Lighting’s dirty secret

I’m bored by office lighting. Soooo bored. I’m writing this under a regimented array of fluorescent luminaires and I bet you’re reading this under a similar array.

"This supposed standard for office lighting was a big mistake. A screw-up. It’s the lighting industry’s dirty secret."

Perhaps you drew the short straw and are basking beneath a 2.4 x 1.8m grid of recessed 600 x 600 modulars. Someone told you it was ‘compliant’. Maybe you inherited it when you moved in. The developer had it installed because the letting agent expected it. Someone ticked a bloody box. Job done. Best practice and all that.

Well, let me let you into a secret. This supposed standard for office lighting was a big mistake. A screw-up. It’s the lighting industry’s dirty secret.

The heavily louvred Cat 2 luminaire design was brought in allegedly to deal with ‘veiling reflections’ on computer screens, but then Microsoft Windows came in and it didn’t matter anymore. The industry brought it in too late. But do you know what? No-one cared. Because manufacturers were selling shed-loads of Cat 2. No office in the land was immune. No-one gets out of here feeling alive.

So we’ve ended up with offices where the ceilings and the upper third of the walls are dark. And people look like zombies. Good work, guys.

It’s taking decades, nay generations to deal with this legacy. But the industry has come up with another wheeze: let’s sell ‘em all the same stuff but with LED panels instead. Great.

So why do we subject poor employees to such terrible lighting? Do we hate them that much? Everyone gets the same 400 lx on the working plane, all day every day, all their working lives. Christ, is this the best we can do?

Ikea had a campaign a few years that urged us to ‘chuck out our chintz’. We need one to ‘lose the louvres’. Here’s the thing: there’s no law that says you have to use recessed fluorescents. Really, there isn’t. You can use pendants! Paper shades! Chinese bloody lanterns! No one’s going to shop you to The Man.

"Everyone gets the same 400 lx on the working plane, all day every day, all their working lives. Christ, is this the best we can do?" 

You don’t see design practices working under a fluorescent array. Dear me no. They know better. They have task lights, because they are grown-ups when it comes to lighting. And they’re not afraid of The Man.

They don’t worry about their employees stealing an Artemide Tizio by smuggling it home in their Crumpler courier bag, because they have more respect for them. And they realise that different workers have different light requirements.

Older people may require three or four times what a 20-year-old needs. So why do you give everyone the same? Oh yes, because it’s in the regs. Which it isn’t, but hey I don’t want to nitpick.

I’ve been fortunate to have been a judge in the Lux Awards in recent years, which is great because you get to rock up at a lighting project and ask all sorts of awkward questions and take measurements and generally be a nuisance. The office projects are the most amusing, because the judging team is invariably directed to the artful arrangement of Tom Dixon pendants above the reception desk or the custom Dale Chihuly creation above the boardroom table, never to the desks where people actually work, because then we’d see that they spent all of £5 on panels so everyone gets 400 lx on their working planes because that’s what The Man says they should get when he wrote The Regs, innit.

OK, here’s a few simple things everyone can do to improve their offices: first, paint your walls with colour, and then light them. Your mantra should be ‘light the walls, not the floor’. There are posh phrases for this such as ‘vertical planar illumination’ and ‘vertical exitance’ and if you are interested you can read cheerful research on the internet telling you why this is a Good Thing.

Next, light the ceiling with some form of uplighting. That’s the kind of light we have evolved under.

Cut lighting down on walkways – you don’t need it, whatever anyone tells you.

Finally, give everyone who wants one a task light. Doesn’t have to expensive. A recent award-winning project used ones from Ikea.

And next time you move to a new office, promise yourself you’ll get a designer in. They’re worth it.