The last in our series of interviews exploring the impact technology has had on design practises is with the extremely talented, and Top 40under40 2019 finalist, Julia Hartmann, from lightsphere in Zurich.
lightsphere is a relatively new practise that has grown over the last 5 years to be one of the most exciting and influential new practises in Europe.
Trends in Lighting: In recent years what changes have you had to make due to advances in technology?
Julia Hartmann: lightsphere is just about 5 years old, now, but I, myself, have over 18 years of experience in lighting design. I started with all the conventional products, and now we have all the varied LED’s on the market. LEDs give us new opportunities in design because we can better integrate luminaries into the built environments, but the changes in technology have brought side-effects too.
Understanding the technologies, the control and building integration systems, is more and more dependent on lighting designers’ abilities to use and understand the tech so they can specify the correct and best suitable product for clients. You have to understand the tools available on the market to avoid unwelcome surprises when a project is in the implementation phase and about to finish. The processes, in general, have not changed too much; design thinking is still key for aesthetic lighting design. What has changed are the tools we use and the way we collaborate. As lighting designers, we have to educate our clients about how to understand available systems that are on the market and how they will function in the future – but no one really knows that!
In the last few years, with the changes in technology, we have noticed a lot of project partners and specialists are not all up to date with what is available. Most of them stick to what they know so they are in control and understand what they install when it comes to controls and protocols etc. Within the projects we more often miss opportunities while dealing with outdated technology. We, as lighting designers, are evolving more and more into the role of educating clients, architects and electrical engineers about lighting technology to make sure they can see the best possible way to integrate light into a complete building system. That is a huge change from the past.
There are definitely great advantages with new technology – but can you also imagine the difficulties you could face in a project if everything is not clearly defined from the outset?
TiL: Do you find that the communication in projects is more complex and less clear due to technology not being understood by all parties?
JH: Communication was and still is essential, but what is important is the interface definition, who takes over which responsibility and who performs which part of the project. The role of engineers, architects and lighting planners must be clarified even more clearly in advance.
Cooperation and collaboration among specialists is the most important part of the project. Unfortunately, there is no universal description of what the task of a lighting designer is, and this must always first be tailored to the project needs for a clear division of roles. Control description and tuning of control components are the key factors that can cause the most headaches on the job site if not initially defined. Communication will be even more important for the future as complexity increases. With IoT and 3D modeling, we have so-called smart systems and tools. However, these are just as smart as the user and planner who uses them. Therefore, the conversation and the understanding of processes is essential. In addition to all the technological advances, it would often be better to sit around a table and talk to each other than all the emails, writing back and forth, and in the end only misunderstandings arise. As a lighting designer, we cannot stress enough that lighting design is an independent, multi-layered discipline that adds value to project implementation. Lighting design is not limited to the fact that we choose beautiful lights. As a lighting designer, we nowadays have to cover a wide range of facets and be experts in perception, design, control and programming with the know-how about biology, psychology, packed in a diplomatic dealing with the planning participants.
TIL: With all the new potential that the technology brings, how has this affected your actual project work? How do you balance the creative concept with the tech available?
JH: Our ideas are faster translating into a reality. We have so much more freedom in defining concepts, scenarios and atmospheres through the tools available today. There are definitely advantages in new technologies.
At lightsphere we approach it from a multidisciplinary standpoint.
We also follow other industries to see how innovations can cross over. We are always searching for new inventions from all over design, research and science. So we can create the best possible design. Clients often have an idea of what they want but it is our job to establish what works best for them by more deeply understanding them and the built environment. The effects on users and the biological effect of lighting mean we now also conduct more research within our workflow.
TiL: You mentioned your own research projects, can you expand on this?
JH: Recently we had a project for a client that required a full ‘living atrium’ with huge columns with vertical green. We knew we could introduce daylight but not enough to make the plants thrive. The client was a fragrance specialist, working for perfumes and flavours, and this space was their innovation centre.
We had to develop a system that delivered solutions using LEDs that offered the correct spectrum that enabled the plants to grow and look appealing to the people using the building. The result was an entirely new luminaire following biophilic design aspects that would integrate into the green columns. We designed the luminaire, defined the LED chips with the correct power distribution and incorporated this into the building and environment scenario.
TiL: Did you have an industry partner?
JH: Finding the right partner is the biggest challenge in this process.
