Lighting” for Residential Lighting Magazine, answering homeowner’s and designer’s questions on lighting.
Randall has written 7 books on the subject, including Residential Lighting, A Guide to Beautiful and Sustainable Design which is an informative…and entertaining reference book for home and garden lighting.
His latest endeavor takes him back to his photography roots. It is a compelling collection of images called Lost Dolls, The Hidden Lives of Toys.
Green Building Practitioners are noticing three trends that, while not new concerns, truly speak of the momentum gathering within the sustainable design movement. One is the issue of water scarcity, second is the issue of environmental chemicals emitted by and residing in our built environment and third is the interest in adding the component of social justice to our battery of integrated building design strategies. I see these three paths as critical components of a broadening new way of practice.
At GreenBuild last month, I attended several sessions given by lawyers, educators, builders, planners, engineers and architects on the issues of water efficiency and maximization. Some common themes surfaced throughout the presentations. Most salient were:
The relationship of water and energy. Known as “watergy” or “embedded water,” it is interesting to note that treating and conveying water is not only the most expensive component of the cost of water, but also the most energy intensive. We must start to connect our water use policy with our energy policy and to find more energy efficient ways to deliver water to and within buildings.
The end of landscaping.Solutions to current water scarcity involve incorporating at least 50% of appropriate, climate adaptive plant species as part of the landscape and providing alternative means of irrigation through captured rainwater and stormwater and building-issued greywater. Municipal water should be thought of as a supplementary, rather than primary, source. The era of the fantasy landscape is over.
We must stop using drinking water to flush waste. Other sources water are on site greywater, rainwater, municipal reclaimed water, mechanical water (from blow-down or condensate) and blackwater.
Centralized wastewater treatment is wasteful and inefficient. Wastewater treatment plants need to be localized, even to the neighborhood scale. They should be thought of as a source of renewable resources, as they offer opportunities to harvest nutrients such as ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorous rather than expend dollars on their removal and disposal. Our infrastructure needs to be re-vamped from a combined sewer system to a split wastewater/stormwater management system. Because wastewater is electron-rich, it is also time to start thinking of wastewater treatment plants as sources of energy.
What does this mean to green designers? It means that landscape designers need to concentrate on species selection and water infiltration. An example of this “spread and infiltrate” strategy is to divert runoff to a series of tree planting basins or rain gardens. For architects and builders, this means a new way of assessing how we convey water to, in and around buildings. Is the building a treatment facility? Has a water budget (catchment area multiplied the amount of rainfall) and water footprint been calculated? How do we design to make conservation easier for the user?
rainwater harvestingrainwater tank
Barriers:Several barriers compound the challenging issue of maximizing water efficiency. Water prices are artificially low, thus stymying innovative technologies. Another barrier is the apprehension about using greywater indoors due to insufficient treatment of potential contaminants. Last, current rating systems do not consider water issues as a whole. LEED splits water credits into two categories of credits, sustainable site and water efficiency. Rating systems should focus on more than just fixture selection, irrigation controls and stormwater diversion. It’s time to think of water design on the community level, as holistic, land-based management, as a watershed, that will steer building design, community design and infrastructure planning to a greener, more water-abundant future.
Marian Keeler, Assoc. AIA, LEEP AP is the author of Fundamentals of Integrated Design for Sustainable Buildings, Wiley, 2009.
It’s Saturday morning laundry time. The washer spins and shakes, clothes are cleaned while the dirty water flows outside to irrigate fruit trees. There’s something satisfying about this
simple shift: a slight change in a mundane chore has reduced water consumption, taken a load off the sewer treatment plant, promoted food security, and saved time and money.
Over the past few decades reusing water from showers, sinks, and washing machines, called greywater reuse, was mainly embraced by the “do-it-yourself” community. Handy people rerouted their pipes, diverting this resource away from sewers and septic systems, out to trees, bushes, and other landscaping. Though popular, all this was technically “illegal”, surprising in a state like California, fraught with drought, water rationing, and proposals to spend billions of dollars on new dam construction.
Greywater use is regulated by the state plumbing code, which historically was very restrictive and made it overly expensive or outright impossible for people to get permits for greywater. This resulted in almost zero compliance of the code (of the estimated millions of greywater users in the state, there were only a few hundred permits), a lack of professional installers, and a huge amount of misinformation about the best ways to reuse greywater.
