Sustainability and Wellness

Lighting and Environmental Consciousness: A Dialogue

Anne Truong
Anne Truong
Specialist Lighting Lead
WRAP Engineering
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In this edition, Universal Light had the opportunity to sit down with Anne Truong, a lighting designer from WRAP Engineering.

We discussed lighting, specifically the impact of lighting on habitat and how we can adopt environmentally conscious lighting techniques to preserve wildlife and culture.

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Image: Kirstine Wallis

Hi Anne, can you please tell us a little about your background and how you started your journey with lighting?

I was first introduced to the concept of lighting design by my mentor and previous manager, Dave Anderson. At that point, I had always known that I wanted to pursue something creative for my career, and seeing Dave’s works naturally piqued my curiosity about the field.

It has been or years since I started working in the industry. However, in numbers, it does not seem that long, because I look up to many other professionals who have over or years of experience and produce incredible works.

Does that mean you started your career not knowing it would revolve around lighting?

Before meeting Dave, I had never done any lighting-related education, since my initial major was computer science. Though not to the extent of creating many abstract arts, I had always gravitated towards being artistic and creative within a structure. Thus, lighting design became such a natural fit, where I can be creative but within a set of parameters determined by the environments, technologies and the physics of how light travels.

In many ways, lighting design is fascinating. It is continuously evolving, which requires constant learning to improve my expertise. But that is why I love and have stayed in this profession for as long as I have!

What has been your experience and inspiration with lighting to have developed such a passion for it?

One of my first proper lighting works was for an installation called The Crucible, featured in the White Night event in 2015. For context, White Night is an event where, for 12 hours, from 7:00 PM until 7:00 AM, Melbourne CBD and the surrounding areas are lit with artworks using light as a medium.

The artwork I worked on was a sculpture in the shape of a dragon, made out of old car parts welded together. The installation combined special effects, like smoke, fire and lighting, to create a theatrical experience.

The sculpture used cool-toned lighting schemes to signify the dragon entering the resting phase. Every 15 minutes, the dragon warmed up with yellow, red and orange, then breathed out fire. It was truly exciting and inspiring to see the attendees’ fascination and strong reactions to our work, especially the children. Those responses fueled my passion and made me want to do more in lighting design.

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Image: Kirstine Wallis

It is fascinating to see how we bring light wherever we go. But this also means that as we expand, we’re invading and changing the living environment of other species. Do you think this is true?

We need to be more conscious about light, specifically artificial light. We are invading the natural space with something artificial, causing different forms of pollution. In addition, we are negatively affecting the natural habitat.

Inconsiderate lighting design equals increased use and wastage. Examples include flying insects that use light for navigation, baby turtles that use moonlight for navigation to the sea, penguins whose behaviours follow ambient light conditions on shore, and even coral that use moon rising for spawning (Salmon, 2003; Lin, Takahashi, Mulla & Nozawa, 2021; Shima, Osenberg, Alonzo, & Noonburg, 2022). Hence, our approach to lighting in urban and rural areas is disrupting the habitation patterns of these animals.

You mentioned that you worked on White Night, a cultural staple for Melburnians. But this event directly contradicts the notion of being conscious of other cultures and species.

As a lighting designer, where do you find that middle ground between “This is my job” and putting that conscious element into your design?

To be honest, there was this sense of guilt when I participated in White Night and similar events. I understand that the city has numerous contact zones where humans and animals are entangled and have competing interests, causing severe environmental consequences and vulnerabilities to the animals (Haraway, 2013).

The ideal solution could be separating areas into human-centric and environmentally focused zones. Clear distinctions between human-centric and environmentally focused zones will prevent people from disrupting the animals’ natural patterns or endangering them due to human activities and infrastructures. At the same time, humans will still have areas where they can function and celebrate culture without affecting other species.

A cohesive approach with mandates and compliant standards would give lighting designers the tools to communicate and advise our clients on the dos and don’ts of a project.

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Image: WE-EF LIGHTING Australia/New Zealand. Supply of WE-EF LIGHTING products by Buckford Illumination Group. Lighting design by Stantec.

What’s the current landscape of environmentally conscious lighting practices?

LEDs are becoming a lot cheaper and a lot more accessible for both indoor and outdoor use. However, comparing fluoro to LED, with the same wattage, the LED is much brighter and lasts longer, so the negative impacts are more extreme and long-term. In addition, the links between inconsiderate lighting and adverse environmental effects have been established in academic research. So, when designing lighting, we need to pay attention to the source and destination, especially with spotlights and their effect on the surrounding environment.

For example, when we leave our porch lights on at night, flying insects gravitate toward the light mistaking it for the moon, which affects their flying track and grouping, life cycle and reproduction (Owens & Lewis, 2018). For penguins, over-illumination can lead to them staying in the water a lot longer after sunset, because the lights are still on (Rodríguez, Holmberg, Dann, & Chiaradia, 2018). Further, a 2007 study (Levy et al.) found that since coral uses moonrise for spawning, too much artificial light can disturb their spawning process. Similarly, baby turtles can mistake streetlights for moonlight, which leads them to the streets instead of the ocean (Salmon, 2003). Thus, we need to be extra careful when lighting those areas to ensure that the animals are adequately protected, and humans are provided just enough light for wayfinding.

