The evolution of an industry begins with the technical evolution of its key component parts. In lighting, a new lamp, reflector, ballast, or dimmer is often the basis for evolutionary changes. But unlike purely technical fields, the art of lighting also causes change in how light is delivered and perceived. Lighting, whether it be the art of luminaire designs, the art of architectural styles and applications, or the artistic use of light itself, has proven itself time and again as being driven by architectural fashion and creativity as much as by the evolution of technology. As I wrote in a piece about the vocabulary of decorative lighting in architectural lighting's Sept/Oct 2005 issue, lighting is the “jewelry of architecture.” Lighting's need for both technical proficiency and appearance make it especially challenging and unlike any other specialized part of architecture and engineering. No other discipline straddles architecture and engineering with such a range from the most subtle of aesthetic decisions to the most monumental engineering choices.
At lighting's core, all of its new ideas come from technology. The history of lighting is replete with engineers, architects, and artists who find various ways to utilize light sources. In many cases, the artful expression of lighting follows from more-utilitarian or innocuous applications, and over the past 25 years, there have been a number of lighting technologies (many of which have been discussed in the pages of this magazine) that deserve critical attention, mostly for their transformational impacts, or even for their failures or shortcomings.
In 1986, when AL was newly launched, low-voltage lighting was all the rage among lighting designers. The first articles I wrote for this magazine—a three part series called “The High Points of Low Voltage”—covered the gamut of products ranging from the ubiquitous MR16 and festoon lamp striplights to the more esoteric PAR36 and other lamps. To this day, low-voltage technique, which is far more involved and detailed than general lighting methods, is fundamental to many applications of solid-state lighting.
If I had to point to one technology that accelerated the growth of the profession of lighting design, it would be low-voltage lighting and especially, the MR16 lamp. It inspired not only numerous award-winning lighting designs, but also a plethora of design-oriented products, many of which we continue to use and adapt.
Infrared Reflecting Lamps
In the race to make lighting more efficient, halogen infrared reflecting lamps (IR or HIR) have played an important role in allowing halogen lighting to serve well into the 21st century. It is still hard to beat the color quality, beam control, dimming, and cost effectiveness of these lamps. They established a practical balance of cost, efficiency, and quality that any competing technology will need to meet or beat—and none really has, just yet.
Another revolutionary 1980s product, the scene-control dimmer, changed lighting controls in homes, boardrooms, ballrooms, and better-quality, budget-supported projects forever. Try to imagine a premium space without scene controls. And yet, only now, more than 20 years later, are we beginning to employ controls systems and concepts that transcend this fundamental change in lighting design practice.
Fluorescent Lamp Color
Until the 1980s, most buildings had poor-color-rendering fluorescent lighting systems. In 1986, a revolution in color was under way and leading projects were increasingly equipped with rare-earth phosphor lamps, the first fluorescent technology affording high CRI (color-rendering index) and full lumen output. Lack of standardization made each company's lamps appear slightly different, but all of them were far better than warm-white or cool-white. Once again, a standard was set to which future lighting systems were to be held, and I doubt we will ever see common lighting systems with less than 80 CRI ever again. And we certainly won't tolerate color variation anymore.
Computers in Lighting
The practice of lighting design is increasingly dependent on computer calculations and renderings. In 1987, I was the lone kid on the block with my IBM PC and Lumen Micro. Today, lighting designers, engineers, reps and manufacturers all must possess the skills and software needed to produce accurate calculations and renderings. And yet, like with any tool or technology, it is only as good as the person using it. Designers must still understand what information the calculations numbers are providing them and what this is telling them about light, and not be deceived by a pretty rendering.
T8 Lamps and Electronic Ballasts
If the MR16 was the pivotal technology that established lighting design, then the T8 fluorescent lamp and instant-start electronic ballast were the technologies that accelerated the role of other lighting professionals and engineers into a brave new world of lighting efficiency. To this day, the T8 lamp-and-ballast system is by far the most cost effective, in terms of lumen hours per dollar, of any lighting system for general applications. Its only real challenger is the T5 fluorescent system.