In 2008, Alan Lowenthal, a State senator from Long Beach, CA, wrote a “Shower to Flower” bill (SB 1258) that mandated a code rewrite of the old greywater code, moving regulatory power from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). HCD convened a series of stakeholder’s meetings to gain input from greywater experts, health departments, building departments, water districts, and other concerned citizens, as well as analyzed existing studies and codes on greywater.
Recipe for a code change:
* 3 stakeholders meetings in Sacramento
* hundreds of letters, emails, and phone calls in support of a friendly greywater code *drought
* increased water rates
* mandatory water rationing in many districts
*extensive time and research from HCD staff
*greywater friendly codes examples in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico
*media coverage of greywater success stories
*green job potential
Mix ingredients together during a time of “drought emergency”, sprinkle a few newspaper articles about people successfully (yet illegally) saving thousands of gallons of water with simple, safe systems, add a dash of green jobs potential in a failing economy,
season with forward thinking individuals in charge of the process.
Results: A new greywater friendly code
The new code removed barriers for simple, low cost greywater systems. Now washing machine systems do not require a permit, only compliance with state-published guidelines, and no inspection. Permits are still required for systems that alter existing plumbing, larger systems, and the section of code governing indoor reuse is not complete.
Gardens are flourishing
The biggest effect of statewide greywater reuse, aside from the happy plants, will be the ability of professionals to incorporate greywater into their business Landscapers like, Deva Luna from Earthcare landscaping in San Jose (www.earthcareland.com), offers greywater to clients. Other gardeners like David Mudge from David Mudge’s Gardens in Martinez, California, use greywater as part of sustainable permaculture design practices.
a greywater garden
The greywater goes out of the house through the floor and travels across the crawl space underneath the house. The auto-vent is inside the house since it needs to be at the high point of the greywater line.
Our water future
While greywater policy advances, California water policies lag behind. State government and local water districts continue to seek out unsustainable sources of water; from destructive new dams, overdrawing from rivers and ground water, costly desalination plants, and expensive recycled water. As regulatory barriers are removed, decision makers need to include and promote sustainable practices such as greywater reuse, rainwater harvesting, and waterless toilets as a path to a sustainable water future.
There are a few things people could do.
1. Write a thank you note to HCD for the new code: James Rowland email@example.com
2. Write to the local building department/inspectors/city council telling them how happy you are that it’s easier to install legal greywater systems and encourage them to support greywater use. (possibly by promoting it with education, demonstration projects, information on their websites, etc.
Laura is a founder of Greywater Action and has spent a decade exploring low-tech, urban sustainable water solutions. She has a BA in Environmental Science, a teaching credential and a masters in education from New College of CA. She is a co-editor of the anthology Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground
Greywater Action offers presentations and hands-on classes on sustainable water use technologies. See www.greywateraction.org for more info.
- Grant Street house
Most buildings leak air, and therefore heat, through cracks in their building envelope. We get cold in our leaky buildings and turn up our heaters to keep warm. The heat continues to leak out, and we continue to turn up our heaters, and on and on the cycle goes. In the end, we may as well be burning our money to keep warm. Our building systems clearly aren’t working as well as they should for us or for the environment, which begs the question: Why aren’t we doing more to change this trend?
Actually, some of us are. Slowly but surely, people are building Passive Houses that use around 80% less energy, while keeping us warmer and more comfortable than drafty, conventional homes do. But even this is not enough.
It is critical that Architects, designers and builders begin applying the Passive House Standard during the design stages of their projects. Just as engineers must predict how buildings will survive earthquakes, designers should be using energy modeling tools to predict the energy consumption of buildings before they are ever built.
One of the most valuable tools to emerge from the Passive House Standard is an energy modeling tool called the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), which for years has accurately predicted the energy needs of hundreds of Passive Houses built in Europe.
It makes the most sense to design with Passive House concepts in mind in the design phase of a new building, when it is easiest to accomplish, however it is also possible to apply these concepts to existing homes if a major remodel is in the works. The key areas most important to achieving a Passive House are:
BUILDING ENVELOPE & AIR-TIGHTNESS: The strategy is to focus first on the building envelope so that it optimizes heat gains and minimizes heat losses. The insulation system should be continuous from the bottom of the foundation to the top of the envelope. A designated layer should be continuous from top to bottom in order to achieve air-tightness.