We started with creating a growth testing prototype area in our office and got the exact plants that would be used in the project. We tested various LED Spectra available at that time, set on timers with photo-recording of growth etc. over a period of one year to compare and rate our options. At the time of the test we were in a change of technology time frame and we saw potential in using SPDs from the horticulture field. After the first tests we could tell our clients that we could use LEDs for the plants to thrive and look appealing in the space. Fortunately the clients where open to trying. We teamed up with a Masters Student who expanded on the subject for their thesis as well as a product designer that supported us with the details for implementing the fixture into the column structure. Just recently we completed another test phase, incorporating the insights we got from our internal growth testing and testing SPDs to establish which then looked best in the architecture of the space. These findings and research results will be published online very soon in a sustainability paper. In the end our client and everyone involved in the project was happy about the result and I feel there will be more to research in this space in the future.
Other than average lighting design practices, we are into research a bit more to understand the biological effects of lighting. Our philosophy is that you have to fully understand a process and the product to use light well.
TiL: Would I be right in saying you used a very innovative iterative process?
JH: We feel we have to be up to date across all architecture, design, medical, and martial innovations. We want to know what the very best solutions are, and this takes a lot of research and time. We can offer the best practice possible when we know the most we can. We can’t look into a crystal ball to know what is coming in 5 years’ time, but for today we can be the most well informed as we can be, for the sake of our work and ultimately our clients. We make informed decisions.
TiL: Are manufacturers delivering the products you need, or do you need more bespoke items?
JH: This really depends on the project and its requirements. We use what is available and sometime we create bespoke items, dependant on the budget available. What happens more often than not is that we have to adapt an existing fixture to better suit the needs of a project. By doing this, by definition, we are creating bespoke items. The plant luminaire for example is unique; that one was something we had to create from scratch.
TiL: Have you always worked closely with industry partners?
JH: We do work with industry partners. The challenge is to find the right ones that deliver the quality we want and the level of design we request. Not a lot of companies can deliver both. Sometimes we have to create teams with tech experts and separate design experts.
TiL: There are so many options available, has this made finding the right solution time consuming?
JH: What makes it more complex is not finding the solution. The clients or architects want more options so they know that what we are providing is the best solution.
For us, we only want the very best quality products, and to work with the very best partners.
We need a partner who is reliable and supportive. This really affects the decision making. We usually don’t put a product in a project that we haven’t experienced before. If a product is great but the support sucks, we are not interested. When a product comes on the market we want a manufacturer to come and demonstrate it for us. It’s key we can get our hands on the fixture. We also want to sample products with the architects so they can see the items and touch them.
We have a lot of experience in the design process and the atmosphere we want to create, but because of the changes in technology there are way too many products available and you have to experience the products you use to know for yourself the quality of the light. This takes time, but it’s vital.
TiL: Have you, as a design practice, had to change how you work due to new technologies?
JH: The way we approach projects is the same because the client and the design thinking is central. Technology gives us the chance to increase creativity because you can use light in different ways today. We have more freedom which means our designs can be more outstanding. Most of the time however, the budget sets the parameters. You have to check what you create matches expectations financially as well as aesthetically.
TiL: Do clients have budget for connectivity and advance technologies?
JH: Fortunately, most of our clients do understand that connectivity and advanced technology is linked to the built environment and therefore to the lighting design. In some cases it is our role to educate clients about what can be achieved and explain the costs for doing this. Then we have to make sure the technology is explained in full detail and how this impacts the project and its budget.
This means the first thing that is cut from the budget is the new tech functions. For example, if you chose to include tuneable white, it will often be cut and a standard white chosen to save money. You have to have the knowledge to justify every expense, which means your understanding of the technology, and the value it brings, has to be in-depth. Even though a client can request something – the budget is the thing that will make the final decision.
TiL: Do you get enough support from manufacturers to help you educate clients?
JH: Manufacturers have great marketing departments that make things sound incredible, but then it is difficult sometimes to get the tech information we need. The industry should be more reliable when it comes to the situation of getting the key facts of technology, marketing material alone is not always helpful.
You have to do most of the work yourself. We carry out all research ourselves. We squeeze manufacturers and partners for facts. We have our own internal education parameters and a great network that help us.
There is potential for the industry to do more to support lighting designers in relation to wireless, IoT and connectivity. Very few people really know what this means and how it works, where the pitfalls might be and how secure it is. The devices are getting smart but the people putting the systems together might not be smart enough for it to work!
Being a lighting designer today means you have to be as creative as ever, experts in technology, and you have to recognise the potential in products for today and for the future. It’s still a lot of fun but also a lot of work and responsibility that we never had before.
Images: Filipa Peixeiro