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Creating meaningful spaces through lighting design

Lighting is one of the most important yet overlooked aspects of design. It has a profound effect on mood and influences the way we interact with a space.

The Eaton’s Lighting Division team talked with Ardra Zinkon, IALD, MIES, to get her take on the role of lighting in creating interesting, meaningful spaces. Zinkon is president and director of lighting design at Tec Studio Inc. in Columbus, Ohio.

What are some of the most interesting spaces for lighting design? 

It’s always more interesting to light challenging architecture. The architecture of houses of worship can be new and modern or traditional and even gothic. Each religion has specific iconography that requires special treatment and highlighting.

Houses of worship are unique in that they are both personal and intimate but are essentially public spaces. I started out in theatrical lighting—telling stories—and I’ve always thought of houses of worship as another opportunity to be part of a greater story. Have you ever noticed how people’s voices get softer in church, even if it’s not their church or a service is not being held? That’s because places of worship are special. So much of human life happens in these places, from birth to death. There are significant moments of joy, with baptisms and weddings, and also moments of loss. These give us the ability to connect to the human condition in a special and unique way.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on many different project types in addition to houses of worship. Libraries are a big part of our portfolio. But I’ve also done hospitality, educational and a number of athletic facilities. They all have their challenges, but in the end, we still need to impact the people in the space in the appropriate way.

Explain the importance of creating meaningful places.

Think about a nightclub versus a hospital cafeteria. Both serve drinks, but the venues and the experiences they offer are totally different. Lighting plays a significant role in shaping those experiences.

Just a few of the factors I consider when lighting a space are:

  • Architectural aesthetics
  • The impact of daylighting
  • The people who will use the space (staff as well as the public)
  • Tasks they will complete
  • Allotted budget
  • Ease of future maintenance

Lighting should assist with visibility and wayfinding, but it should also add visual interest and create something unexpected. Lighting should provide comfort, too. For example, how will a space that features lots of natural light during the day look and feel at night? With all those windows, will people feel exposed, as if they’re inside a lantern? Or will they feel connected to other people and their surroundings?

How do you choose lighting that complements the architectural and landscape architectural qualities of a space? 

Architecture plays a major role, and as a lighting designer, I take care to ensure my designs don’t infringe upon the architecture – rather, they support it. When lighting is great, people talk about the architecture. When lighting is bad, people talk about the lighting. Great lighting allows a space to speak for itself.

Lighting design is three-dimensional. We can’t simply focus on the ground or task surface. In order to create an environment that is luminous and comfortable, we have to consider everything – from the walls and ceiling to the finishes.

What are key characteristics you consider when selecting luminaires for your designs?

This varies a great deal. Some of my projects are price-driven or driven by schedule and lead times; others are driven strictly by performance or aesthetic factors. It’s important to know that decorative products aren’t always the best performers. They might just be pretty, and that’s okay, too. Often, I’ll use high-performance products throughout most of a project and add a few pretty fixtures as “jewelry.” Finding the right balance is part of the art of lighting design.

Now, where exterior lighting is concerned, we always turn to higher-grade products, because these are more equipped to stand up to the elements, like bugs and weather.

Are there different things to consider when lighting pedestrian spaces?

This is about much more than lighting the pavement. Outside, there will always be safety concerns. That’s why it’s so important to have a strong layering strategy. How are you lighting the landscape and surrounding buildings in addition to the pavement? Bad choices can create harsh shadows and other problems. We look at the exterior three-dimensionally, just as we do the interior.

How do you achieve visual comfort for pedestrians while meeting strict energy codes and foot-candle requirements?

First, I determine whether it’s a space used only by pedestrians or if it also includes auto traffic. Rarely do we light for one type of user. For example, a major urban area might include green spaces that line up to busy roadways. In this case, we have to consider the interests of the pedestrian and driver, as well as the person inside the building looking out on the scene.

These days, even though energy codes and foot-candle requirements have gotten more stringent, they’re not a huge concern thanks to the improving technology available in the lighting industry. In fact, I find many instances of over-lighting, which happens because people are accustomed to older products that performed poorly and thus end up with twice the amount of light actually needed.

LEDs are doing an incredible job addressing issues that have been a struggle for other sources like metal halide. As the technology improves, things like light trespass are becoming much easier to handle, because LEDs offer tighter light control and more uniformity. And budget-wise, they’re beginning to come in line. 

Why is comfort so important in lighting design? 

At the end of the day, we want and need to create spaces that are comfortable. If we can do that well, everything else will follow.