FRAMING: The framing system should conform to all the structural requirements and be designed using Advanced Framing Techniques that eliminate unnecessary wood members and replace them with insulation.
DOORS & WINDOWS: The specified performance of the doors and windows, and their installation methods, should be synchronized with the climate requirements, as well as the orientation and design of the building envelope in order to optimize heat gains and minimize losses.
VENTILATION: A ventilation system with a heat recovery component should be installed to circulate fresh air 24 hours a day, while transferring the heat from stale outgoing air to fresh incoming air. Free heat generated from lighting, computers, household appliances and people is recycled so we don’t have to blast our heaters to keep warm.
- heat exchanger graphic
After follwing these design and construction strategies, every building designed to the Passive House Standard is comfortable, sustainable, and requires far less energy to run than a conventional home. Our Grant Street home in Berkeley, CA was the first residential retrofit project in the US with the goal of meeting Passive House Standards.
Grant Street house AFTER
- Grant Street house BEFORE
- front elevation close-up
- front door
- back cantilever
- Grant Street house cabinetry
- Grant House kitchen
To find out more about Passive House standards and the success of our remodel, visit our website at www.bautechnologies.com or contact us at 415.526.2777.
Peter Rich of Peter Rich Architects in South Africa has dedicated his career to the service of the less privileged. His projects include low-income housing, community centers and children’s facilities. The Mapungubwe Interpretation Center in Limpopo, South Africa, a project recently completed, looks to the local culture and ecology for its design inspiration. Situated in the site of an ancient trading civilization at the confluence of the Pimpopo and Shashe rivers the in Mapungubwe National Park, the building houses artifacts from the region’s early pre-historic civilizations and reflects the complex natural landscape around it in both form and materiality.
Employing parabolic curves made from locally sourced and fabricated rammed earth bricks, the resulting structure is both elegant and sustainable. Rich worked with local residents during the design and construction process, teaching them how to manufacture the stabilized earth tiles and how to construct the vaults and arches. These vaults, called Timbrel vaults, create a composition of light, billowing forms that seem to peel away from the structures below, revealing the history inside. The building is contained by two hollow cairns, which are reminiscent of the route-markers found in the native South African cultures of the region.
The building, both in its creation and in its final end use is deeply rooted in its site both culturally and physically. The center is meant to not only display the cultural history of the site, but also to elicit a better understanding for the vulnerability of the local ecology. The building has been nominated for several awards including the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction in 2008. The structure won the World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, 2009, being praised by the jury for its ‘hand-crafted intelligence, use of local materials’ and the way it “handled issues of sustainability and its relationship to the landscape, responding to vernacular African styles’.
Plus Energy Settlement Weiz, Germany architect: Erwin Kaltenegger photo: Gunter Lang
- photo: Binder Holz
photo: Binder Holz
The San Francisco Bay Area is rich with examples of Green Architecture, and is arguably on the forefront of the green building movement. Many people here have heard of the Passive House Standard, but not many really know what it is or how it works.
In essence the term “passive house” represents the idea that these houses do not need to rely on large, conventional heating systems that require lots of energy to provide heat. Instead they passively recycle the free heat generated from sunlight and activities within the home, and are supplemented by smaller heating systems that require far less energy to run. Turning lights on, running the refrigerator, cooking, using a computer, and the people provide a constant source of free heat. This heat is contained inside the building envelope and is recycled by transferring it from outgoing stale air to incoming fresh air through a heat recovery ventilator. The houses are so well insulated and air-tight, that warm air does not escape through the building envelope and cold air isn’t allowed to creep in.
If you compare a Passive House with a conventional home, a Passive House is up to 80% more energy efficiennt, indoor air quality is superior, and the buildings themselves are more comfortable to live in since the temperature does not fluctuate.
It is critical that we start applying t he Passive House concept before relying on alternative energy sources such as solar or wind energy. Think of it this way: only using solar power as a remedy against energy waste is similar to resolving the problem of a leaky gas tank by ignoring the leak and filling up with biofuel instead of gasoline. It might make us feel better, but it doesn’t change the fact that our gas tanks are leaking and energy is being waster. They help, but ignore the core problem, which is our buildings are energy hogs.