Ultrasonic and passive infrared motion sensors were originally developed for security applications, when a few smart companies recognized them as an excellent idea for automatic lighting controls. The first sensors in the late 1980s had problems. Now, many improvements later, it is hard to imagine designing lighting systems without them—even for noncommercial applications.
Ceramic Metal Halide
The color quality of rare-earth fluorescent lamps made original metal halide lamps look dull and gray—not to mention the dreadful color of high-pressure sodium. Several attempts to make better color HID (high-intensity discharge) lamps were made—and were not really successful—before the ceramic metal halide lamp came along. Like a cross between metal halide and high-pressure sodium, ceramic metal halide lamps remain the only energy-efficient, high-lumen point source with great color.
Network Lighting Controls
Known today by a number of popular names such as DALI, Ecosystem, Homeworks, and DMX, digital communications entered into theatrical and architectural lighting control in the 1980s. Not only did centralized lighting control become commonplace in custom homes and major buildings, but it also laid the groundwork for the future generations of distributed intelligence systems in both applications. We now design powerful lighting systems without the huge dimmer racks or relay cabinets needed only 10 years ago. Network lighting controls continue to evolve, with the promise of much more capability right around the corner as the inherent communications capabilities of solid-state lighting systems are matched to the world of tablet computers and smartphones.
In the 1980s, color-changing RGB systems were being designed with neon or fluorescent lamps in boxes or rows of heat-producing tungsten lamps. The details were huge and the cost was out of sight. Then, with the convergence of solid-state lighting and digital communications, color-changing lighting systems became the hit of the new century. Not only did color-changing systems add the lexicon of color to everyday designs in restaurants, casinos, and bars, but they also became affordable for residential applications. This development also aided the general understanding and adoption of solid-state lighting as did drivers, heat sinks, and other components.
Solid-state lighting promises to be the most revolutionary change since Edison's lamp. While still new and deserving of critical concern for its practicability, life, and cost effectiveness, LEDs are now laying claim to being the best choice for many architectural applications including downlighting, wallwashing, cove lighting, and some general lighting in commercial and industrial lighting. However, the transformation has just begun, and many manufacturers are unimaginatively putting LEDs into traditional luminaires. Like many other lighting designers, I look forward to new types of fixture designs and lighting approaches; they are right around the corner.
The Advanced Lighting Guidelines
The Advanced Lighting Guidelines (ALG) has served to provide accurate, honest, and independent information about lighting and controls for specifiers. First published in 1990 to carefully and correctly explain the brave new world of reflectors, electronic ballasts, T8 lamps, and other new products, the ALG has been a technical resource that, unlike the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) Handbook, kept up with technology. Now an online resource with constant updating and a number of contributing authors, the ALG is an example of what the IES Handbook should become, and in the meantime, an in-depth resource to support the current issues and successful designs discussed in lighting publications.
Disappointments and Disasters
No amount of hyperbole and sales pitch can cover up products that just did not have a very sound foundation. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a few years to discover problems with sources or systems, and too often we don't critique new products thoroughly before millions of dollars are wasted on problem technologies. Some of the more dramatic lighting disappointments include:
HQI and Color Improved HPS lamps: The precursors of the ceramic metal halide lamp, these new lamps promised and delivered, but there were ultimately too many problems. These products, while available for a number of years, were never really successful.
Fiber optics and light pipes: The idea of capturing light in one place and using it in another is exciting but, as it turns out, not particularly efficient or practical in most applications. We can still use these technologies for a few unique applications, but never as much as each product's advertising in the 1990s promised.
Compact Fluorescent Lamps: As successful as they have been, compact fluorescent lamps have always disappointed. At first, preheat starting was terrible. Still, lamp size and shape, color problems, dreadful dimming performance, temperature sensitivity, and lack of beam control in directional lighting have made me wish for something better for a long time. The sooner LED takes over, the better.
Sulfur Lamps and Tracking Solar Collectors: The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) poured money and hype into these impractical and ultimately useless pursuits. Unlike those programs, the DOE's successful solid-state lighting program including CaLiPER testing is a refreshing example of tax dollars well spent.
All in all, lighting technology continues to evolve and excite. While there will still be disappointments, the dramatic increase in technical critique by the industry suggests that there will be more good than bad. And the good looks really good, if we can just figure out how to use it.