Office lighting doesn’t have to be boring. Graham Large and Theo Paradise-Hirst look at the art and theatre of light at work
Edited by Jill Entwistle
Impressive workspace environments are the platinum currency for staff, clients and visitors – get it right and people will be inclined to stay, get it wrong and they will likely be scouring the situations vacant columns.
Since 1990 Microsoft, Apple and Google have liberated us all from growing mountains of ugly grey filing cabinets, veneer desks and dusty cheese plants. As a consequence, our workspaces breathe and we are able to think without being suffocated by a visual landscape of grey and blue office stuff. This clean canvas allows the production of new textures, forms and colours for our interiors and puts the qualities of space as the priority. In illumination terms, we are now creating rich and visually rewarding spaces by balancing a fantastic range of lighting variables.
To achieve this, projects require clear direction and design input from the outset – and that applies especially to the lighting. Developing a detailed brief and understanding of a space is essential and for the best result it is always really helpful if the lighting designer is involved at this early stage.
Lighting provides a play of light on key surfaces during the day, at law firm Bird and Bird, London EC4. Lighting design and MEP engineering is by ChapmanBDSP. Architect was Doone Silver and Flanagan Lawrence, and interior architect MCM
We can then start to explore the possibilities, the obvious and not so apparent opportunities in a project. Lighting consultation will open up a broad range of considerations, beginning with an assessment of the daylight qualities, the sun-path throughout the year, and how creative added light will transform this. Observations about the scale, proportions, materials, use and the intended impression are the starting points. If we are involved early enough, we can adapt structures and spaces before they are drawn-up and build-in details as the interior scheme develops.
The art of lighting design is to work closely with the directional behaviours of light – its distribution, tone, spectral scatter and resulting light characteristics. The careful positioning of a light source will play a critical part in developing a recipe for a magical space and lasting impressions. For instance, a visually reinforced processional route, or ‘pace’, can be set up using linear lines, lit architectural features or fittings spaced in regular patterns.
Pockets of light create intimate spaces within a larger volume at Savills, Margaret Street, London W1. Lighting design and MEP engineering is by ChapmanBDSP, and the architect was Scott Brownrigg
By interrupting these or by setting up opposing junctions/ angles, the pace can be slowed or altered by this intentional change in the visual pattern. The lighting can be concealed to be discreet, or be highly visible and expressive, or be a balance of both. Illuminating a great architectural feature or interior element can be more powerful and sensational to the eye than some arbitrary lighting statement or gesture.
If the surfaces of an interior are lit carefully and in good balance, we can bring serenity, delight and inspiration into any space. For example, the feeling of wellbeing and mood can be affected by brightness, tone and intensity. Specific colours and tones can create feelings of excitement or calm. By applying techniques from the theatre world, we can apply surface texture through light, transforming surfaces and forms with limitless possibilities.
The lighting scheme extenuates the impression of height in a deep floor plate. Photo Credit: Hufton and Crow
Once the interior tones and colours for a space are evolving in a design, we can start to develop an understanding of how a space will feel. If a scheme contains dominant colours, rich or absorbing surfaces, carefully selected lighting can transform them. There is no benefit in lighting a feature wall in plain white light or applying a generic wallwashing approach – selecting an appropriate light source with the right tonal outputs, light angles and controls will maximise the selected tones, colour and shadows of the surface. All pigmented materials will visually resonate if the right spectral quality and blend of light is selected to work hand-in-hand. The ever-increasing variety of colours, textures and forms keeps us busy as we test, research and optimise the visual characteristics possible.
The wrong type of light on a quality material can be a detriment. With simple or more complicated lighting controls, we can bring an impressive range of appearances or presentations of a space (for example, creating five different spaces from one space at the touch of a button). Carefully integrated lighting choices enable us to transform a huge space to look intimate at times, or transform a tiny space to look huge. Light, space and human perception can all be adjusted through considered lighting design, accounting for the aspect, views, vistas and interior architecture.
As touched on above, natural light is fundamental. Daylight is dynamic, theatrical, comfortable and kind to the planet – we balance this and temper natural light to blend with and complement interior lighting. At the outset of any project, the first things to be considered are the natural lighting attributes and opportunities of a site.
The material tones or colours of adjacent sites and facades can affect the tones of natural light being reflected or transmitted into buildings and neighbouring spaces. The interior lighting needs to account for this, more so in schemes where spaces are densely clustered.
Modelling daylight and sunlight early within a project will help with the planning of the interiors and can potentially inform the philosophy for the window design and extent of glazing. Studies of the types of glass can be made at these early stages to determine if the glass will render the natural light with a coloured tint – green and blue, for example, being the most concerning. For an atrium, gallery or mall, these are critical elements to explore. An outward slight blue tint might make the sky look great all year round, but this will also render the interiors with blue light, which is generally not the most flattering on skin tones or interior colours.
Dramatic daylight patterns reflect the interior linear lines in the fabrics at Aon at 122 Leadenhall, London EC3. Lighting design and MEP engineering by ChapmanBDSP. Architect was Gensler. Photo Credit: Hufton and Crow
Creating spaces that are comfortable to the eye is also vital. Comfortable spaces are where the eye is not forced to work too hard. If the eye has to struggle to reconcile a wide range of brightness and contrast values, it will become tired very quickly. The balance of sequential experiences coupled with a consideration of the range/field of vision should be used to set the parameters of light levels space by space, so that a tall adult or small child at pushchair height (or any eye level between this range) is not frequently subjected to glare or challenging contrasting levels. Ideally, visual brightness differentials of around 30 per cent between surfaces and spaces will keep the muscles in the eye working at comfortable levels. Stark shifts between contrast and brightness will always add drama and excitement, but care and attention should be given to the extent and positioning to enhance the perception of the space and experience.
As low light or excessive light makes the eye work hard, it is good practice to track the external light levels to create exceptionally comfortable environments within the building throughout the working day at all times. This approach can be informed by light sensors externally and internally, where daylight within a building will bring savings and will alter the sensation of light in a space. Impressive energy savings can be achieved through the balancing of the intensity of light during the day and into the evening. Almost all commercial buildings in the UK will be occupied in the darker months of October to March, so if the lighting is programmed to account for that, brighter interior levels will create a greater sense of wellbeing in the winter months.
Less can be more. It is important to consider primary surfaces, areas of intensity and the priority spaces, but secondary light or reflected light from a lit object or surface is often significant as a contribution. By electing what the primary lighting intent is for key surfaces and spaces, a selective approach can be taken to ensure that the elements of highlighting or drama occur at the right place.
A totally uniform approach to lighting is wasteful of energy and creates a bland appearance, so it is better to select and develop a lighting scheme that can enjoy a range of levels, but within the boundaries of comfortable brightness.
Walking into a great office should be as engaging to the eye as enjoying a great artwork.