Here in the Bay Area, where our climate is relatively mild, it is one of the easiest places to reach Passive House standards. We have no excuse for building structures that waste heat and require us to turn on our heaters. In summer, we can turn off the heat-recovery ventilator and throw open the windows and doors to enjoy the nice weather. In winter, the mechanical heat-recovery ventilator can be used to allow the building to “breathe” without wasting energy. Fresh, filtered air is circulated 24 hours a day, resulting in better indoor air quality and energy efficiency.
Buildings are responsible for 40% of all energy consumed and Green House Gas emissions. Clearly, the building sector needs to reverse this trend to avoid the possible catastrophic consequences of climate change. The best way to achieve this is through energy efficiency. The Passive House Standard has been tested throughout Europe over the last 15 years and is a proven strategy. Researching this standard and adapting this know-how and experience to our building industry is the fastest path to designing and building projects that perform to higher standards of energy efficiency, comfort and improved indoor air quality.
photo: Internorm Windows
photo: Internorm Windows
Nabih Tahan, AIA, MRAI is a licensed architect who returned to Berkeley from Austria to remodel his home while demonstrating sustainable design and construction techniques being used in Europe. He is the founder and a principal of BauTechnologies.
For a few weeks in the fall the Solar Decathlon will transform the Mall in Washington D.C., stretching out before the Capitol Building into a laboratory for Green Architecture. The competition, sponsored by the US Department of Energy, brings students from around the world together to test the houses that they have designed, built, shipped and reassembled themselves. These houses represent the latest innovations in technology and the best and brightest design talent.
photo: Annessa Mattson
Each successive Decathlon brings stiffer competition. This is the fourth time the event has run and this year we are impressed by the waves of innovation not only in sustainable building practices, but in aesthetics. Green architecture does not mean ugly architecture after all! Team California brought home the Best in Architecture for their 800 square foot home that is as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside.
photo: Annessa Mattsonphoto: Annessa Mattson
photo: Annessa Mattson
From the drawing board to the flashing details, the architecture and engineering teams were working hard to ensure the design intent came through in the finished product. The team, comprised of undergraduate architecture students from California College of the Arts and engineering students from Santa Clara University, has been working for a full year to design and build their house. Like all truly green architecture the house is designed specifically to suit the climate where it will ultimately reside in Northern California. Green features include passive solar design with maximized south facing glazing; a 8.1-kW photovoltaic system on the roof with panels that are integrated into the architecture; a radiant floor and ceiling system that both heats and cools the home; a seasonal greywater pond that feeds the landscape, including an edible garden terrace; and materials and lighting chosen with careful consideration to embodied energy and lifecycle.
photo: Annessa Mattson
- photo: Annessa Mattson
It’s not often that architecture students are challenged to actually build what they’ve put onto paper. The engineers were a critical part of the team, helping the architecture students to problem solve as the construction began. The house was constructed over a course of 9 months on Santa Clara’s campus. The end result of the collaborative effort is quite stunning.
The design allowed for the building to break apart into three pieces and be loaded onto trucks for the long ride to Washington DC for the big event. On the mall the house had to be pieced together, and all the finishing touches re-applied to ready the house for the throngs of visitors who descend upon the mall to tour the houses.
photo: Annessa Mattsonphoto: Annessa Mattson
photo: Annessa Mattson
- photo: Annessa Mattson
The houses were judged in 10 areas including Architecture, Engineering, Market Viability, Net Metering (energy production vs. consumption), and Communications. All of the scores from each contest are totaled for the overall Decathlon winner. This year’s winner is Team Germany, with Illinois, and Team California close on their heels. Team California took home first in the Architecture and Communications categories and second place in Engineering. Congratulations, Team California, and thank you for showing us how beautiful green architecture can be.
photo: Annessa Mattson
Photo: Stefano Paltera/US Deptartment of Energy Solar Decathlon
photo: Emily Hagopian (www.EmilyHagopian.com)
As architects, we weave the complexities of program, design, regulations, technology, budget and fee, while managing clients, projects, and liability. Proposed changes to our workflow frequently interrupt our momentum. Changes to our design process that seem burdensome ultimately transform our work and improve our buildings. The process of commissioning is new to many of us, and we are finally learning how to make it an effective design tool.
