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.

Comments 28

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Bemusing…to be enlightened “after the fact”!!! Fortunately, even though the mighty trough has been re-engineered umpteen times and is almost unrecognizable from its humble beginnings dressed in serious trimmings (i.e. Motion Detectors, Lux Sensors, DALI Gear) and bench marked as “the” accepted norm in commercial buildings, modern architectural concepts and the evolution of materials and new ideas has given rise to more interesting forms of illuminating an office interior causing a stir to wonder if lighting design is more an art form than a regimental process of keeping to code. However, a most welcome observation.

Well said Sir. I'm an electrical consultant with a passion for lighting and despite what many believe we are not all the same. Haven't done a regular 'array' out of a computer for decades.

Please enlighten me on which Lighting Design consultants actually work on offices with ceilings like that in the picture? Low value office spaces are usually left to the manufacturers technical departments and even they can be bypassed and calculations provided by the electrical contractors and engineers. I can assure you that manufacturers desperately try to push the advantages of EN12464 - for energy efficiency and for a more interesting lit space but they have to first and foremost make the electrical engineers/consultants happy- which still means 400 lux and 'good' uniformity. Try telling electrical consultants to 'mix it up a bit' when they are on the legal back foot everyday. The type of office spaces you're talking about in your article are low budget and refurbs. There is no budget for a designer, be it lighting or interior. They are stuck with a rented space with a permanent, fussy and atrocious suspended ceiling. When someone waves an LED panel under the contractors nose they can impress their client with the energy reductions and make a few quid from the initial higher purchase price. If you're talking high end office design, then of course the collaborative process between interior and lighting designers gives you something special - a tailored solution just like if you'd ask an architect to design your home refurb instead of the building contractor.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde "consistent lighting is the refuge of the unimaginative". And I too think your article is superb because it echoes my own deeply-held sentiments. Blending LED, OLED and ??? sources and luminaires from the workplane upwards will cure us of our autonomic conformance to ceiling grid lighting. Technology and the freshest generations of users will work in concert to drive eclectic office lighting forward. We love to control our environment.

Fantastic Idea ! Tell that to the Electrical Consultants that write generic specifications copied from the last project, Quoting CIBSE Guide this, EN number that, UGR this, CRI that LG5, LG6 energy this Led that They have no idea what it all means, but they can use this against the Design & Build Contractor if they want to prove their worth. We have been designing projects for over 20 years and we are fed up with consultants wanting Relux Data printouts, to check Uniformity, Glare, Maintenance factors in offices, Embroiling us in unnecessary unpaid work, and by the way we are still only quoting. As long a the contractor is using a competent lighting engineer, what is the issue give him a free hand ? Ahaaaaa he can't Price ? It's a D&B Project gone to five construction companies in turn twenty electrical contractors , the lighting designer get's a Pdf with a big square, Cheapest please we are up against 19 others....... Why can't consultants earn their money by selecting an office design that is different, colour, initiative and looks like a great place to work...Do me a favour when you all get 5 minutes, go to google and click the "images" tab and type in "Google Office". I bet when the interior designer had a vision, I don't think he thought about UGR or Glare Index, WHAT A PLACE TO WORK !!!!! Colour ,Pendants , Downlighters, Wall lights. Task lights Yes in an office , and no we did not go to jail ! As it goes some of the pictures you will see are offices, my team designed and only proposed because we were assured NO consultants were going to be on the project just interior designers. I believe a few contractors were tendering, but were using a single manufacturer, we are independent and can use who we like. We won it, and enjoyed doing it. Now we are back reading 200 page electrical & lighting specs that continue to contradict themselves on every paragraph. Rant over !

In general, have been very satisfied with "general" office lighting (sq array) through my entire career. I had louvred Luminaires in the first office I was in back in the mid 80's, and have since. I have never had any complaints. There is no more economical and efficacious way of providing a practical solution to the functional visual requirements in the application area. Don't get me wrong, I hate box ticking, and the increased bureaucracy involved with engineering driven lighting design. However, most projects are "boring", are conceived speculatively, and do not warrant elaborate planning and equipment. Thankfully there are de facto standards, else market forces would further erode what quality we have. Look at developing countries with little standardization; lighting there can be dangerous, glaring, fatiguing; they would aspire to be boring!

this article is an eyeopener. companies are selling the solution which is uniform for all without considering the varied requirement based on age or work requirement. Focus is always on lighting the floor. Liked the view that " mantra should be ‘light the walls, not the floor’"

Thank you for that great article. I am glad to not be alone, fighting against windmill. Managers don't know how they could grow employees efficiency, only with a good lighting environment...

Bravo!

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