The decades’ long journey to modern office lighting

THIS WEEK the judges in the 2018 Lux Awards are sitting down to consider the entries in the office lighting category.

They’ll sift through submissions; cogitate, debate and argue; make site visits across the UK to assess projects; and finally make a decision as to who has prevailed.

While we admire these state-of-the-art projects, it’s worth remembering that the modern office lighting we take for granted didn’t evolve in a vacuum, but came into being shaped by past technologies and techniques.

Modern office lighting as we recognise it began in the 1920s and 1930s, when an apparent link between lighting and productivity was established. Experts at the time argued that brighter lights would increase productivity and more than offset the increased energy costs

1950s: A typing pool with suspended fluorescent luminaires. Fluorescent boomed during the war and in the post-war period. Picture: Seattle Municipal Archives

But it was the introduction of the fluorescent lamp in 1939 that really revolutionised office lighting, and went on to dominate the sector until very recently.

Early fluorescents provided more than twice as much illumination per watt as incandescent lamps. Some utilities even hesitated to promote fluorescent lights, fearing that the demand for electricity might suffer.

World War II made the question irrelevant as fluorescent tubes were installed by the thousands in new war plants. After the war, fluorescents came to dominate offices. However, when the energy crisis hit in the early 1970s, the adoption of fluorescent stalled despite an improved in efficiency from 40 lumens per watt to about 70.

1960s: A combination of specially-cut plastic diffusers and fluorescent tubes led to a creative low-glare solution for the control centre of Seattle City Light & Power Company’s in a 1968 installation. Picture: Seattle Municipal Archives

When electricity prices climbed, many building managers simply began yanking out fluorescent tubes, which usually disabled the entire fixture.

This cut energy costs, but disrupted the lighting design. In some buildings, corridors took on the air of tunnels, and offices grew steadily dimmer or settled for zones of light and shadow.

As less efficient tubes burned out, they gave way to more efficient replacements. But fluorescent tubes are part of a lighting system, and one part of that system - the ballast - had changed little and was a major expense.

1970s: The headquarters of the Halifax Building Society in a ground-breaking 1974 design by BDP which saw the services and lighting integrated into the structure. Pic: BDP

It was only when the American Department of Energy stepped in to sponsor research on electronic ballasts that things began to change. By driving lamps at higher frequencies, electronic ballasts made fluorescents more efficient, and allowed them to be more easily controlled with dimmers.

After the fluorescent came the compact fluorescent, developed by a team at Philips Lighting in the Netherlands. The CFL, as it’s known, became a major technical factor in making commercial lighting much more energy efficient.

But in the 1980s, things took a turn for the worse when the UK lighting industry took alarm at the growth of what was then called ‘visual display units’. Because the screens were typically black with green text (which you still see in some films!) the possibility of ‘veiling reflections’ became a major issue.

1980s: The arrival of ‘visual display units’ sparked fear of veiling reflections and led to the creation of the heavily-louvred Cat 2 luminaire, and the attendant ‘cave effect’. Pic: Carl Gardner

The result was the introduction of the heavily-louvred Cat 2 luminaire, which the manufacturers sold by the shed load. The result was a gloomy mixture of dark ceilings and dark walls dubbed the ‘cave effect’.

But then Microsoft Windows came in and suddenly no-one cared about veiling reflections anymore – but the sale of Cat 2 luminaires continued.

During the 1990s and 2000s, some designers, engineers, and trade groups began to recommend lower lighting levels than the standard 500 lux on the working plane.

1990s: This inventive indirect lighting scheme at the London headquarters of JP Morgan was created by BDP in 1991. Pic: BDP

Additionally, many designers moved away from the blanket of light approach to ‘task lighting’, which puts light just where it's needed.

Furthermore, a more sophisticated use of natural light in designs also helped to save energy. New computer programmes let designers explore new options for creating effective and economical commercial lighting.

LEDs arrived in the office earlier this decade. In 2010, the trading floor of the Nomura Investment Bank in London became the largest LED office lighting installation in the world.

2000s: In the new century, offices started to get playful – and so did the lighting. This is Amigo Loans in Bournemouth to a lighting design by Michael Grubb Studio. Pic: Mike Massaro

The trend saw diffuser panels replace louvres and the introduction of long linear runs of LEDs, something that was difficult to do with fluorescents elegantly.

The advent of LEDs coincided with the influence of tech companies, whose offices boasted colourful and playful interiors designed to attract and retain the young and talented.

Corporates, too, got in on the act but instead took boutiques hotels as their cue, with the result that shaded pendants and freestanding designer lights all began appearing in the accounts and human resources department. Today, pretty much anything goes and the lighting, as ever, playing a crucial role.

2010s: The decade LEDs arrived. In 2010, the trading floor of the Nomura Investment Bank in London became the largest LED office lighting installation in the world. The design is by Meit Associates. Pic: Wila Lighting
  • Learn more about office lighting at the free-to-attend Lighting for Workplace and Wellbeing conference which takes place on Thursday 15 November at LuxLive 2018 at London ExCeL. The show itself runs on both Wednesday 14 November and Thursday 15 November 2018. Entry is free. To view the full programme of the Lighting for Workplace and Wellbeing conference, click HERE.

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