USGBC introduced commissioning to us by way of LEED-NC EA prerequisite 1: Fundamental Commissioning, and EA credit 3: Enhanced Commissioning. For most of us, our first question was, ”What is commissioning?” Fortunately there are several resources and industry experts, who are helping us understand this improvement and clarification to our evolving design process.
Let’s start with some definitions:
Building commissioning (Cx) provides documented confirmation that all building systems, including mechanical, electrical, lighting and controls function according to criteria set forth in the project documents to satisfy the owner’s operational needs.
A commissioning agent (CxA) typically provides commissioning services as a consultant to the owner. On some LEED projects the CxA is hired by the architect.
There are several documents that must be sequentially produced in order to satisfy LEED requirements:
Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR): Produced by Owner with Design Team & CxA assistance
Basis of Design (BOD): Produced by Design Team with CxA assistance
Commissioning Specifications: By Architect/Spec Writer with CxA/ LEED Consultant assistance
Commissioning Plan: Produced by Contractor with CxA assistance
Installation Verification & Performance Testing: By CxA & Installing contractors
O&M Staff Training: By Installing Contractors & CxA
Building Manual: By General Constractor with CxA assistance
Summary Report: By CxA
The intent of the commissioning process is to create the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) along with the program during pre-design. Unfortunately, most projects are well into design development or construction documents before a LEED consultant is hired and the commissioning process begins. So, ultimately the OPR is merely an exercise to satisfy LEED rather than being a useful design tool.
In an “integrated design” process, commissioning begins during pre-design. Architects must coach their clients to complete the OPR during pre-design. Once the OPR is created, then the design team, led by the architect and engineers with the assistance of the CxA (or LEED consultant on small projects), produces the Basis of Design (BOD). From the BOD flows the project specifications, which require a commissioning section in addition to a LEED requirements section. As the design changes, the OPR and BOD should be updated to reflect those changes.
At the beginning of construction the contractor takes the lead by producing a Commissioning Plan, which is outlined in the specifications. The CxA will facilitate a pre-construction meeting with the installing contractors and engineers to establish expectations and ensure that the design intent and commissioning requirements are understood. The CxA will work with contractors during installation and start-up as required to meet LEED requirements. Performance tests and construction photos provide backup documentation, which must be available for audit by USGBC.
At the completion of construction a building manual will be produced by the contractor. O&M staff must be trained along with full time occupants of the facility. The CxA will produce a Commissioning Report, which summarizes the entire Cx process for the project. Frequently, this report is the last document uploaded into LEED online before the construction phase submittal to USGBC. Add another 5-8 weeks before the project received certification from USGBC.
We recommend the following resources for additional information and instruction:
EDR Commissioning Handbook & Online Templates www.energydesignresources.com
USGBC: Who Can Commission? www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=1262
Commissioning On Purpose, by Coleman & Coleman www.eeiengineers.com
US Dept. of Energy Building Toolbox www.eere.energy.gov
Commissioning Resources www.michaelheacock.com/toolslinks/commissioning.html
Michael Heacock + Associates is a LEED consulting firm with offices in San Francisco and Santa Barbara. Their work includes schools, commercial, public, institutional and residential projects.
The techniques of lighting have greatly evolved beyond simple table lamps and chandeliers, yet many homeowners have not updated their thinking much beyond this approach. So much of what we see in current design magazines and books are the ultra modern, ultra clean interiors. It’s true that progressive design is a hot topic, but it’s not for everyone. How does the owner of a more traditionally styled house make use of today’s lighting techniques? Can new lighting techniques be applied to non cutting edge spaces to enhance the sense of warmth and comfort that these cozy interiors inspire?
The answer is a resounding…yes
The trick is to keep the lighting upgrades subtle so that the decorative light sources can remain the architectural jewelry for a home. Chandeliers and table lamps are an important element to most all styles of residences. They are needed to provide the ambiance for a room without necessarily providing all the necessary illumination on their own. This applies outside of a home as well. Adding a layer of accent lights, hidden among the plantings, allows the lanterns at the front door and by the garage to provide the illusion of providing the main light without visually over powering the landscaping.
