Beyond The Hype What Does Green Really Mean?

It’s hip to be green…maybe too hip. With every political pronouncement and product pitch, the green movement may be inching closer to the edge of cliché and public skepticism. New York Times’ columnist Maureen Dowd wonders whether the Democratic Convention’s hiring of a “director of greening” to measure the greenhouse-gas emissions of every item associated with the convention (right down to the balloons) only reinforces the perception of Barack Obama as “prissy” and “chiding.” In a world of greenwashing, where every product seems to have an eco-friendly label, it’s no surprise that 80 percent of those surveyed by Boston College support certification of environmental marketing claims by third-party organizations.
The lighting industry has its own challenges. First, some argue that “sustainable design” has become a fuzzy catchall term that can mean all things to all people. Second, sustainability is often viewed through the prism of watts per sq ft, lumens per watt or the accrual of LEED points. In other words, sustainability is often considered a numerical output—a metric. Unlike age, however, sustainable design isn’t just a number. In an LD+A essay on LEED’s lighting requirements, Lee Brandt of Horton Lees Brogden, notes that “when only dealing with number crunching, quality design and considerations such as glare, fixture placement…and appropriate sources may go out the window.”
The operative word in the above quote: quality. So we put the following question to five lighting professionals: What does the phrase “quality lighting in a green world” mean to you? Here’s what they had to say.

Director of Specification Marketing
Acuity Brands Lighting

I accepted this charge largely because the question begins with the proper emphasis on quality lighting. That is something I hope all professionals are holding most dear as they solve the visual issues which enable the power of light to transform space. Doing so with environmental conscientiousness is our responsibility to those we serve. But making sustainability a key selling point of any design (albeit lighting, architectural or otherwise) is shortchanging the value I place on the finer creative arts.
Enough already with sustainability! Ask 10 designers what sustainability is and you will get 11 answers. It is misused, misapplied, overindulged and underdelivered—and all with such misplaced devotion. It reeks of lowest common denominator mediocrity: table stakes in my book—the minimum commitment required to enter the game. (Of course, ask 10 lighting professionals what quality in lighting is and you are in the same non-agreed-upon, poorly articulated territory.) We need to get back to promoting the value of lighting excellence while quietly fulfilling the absolute necessity of creating the least negative environmental impact for the most feasible benefit of sustaining future generations of all species.
To me, the entire sustainability argument is being made by those who have never seen the forest for the trees. Designers need to get back to articulating the value of design and stop jumping on someone else’s bandwagon (tree huggers, politicians, service providers, lawyers, environmentalists, etc.). We are simply managing our own demise and marginalization. Sustainability is not the goal; it should be an objective within the goal of improving the human experience. Don’t get me wrong—I do not intend to come out as being against reduction of waste, for the consumption of non-renewable resources, nor against the reduction in toxicity in all things. Rather, I fear there are too many design practitioners hanging their shingle in the name of environmental friendliness without the ability to actually design friendly environments.
I did not study architecture, practice lighting and promote the lighting industry with the primary goal of sorting the garbage, reducing the formaldehyde in my carpet, using bamboo in everything and cutting energy to eliminate sparkle and visual excitement. I’m thankful to the green movement for increasing awareness and creating demand for forward-looking technologies that minimize the negative impact of the human infestation of our planet. I just don’t think it is doing anything to advance one’s striving for excellence in lighting design. I want a world filled with better designers…not more environmentalists.

President, Tillotson Design Associates

I prefer to tell you what the phrase “quality lighting in a green world” doesn’t mean to me. It doesn’t mean choosing a fluorescent or LED source just for its “greenness” or because it’s politically correct or because it’s the bulb of the future. The truth is that unless color changing is important to you, LED is not more efficient or cost effective than other sources—at least not unless maintenance is difficult. The truth is that self-ballasted compact fluorescent lamps do not look good in my home or in any hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. The truth is that specifying expensive daylight controls with a dimmable fluorescent lighting system is not practical when compared to simply designing a physical sun shading device as part of the building design, or as practical as a simple north-facing skylight. The truth is that using only cutoff exterior fixtures is not always smart especially when the reflected light they produce off concrete pavement will project more light into the night sky than a lower wattage semi-cutoff luminaire. The truth is that it is not smart to have driveways lined with solar-powered LED path lights (just use your headlights or a simple low-wattage, low-glare porch light). We all need to take a step back and reevaluate the meaning of “green.”
Sustainable lighting design is an oxymoron by definition. Lighting requires energy so how can it be sustainable? By recycling it? Are any manufacturers working on that? Why not just use less light or put light only where you really need it? Should we continue to fight for providing the same amount of light, but with less flattering and more expensive sources, even though doing so adversely impacts our quality of life? I say no.
It is up to lighting design professionals to maintain the quality of light and our built environments despite the rise in energy costs. How do we do that? Simply by making smart choices and remembering that “less is more” and encouraging our clients and everyone we know to do the same.
Is it okay for our politicians to ban the incandescent bulb but make no mention of lowering people’s expectations of light levels, or no mention of the impact that inefficient room cavities and finishes have on the efficiency of lighting systems? With our complacency, we have allowed the lighting design profession to be regulated by people who really know very little of the importance of light to our quality of life. Next they’ll be telling architects to only design white rooms with 8-ft ceilings and no windows since they’re the most efficient. It’s easy for politicians to ban a lightbulb; it’s not so easy to teach people how to be less wasteful and make intelligent choices.

