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Thoughts from David Bird – the Godfather of Architectural Lighting

As one of Australia’s first architectural lighting designers, David has had experience working with evolving lighting technologies to enhance the built form and create a magical environment. 

Architectural Lighting Design in the 80s  

David started his first ‘lighting gig’ in the 60s as a designer with the Warrandyte Arts Association Drama Group. He then moved on to internationally renowned Strand Electric, where he designed and marketed theatre and TV lighting control systems. Finally, transitioning to architectural lighting design, David brought the theatrical lighting techniques to deliver visual comfort and add a sprinkle of magic to the built form.

In performing arts, lighting is used to direct the audience to the focal point of the production and create an appropriate ambience to suit the production. Back in the day, the technology used in theatre was several decades ahead of building services. For example,

Tungsten halogen lamps became the standard in theatre equipment in the 70s while they were not in daily use in architecture until the late 80s. Similarly, electronic lighting control systems evolved in theatre in the late 60s while they only became the norm in commercial construction in the 90s.

David’s theatrical experience has made him regard light as an integral element of every space. Well-lit spaces create visual comfort and focus the eye while adding depth and dimension to the built form. Focusing on what we want to see is easy to understand in the theatre context — but is just as relevant when lighting a commercial building, public space or a home.

In 1987, David was the first lighting designer recruited by John Halliday from Lincolne Scott, a specialised engineering firm — making him one of the Australian pioneers in the profession. Lighting design is unique in that the “tool” is invisible. We only see the impact of light when it hits an object, and that object reacts with the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that reveals its form and colour. It is therefore critical that lighting designers collaborate with architects and other designers to jointly create beautiful spaces. Given that light travels in straight lines, lighting design expertise had less to do with floor plans but more about conceptualising and imagining three-dimensionally about the holistic interplay of light with different elements that make up a built form.

Until the 1980s, the lighting equipment was relatively bulky and straightforward, and lighting the built form was the domain of electrical engineers and architects. As a result, lighting design was generally viewed from a very technical and utilitarian perspective and not as a skill that delivered strong visual and aesthetic value. The “how many lights do I need to meet the standard” attitude reflects the lack of focus and importance on architectural lighting at the time. The technical specifics of the even distribution of light and meeting standards were perceived as more critical than a built form’s visual beauty.

Image in courtesy of Kit Cuttle

At this time, lighting practitioners mostly worked with incandescent light or tungsten halogen lamps plus mercury vapour and fluorescent lamps (in office interiors). While the quality of the filament lamps has yet to be matched by LEDs, the need to address global warming has meant that older technologies need to be left behind. The upside is that LEDs are much more optically efficient. In addition, the LED technology has created a new range of small and optically diverse luminaires that allow designers to control the visual outcomes better while minimising energy consumption.

The skills of a lighting designer require them to think in 3D and collaborate with their fellow designers and client to understand the brief and design direction. In terms of approach, David says that he initially starts with darkness and then addresses how to light the space’s volume (walls and ceiling) and then add “task or accent” lighting as necessary. As with most visual aspects, we like variations in colour, texture, and brightness. This, coupled with the mantra “less is better,” can create well-lit spaces.

Sugar Beach Resort, Mauritius; Architect: Macbeth Architects + Designers; Image: Kire Bogoevski of 2B Designed

Yet, for those not skilled in the profession, there is a tendency to over-light spaces with cost-effective downlights. The result creates glare, and with their wide distribution, spray light every effect (known as LPE fittings or light pissing everywhere).

Lighting for well-being

There are now organisations that advocate for the importance of lighting designers; the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) and the Illuminating Engineering Society (IESANZ). As a result, the role of lighting designers is becoming better appreciated and recognised, adding value to projects. Architectural lighting design straddles architecture, interior design, and electrical engineering to create spaces that use daylight and electric light to serve human needs.

There is growing research into the impact of light on our well-being. With the significant consideration of the environmental effect of electric lighting both by day and the number of hours of darkness, several paramount issues need to be addressed:

• The impact of electric light on our well-being

• The flexibility of lighting control systems to adjust the lighting over time

• The effect of the light on the flora and fauna

Australian Unity Head Office, Melbourne; Interior Designer: Bates Smart; Image: Kire Bogoevski of 2B Designed

Current standards were developed when we worked with paper-based tasks on a horizontal work surface. Now, most office work uses an illuminated vertical screen. David states that the prevailing standards of the past are not suitable for today’s environment. Furthermore, using “illuminance” as a standard (the amount of light falling on a surface) is irrelevant as what we see is brightness. We need a new metric!

Exploring the Possibilities

David explained that LEDs have created new possibilities in lighting spaces. As an example, the façade of St Peters Church in Toorak is beautifully multi-dimensional with bluestone and sandstone, arches and ornamentation. Grazing lights up the façade has created a highlight of the stunning texture of the building as opposed to traditional floodlighting, which would have flattened the rich texture.

Inside the building, you will find the lighting expertly integrated into the architecture to draw attention, celebrate the design and craftsmanship, and support the Church’s liturgy. High-level downlights are hidden behind the building trusses to keep the light source out of the peripheral vision. Simultaneously, narrow beam accent lights with honeycomb diffusers are utilised to highlight the arched roof feature of the Church and enhance that contrasting light and dark effect within the ceiling space.

St Peter’s Catholic Church, Toorak; Architect: Andronas Conservation Architecture; Image: Kire Bogoevski of 2B Designed.

The Future of Lighting Design

Presently, there are no formal requirements to be a qualified lighting designer. However, with recent incidents involving façade cladding fires around the world and the structural issues experienced in Sydney and Miami, governments are looking more stringently at requiring qualified people to be engaged in the construction industry. With lobbying, industry organisations ( such as the IALD) and prominent lighting designers endeavour to create two discrete signoffs within the electrical contractors’ domain. Electrical engineering maintaining responsibility for the electrical engineering component of the build with qualified lighting designers required to signoff lighting elements within the construction.

The IALD is actively advocating and striving to set global standards for lighting design excellence by promoting the advancement and recognition of independent professional lighting designers. They understand that lighting designers are critical in creating innovative, practical, and economically viable lighting solutions that enhance and strengthen the built form yet take due consideration of the need to minimise global warming and the impact on our well-being.

For architectural lighting design to further develop, advocacy must go hand-in-hand with education. Unfortunately, there is little interest in lighting design in universities across Australia. The lack of tertiary architectural lighting design education in the schools of

Architecture and Interior Design is a major concern. An exception is Victoria University, where David provides a semester to the 4th year students undertaking the Architectural Engineering course. Similarly, RMIT University has for many years used the resources of the IESANZ to offer a part-time course on lighting engineering for the industry.

Throughout David’s career in lighting design, from theatre to build form, almost everything has changed and advanced significantly, mainly for the better. There is no indication that the profession or the tools of the trade will stagnate. On the contrary, there is every likelihood that the metamorphosis will continue. Lighting designers need to stay on the front foot to continue to grow the recognition for the profession. There needs to be active advocation and industry-wide initiatives. David urges all in the lighting design profession to actively finesse their skills, be willing to disrupt the status quo and advocate for the present and future of our profession.

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