Sometimes residential lighting design takes a backseat to wondrous commercial projects as far as eye catching design goes. Lighting for homes needs to be more subtle than what goes into public spaces. A restaurant or theater project can dive headfirst into the realm of fantasy design. Patrons want to be transported to a place that is a different world than what they experience at home. Yet, when homeowners are in their personal spaces they want to be able to have various levels of functional illumination for the mundane, but ever so important tasks, that are a part of day-to-day living.
Lighting can be a tremendous force. It’s the one factor that makes all the other elements in design work together. Yet it has for so long been the last thing considered and the first item cut from budget. The result has left many homes drab, uncomfortable, and dark. Too often the blame goes elsewhere, when improper lighting is the true culprit. Becoming better acquainted with the components of good lighting will allow homeowners to communicate their needs more clearly with the sales staff in lighting showrooms and the contractors whom they have hired to do the installation.
Light has four specific duties. They are to provide decorative, accent, task, and ambient illumination. No one light source can perform all the functions of lighting required for a specific space. Understanding what these terms mean will help homeowners make better decisions that will integrate illumination into the overall design and give them what they want. Here is a description of these four functions that puts them into terms that can be easily understood by everyone involved:
Light fixtures such as chandeliers, candlestick-type wall sconces, and table lamps work best when they are used to create the sparkle for a room. They alone cannot adequately provide usable illumination for other functions without overpowering the rest of the design aspects of the space. I call them the supermodels of illuminations. Their only job is to look fantastic.
For example, a dining room, illuminated only by the chandelier over the table, creates a glare-bomb situation. As you crank up the dimmer to provide enough illumination to see your guests, the intensity of the light source causes everything to fall into secondary importance. This one supernova of uncomfortable bright light eclipses the wall color, the art, the carpeting, and especially the people sitting at the table.
By nature, any bright light source in a room or space immediately draws people’s attention. They won’t see all the other elements, no matter how beautiful or expertly designed. For example, linen shades on table lamps draw too much attention to themselves when they are the only light source in a room. Consider using a shade with an opaque liner and possible a perforated lid to help direct the illumination downwards over the base, the tabletop and across your lap for reading. We’ll cover this in a little more detail in the section on task lighting below.
Accent light is directed illumination that highlights objects within an environment. Light sources such as track and recessed adjustable fixtures are used to bring attention to art, sculpture, tabletops and plantings. Just like any of the four functions, accent light cannot be the only source of illumination in a room. If you use only accent light, you end up with the museum effect, where the art visually takes over the room, while the guests fall into darkness. Subconsciously, the people will feel that the art is more important than they are.
Good accent lighting thrives on subtlety. A focused beam of light directed at an orchid or highlighting an abstract painting above a primitive chest can create a marvelous effect. People won’t notice the light itself; they see only the object being illuminated. The lighting effect achieves its magic through its very invisibility.
In the movies, if we can tell how a special effect has been achieved, we feel cheated. We don’t want to know, because we want to think it’s magic. In lighting, it should be no less the case. We want to see the effects of light, but the method needs to remain unseen. That subtlety is what will give the design a cohesive wholeness, allowing the architecture, the furnishings and the landscape to become the focus in a particular space, not the decorative fixtures or the bulbs glaring out from within them.
This is illumination for performing work-related activities in the home, such as reading, cutting vegetables, and sorting laundry. The optimal task light is located between your head and your work surface. That’s why illumination coming from above isn’t a good source of task light, because your head casts a shadow onto your book, computer keyboard, or recipe book.
Table lamps with solid shades often do the very best job for casual reading, because they better direct the light and don’t visually overpower the room when turned up to the correct intensity for the job at hand. Fluorescent or incandescent linear shelf lights too, are a good source of task illumination at a desk with a shelf located above the work surface or in the kitchen when mounted under the overhead cabinets.
Ambient light is the soft, general illumination that fills the volume of a room with a glow of light, and softens the shadows on people’s faces. It is the most important of the four functions of light, but is often the one element that is left out of the design of a room or space.