Executive Vice President, Kiku Obata & Company
IES Past-president (2006-2007)

A re we moving into a time of green fatigue? Have we overhyped “green” to the point that we don’t really understand what is green and what is not? For example, is a CFL green? Some would argue, how can you call a product green when it contains mercury, is made in China in factories powered by coal-fired plants and is shipped all the way to the U.S? It is understandable why the consumer is questioning what they are being told about green products.
“Quality lighting in a green world” is not about banning lamps or setting standards for watts per sq ft or the many other metrics we see developing. It is about how we will design our projects in the future. It is about changing our processes. We need to start designing lighting systems that incorporate all aspects of lighting—daylight, electric light and control systems and coordinating those with all other building systems. We need an integrated design team that is looking at the built environment in a holistic way vs. as individual silos.
To accomplish quality and sustainable lighted environments, three things must occur. First, we need increased research that will lead to new technologies and products that we can manufacture in the U.S. Second, members of the lighting community need to have the desire and passion to want to change how we look at our buildings and the impact they have on our world and future generations. And third, the lighting community needs to convince the general public about why they should demand better solutions for their built environments.
Changing a lightbulb is easy, setting a new standard is easy; changing how we act and design…changing people’s minds and habits, that is the hard work yet to be done.

Senior Research Scientist, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Fellow IES, Lighting Research Center,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

P ut simply, lighting consumes resources, and resources are limited. Completing the syllogism, lighting is inherently unsustainable. This gloomy conclusion can be tempered by the fact that some resources (like the sun) are less limited than others (like fossil fuels), although we must learn better how to harness the former before we consume ourselves fighting over the latter.
Returning to lighting, though, light is the only fundamental quantity that depends upon humans for its meaning. This is fitting when we consider that lighting is for people. How is this relevant to sustainable design? Lighting without people is as unsustainable as it gets, but there are still many lighted but empty corridors and parking lots in the world.
Aside from such obvious insults to sustainability, lighting that doesn’t serve people well cannot be sustainable. Lumens per watt, watts per sq ft and crusades for (LEDs) or against (incandescents) particular technologies shouldn’t merit serious consideration if they’re not combined with attention to people’s needs, preferably in quantitative terms. Useful metrics should allow us to assess numerically the positive and negative effects of lighting. Some examples of these new metrics are “application efficacy” (i.e., lighting only the area of interest with minimum energy use, such as a parking lot luminaire that lights only the parking lot, not adjacent properties, or a track-mounted picture light that lights only the picture, not the wall); “outdoor site-lighting performance” (i.e., quantifying the amount of light contributing to light pollution); and “circadian stimulus” (quantifying light for the circadian system).We need more of these metrics, especially regarding when and not only how much light is desirable.
By name and pedigree, IES is an engineering society. Paraphrasing from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, engineering is the creative application of science to an intended function, considering economics and safety. These last two elements make sustainability a hallmark of engineering, and lighting must be infused with the spirit of engineering in order to be sustainable. Promulgating useful metrics and abandoning ineffectual (albeit familiar) ones seems drastic but is what good engineers have been doing all along. Let’s be good engineers.

Principal, Available Light

Man, lighting designers are in a tough spot. As students, it was beaten into us to focus on visibility, composition, balance, color and movement. We were trained to consume—sustainability was not part of the equation. But we are smarter than we used to be; we now know (okay, we now acknowledge) that every lumen we produce tips the carbon dioxide scale against humanity. So where does that leave us lighting designers? After all, we don’t manufacture anything; all we do on behalf of our clients is consume. But we can consume less.
The terms “going green” and “sustainable design” have become ubiquitous. Just like 19th-century marketers used the Statue of Liberty to sell everything from toothpaste to life insurance, the greenwashing of America has contemporary hucksters selling everything and anything in the name of saving the planet. Although much of this activity is fraudulent, or at least downright distasteful (you LED manufacturers know who you are), how else would the notion of going green find its way into the hearts and minds of the general populace? The negative side of this argument pales in comparison to the amazing consciousness-building that has occurred.
When trying to define my occupation to the uninitiated, I often use the analogy that light is to the eyes what music is to the ears: rhythm, tempo, timbre are layers are my toolbox. To me, going green is another tool. It doesn’t mean turn down the music; it means turn it off when no one is listening. It means thoughtfully applying light to tasks and surfaces. It means ceramic metal halide point sources instead of halogen. It means dimmers and motion sensors. It means attempting to motivate the director of facilities to fabulously manage and maintain the systems we have provided—not to go around changing out all the lamps with compact fluorescent ice cream cones.
Our role in life is to consume energy. We must all employ the evermore efficient electric light systems coming to market, harness all the daylight we can find and be more thoughtful about how we apply our design principles. Perhaps it is this notion that makes us that much more valuable to our clients. We must also champion energy that is produced completely by sustainable means. Only then can our profession be truly green.

—Paul Tarricone