The five-person lighting design group at global engineering firm WSP Flack+Kurtz is based out of the firm's San Francisco office and is directed by Jonathan Plumpton (second from right), vice president of WSP Flack+Kurtz. From left, team members include: Jay Wratten, Erik Crowell, Erik Campbell, Plumpton, and Heather Mabley.
John Lee / Aurora Select The five-person lighting design group at global engineering firm WSP Flack+Kurtz is based out of the firm's San Francisco office and is directed by Jonathan Plumpton (second from right), vice president of WSP Flack+Kurtz. From left, team members include: Jay Wratten, Erik Crowell, Erik Campbell, Plumpton, and Heather Mabley.

When it comes to the practice of lighting there historically have been two approaches: lighting design and electrical engineering. But what does this mean, exactly? For some practitioners it has represented a distinction between different areas of a project usually called out as “front of house” versus “back of house” spaces, the implication being that front of house spaces carry a different level of importance than those behind the scenes. In turn, this has implied that these spaces require a different level of design consideration and that those focusing on the rote mechanics of laying out a lighting diagram might not necessarily be up to the task of applying a creative exploration of light in the process.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Adherence to this seemingly arbitrary definition only compartmentalizes practitioners in a way that does not acknowledge the modern complexities of architecture, engineering, and lighting design. Nor does it acknowledge that some of the most progressive lighting design practices have existed and flourished at engineering firms. Look, for example, at offices such as Arup, Cosentini Associates, Jaros Baum & Bolles (JB&B), and Flack+Kurtz: all have successful lighting design groups, even though the firm name might not be synonymous at first with lighting.

Each of these offices has worked against the odds to be recognized, each functioning as independent entities that generate their own revenue within much larger organizations. In each case, these design groups have found a way to balance their workload for in-house projects while also trying to market their lighting design services to outside architects and engineering firms. The greatest challenge for these designers is not necessarily the work but how they are perceived by their in-house engineering colleagues as well as fellow lighting designers and architects. “Clients and architects are usually surprised when you can talk in creative circles,” says Michael Mehl, director of lighting design at New York–based JB&B. “They [clients] have already slated and categorized you because you are coming from the MEP [mechanical/electrical/plumbing] firm.”

ADVANTAGES OF WORKING IN AN ENGINEERING ENVIRONMENT Lighting design in an engineering context defies conventional practice setups and offers a dynamic way to redefine the ever-changing demands on the lighting design process. There are a number of pros and cons to practicing lighting design this way. All the designers spoken to for this article agree that the positives far outweigh the negatives, and the benefits have afforded them a wide variety of opportunities—particularly the chance to understand all angles of a project. In turn, their ability to understand the highly technical requirements of a project and merge those with the design allows them greater control on projects and enables them, as practitioners, to realize an even more complete design package.

“There is a synergy working within an MEP firm,” says Jonathan Plumpton, who has been leading the lighting design group at Flack + Kurtz for the past five years. Delineating the scope of work between design and engineering has been key to the group's success as it carves out its niche within the Flack + Kurtz office structure as well as acting as its own independent consultancy. For Plumpton, sorting out the definition of scope of work is about “what would require lighting expertise,” meaning there is something about the space that requires a different kind of approach and thought process about how the lighting will be incorporated.

Another advantage of operating within an MEP firm is the ability to work across disciplines and have multiple resources available to the project team. These resources can include staffing flexibility when projects have to gear up to produce construction documents or having access to the latest in computer software technologies such as building information modeling (BIM), which a smaller design firm might not have the financial resources to incorporate into its practice.

It also promotes better communication at every level from informal in-house discussions to regularly scheduled meetings with the project team and clients. When questions arise, members of the lighting design group easily can check with their electrical engineering colleagues and vice versa. This leads to a more efficient process of coordinating project documents and drawings without having to wait for regularly scheduled meetings. In the end, the client, designer, and project all win, as design solutions have the potential to be more fully developed and integrated into the overall design scheme. “Under an MEP umbrella, we are involved much earlier on in the project,” Plumpton says. “We have the ability to strategize at a broader level, everything from environmental issues to the building envelope.”

And just as the electrical engineers can learn from their colleagues who are focused on design, the designers also gain the advantage of being more directly engaged with the technical components and complexities of a project, not merely in terms of the lighting but also with how the lighting interacts with the other building systems such as heating and cooling. This proximity to engineering colleagues is particularly a plus when it comes to designing complex control systems and building skin systems. The fact that a lighting designer can participate in discussions about thermal comfort and glazing specifications only leads to a richer base solution approach to architecture and lighting.

COMPLEXITIES OF WORKING IN AN ENGINEERING ENVIRONMENT Perhaps the most complicated aspect of practicing design in an engineering office is the difference in office cultures, and that can sometimes put things at odds as two potentially very diverse working styles—the creative and the calculative—need to cohabitate. Design offices, no matter the size, usually tend to have a more elaborate pre-design process used to establish a range of possible project ideas. “We still rely on pencil and paper to start the design process,” Plumpton says. “Engineers, on the other hand, are more streamlined in their process.” At Flack + Kurtz, spreading out and pinning things up takes a physical form, which has led to some furniture rearranging and setting up a dedicated area for the design group to meet for in-house project reviews and discussions.

Despite the differences between designers and engineers, there is an advantage to having them see the differences in each others' working methodologies. Ultimately this can lead to a greater understanding of the work done by each discipline and fosters a mutual level of respect among colleagues. It also helps the design group maintain a more integrated presence in a larger firm rather than being cordoned off into a corner or on a separate floor.