The best ambient light comes from sources that bounce illumination off the ceiling and walls. Such light fixtures as opaque wall sconces, torches, indirect pendants and cove lighting can provide a subtle general illumination without drawing attention to the light source. You could call is the open-hearth effect, where the room seems to be filled with the light of a glowing fire.
Just filling a room with table lamps is not an adequate source of illumination. The space winds up looking like a lamp shade showroom. Let these lamps be a decorative source, creating little islands of light. Using opaque shades and perforated metal lids, as was mentioned earlier, can turn these fixtures into more effective reading lights (task lights) if that is their main purpose.
Utilizing other sources to provide the necessary ambient light lets the decorative fixtures create the illusion of illuminating the room, without dominating the design. This inclusion of an ambient light source works only if the ceiling is light in color. A rich plum colored ceiling in a Victorian-style dining room or a dark wooden ceiling in a cabin retreat would make indirect light sources ineffective, because the dark surfaces absorb light instead of reflecting it.
In situations such as these the solution may be to lighten the color of the ceiling. Yes, what I am saying here is that sometimes the answer is to alter the environment rather than change the light source. Instead of the whole ceiling being eggplant-colored, how about painting a wide border in that color with the rest of the ceiling done in a cream color or similar hue? A wooden ceiling could be washed with an opaque stain that gives it a more weathered look without taking away from the wood feel itself, as simple painting would do. In both cases, using a chandelier or pendant fixture with a hidden indirect source could provide the much needed ambient light while maintaining a traditional look.
Ambient light, too, just like the other three functions, should not be used by itself. What you end up with is the cloudy day effect, where everything is of the same value, without depth or dimension. Ambient light alone is a flat light. It is only one component of well-designed lighting.
Light layering, the bottom line
A lighting design is succecssful when these four functions of light are layered within a room to create a fully usable, adaptive space. Good lighting does not draw attention to itself, but to the other design aspects of the environment. An entryway, for example, desperately needs ambient and accent light, but may not need any task light, because no work is going to be done in the entry. However, there may be a coat closet, which would need some task-oriented illumination. The addition of a ceiling mounted decorative fixture helps set the tone for the rest of the house.
What we often see in various design magazines is a house lighted for entertaining only. It is a very dramatic, glitzy look. Every vase, painting, sculpture and ashtray glistens in its own pool of illumination. Yet, the seating area remains in darkness. What are these people going to do for light when they want to go through the mail, do their taxes, or put a puzzle together with their kids?
In reality, people entertain only part of the time. The rest of the time these rooms are used to do homework, clean, and interact with other family members or guests. This doesn’t mean that you should eliminate accent lighting. Just don’t make it the only option. Simply putting ambient light on one dimmer and accent lighting on another provides a whole range of illumination level settings. Don’t forget to add a layer of task light and decorative light to the mix as well.
If once the installation is done and someone walks in and says, “Oh, you put in track lighting, it means that hte lighting system itself is the first thing seen which kind of defeats the purpose. If they walk in and say, “You look great!” or “Is that a new painting?” then you know the lighting is successfully integrated into the overall room design and that you have done a good job.
photo: Dennis Anderson
This family room uses a pendant fixture by Lightspann to offer both decorative and ambient light, while recessed adjustable low voltage fixtures by Lucifer Lighting add a layer of accent lighting.
photo: Dennis Anderson
This beautiful alabaster pendant by JH Lighting draws people to the table while adding a wonderful glow of flattering indirect lighting. Recessed low voltage fixtures by Lucifer lighting add a visual punch to the art.
photo: Dennis Anderson
Pendant fixtures by Lightspann help create a more human scale for this living room. Low voltage tracks, mounted along the apex beam, create the much needed accent lighting.
photo: Dennis Anderson
A series of four fluorescent pendants by Flos give both fill lighting and a decorative element to this kitchen. Warm colored fluorescent puck lights by Tresco International provide task lighting along the countertops.
photo: Dennis Anderson
Subtle lighting from above creates a dappled pattern of light and shadow for this intimate garden.
Randall Whitehead has written seven books on the subject of lighting design. His latest book is Residential Lighting, A Guide to Beautiful and Sustainable Design. All of Randall’s books can be ordered at Book Masters by calling 800.247.6553 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org. Samples of his work, books, and video clips can be seen on his website www.randallwhitehead.com.