Australia does have a national lighting guideline for wildlife, but it is not mandatory. In addition, most of the Australian standards are more human-centric than environmentally focused, which is a topic that needs more awareness, discussions and change.

Have you ever worked on a project that’s a bit tricky to balance?

I had an experience working on a project during my time at Wood & Grieve Engineers (now Stantec) for the Penguin Parade Visitor Centre, a very environmentally sensitive area that's also trying to educate people on wildlife and human impacts on wildlife. For areas like this, we have to be more environmentally conscious and know how to balance the usage of lighting so that we protect these animals and ensure visitors’ safety. Some ways of achieving this are to use luminaires with high-quality optics and light distribution, as well as specific colour temperatures with minimal blue light emissions. Optics allow for light to fall where they are required, such as pedestrian pathways for safe movement. The reduction in blue light emissions is a step forward in reducing the negative impact on wildlife circadian rhythms.

It was a big juggling act of maintaining a good lighting level while preventing the negative impacts lighting has on the wildlife. Artificial light can extend the penguins’ time in the water; either as a result of perceived danger or otherwise, and, as a result, reduce their sleep time and delay their hatching and mating patterns (Rodríguez, Holmberg, Dann, & Chiaradia, 2018). It affects me on a moral level, seeing floodlights on the beach shining directly into the water only when the penguins come out. Bright lights or sudden flashes can frighten and disorient the penguins on their way to their nest, making them vulnerable. I understand the park’s purpose of educating the people by showing the penguins in their natural habitat.

Conversely, the latest design provided has actually resulted in an observed positive impact since the project’s completion. According to Phillip Island Research Scientist, Andre Chiaradia (2018), it has been observed that there is a significant increase in migratory shearwater bird reproductivity and population numbers. Also, since the introduction of amber light, particularly in the car park, we no longer see disoriented penguins entering these areas which may pose a threat to their safety.

Optics allow for light to fall where they are required, such as pedestrian pathways for safe movement. The reduction in blue light emissions is a step forward in reducing the negative impact on wildlife circadian rhythms.

I understand that it gets a little bit complicated. Of course, everyone who works on projects is well-meaning, but at the same time, factors like budget and the prioritisation of human needs are and always will be influential. But have you been able to experience a project that you consider ideal and should be set as the standard?

Unfortunately, no, which is quite disappointing. Factors like budget restraints often make us lighting designers question our position and responsibilities in a project and the meanings of our designs.

Having said that, I can see things that we could improve on. A good start would be looking at lighting designers from other countries and their ingenious solutions. In an IALD webinar I attended, one tactic was to involve contractors, whose primary focus is budget, in the project as early as possible. This way, they can gain early insights into the project and prevent parts of the design from being replaced, which can preserve the project’s aesthetics, quality, and consideration. It’s important to understand that lighting design is about creating a whole artificial ecosystem, so everything else can be disrupted when one element is removed.

The reality is that, because of budget restraints, we tend to end up with sub-quality developments that will not last as long as they should. In addition, when the design intent is not carried through, we can end up with outcomes that are overlit or are not evenly distributed.

In an ideal world, if you have no budget restraints and are in complete control of a project, what would be your approach to sustainable and environmentally conscious lighting?

I would love to advocate for the usage of red lights at low-level intensity. Red light may not create a welcoming space for humans, and it might be a bit disconcerting to visually perceive our surroundings in black and red. Nonetheless, in my opinion, these spaces are not meant to be welcoming. We are intruding on the environment of other species, so having their comfort is far more important than our own. Plus, humans are capable of adjusting our vision ability to see in a low-lit environment so it wouldn’t cause us any harm. This way, we can explore and experience wildlife and see animals behave in their natural habitats.

As animals have limited colour vision and cannot see the colour red, red light can give enough illumination for them to navigate and inhabit while not interfering with their biological cycles and natural patterns.

Realistically, being environmentally conscious isn’t impossible. It can simply be done with more education and correct actions from the state, federal and local governments. European countries (i.e., The Decree of 27 December 2018, France) and cities like San Francisco (i.e., Building Energy Efficiency Standards – Title 24) are focusing on maintaining dark skies by enforcing mandates that do not have any uplights in certain areas.

Education is the key. However, it can be intimidating getting to know about lighting. So, for an ordinary person, what would you tell them to make lighting less daunting of a concept?

It is crucial to link the lighting setup to the space and describe how lighting creates the space. For instance, a fancy restaurant can feel cosy and intimate with candlelight, despite having a big dining hall. My purpose here is to change their perspective and notice the influence of light on their experience. Then, I extend the topic to environmentally conscious lighting, beginning with fun facts about flora and fauna, and hopefully trigger their interest in the topic and have them participate in the discussion.

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Sustainability and Wellness

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