The Silver Oak Alexander Valley Winery, Eric Johnson Associates, Inc, lighting design, is a net positive project.

The Silver Oak Alexander Valley Winery, Eric Johnson Associates, Inc, lighting design, is a net positive project.

The lighting design projects submitted by Bay Area firms for the 2019 SF Lux Awards demonstrate many impressive things – first and foremost a level of excellence and creativity in design that is simply superb, world class. In our IES San Francisco Section and the larger local community we should all be proud about being part of a vibrant design ecosystem that produces work at this high level. The projects show amazing versatility and willingness to use new technologies in fresh ways to deliver beautifully lit environments, interior and exterior. They exemplify innovative approaches to controls and energy efficiency. And they often deliver moments of exquisite beauty – they’re Positively Fabulous– by this I mean something quite specific. For further explanation read on.

Recently in lighting we’ve begun to take energy efficiency for granted. This is understandable for many reasons- solid state lighting has made amazing efficiency gains in the last decade, enabling considerable energy savings on light sources alone across the board. Lighting power densities of .5 Watts/sf are no longer uncommon. Lighting now uses on average 97% less energy than in 1973.

Lighting designers were never as focused on energy efficiency as mechanical engineers in the first place, and now they often feel encumbered by codes like California’s Title 24, which are becoming increasingly complicated and difficult to meet. Most would prefer just to get on with the business of design- focusing on beauty, emotion, health & well-being, in short, what I’ll call fabulousness.

Although the last two decades have also seen considerable progress in increasing energy efficiency in buildings, this has been slower than in lighting alone. There have been no dramatic improvements in HVAC technologies relative to lighting. But net-zero buildings have become much more prevalent and accepted, largely through changing energy codes and the design process. To date this effort has been mostly about optimizing building performance through engineering and calculations. The ultimate goal in this exercise is the net-positive building, one that makes more energy than it consumes. But the engineers who squeeze watts out of buildings and their systems rarely focus on beauty, emotion, health and well-being- they’re all about positivity. So it would appear that the two imperatives– beauty and efficiency– are rather intractably at cross purposes. 

This common mindset does seem at times to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when adopting new technology or design practices disrupts the deeply entrenched risk-adverse culture of the construction industry. But a closer examination of many successful highly efficient and net-zero buildings shows that efficiency and beauty are often highly compatible. I recently studied several such projects in preparation for teaching their case studies in our class on advanced lighting controls at PG&E’s Pacific Energy Center. Now net-positive buildings are the goal, which is where the “Positive” in Positively Fabulous comes in. 

Lighting plays a significant role in the overall adoption of efficient and resilient building practices and better energy codes for several reasons. First of all, lighting was the first application for electricity and is the most visible use of energy. So although it now consumes a quickly shrinking relative percentage of energy use, its impact on awareness and changing behavior is proportionately far greater. Secondly, intelligent adaptive building systems are integrating on lighting’s electrical distribution network- whether lighting professionals will evolve to be able to handle this technology in professional proactive or not, integrated smart building systems can deliver significant additional energy savings on top of already efficient buildings and systems. And finally, as more fabulousness accrues to efficient lighting technologies and installations, the general public is gradually equating SSL with higher quality, and this will drive more adoption and its attendant efficiency gains.

The relentless drive for efficiency in all things as evidenced in the software economy we’ve created for our aculture, aesthetics play a huge role in most design decisions in the built environment. The modernism remains the strongest operative aesthetic today. “Modern” design is clean, crisp...efficient, and can certainly be beautiful– we all love a pristine Eichler house, right? Modernism is also, famously and unfortunately, not always very “human-centric.” It also stylistically codifed the use of wildly inefficient materials for building skins, such as glass and metal, miserable choices for effective thermal performance in most climates. So basically the modernist style has caused us to waste incalculable amounts of energy. And in lighting, while there are many excellent examples of innovative collaboration between modernist architects and lighting designers – notably Richard Kelly teaming with Philip Johnson and Louis Kahn, for instance – modernism has also given rise to an over-engineered uniform troffer ceiling paradigm, neither human-centric nor efficient, and one that we’re going to be retooling our way out of for the next several decades. 

For the last fifteen years I’ve been intrigued with the idea of a sustainable aesthetic that will improve upon or replace modernism. What if people gradually, organically begin to recognize beautifully illuminated, sustainable buildings as the preferred style, one that will become ubiquitous? It could happen! If anything could serve to provide an instantly recognizable element of a “Sustainable” or “green building, I think it could be lighting – specifically lighting that’s an optimal balance between daylight and electric light. And if architects take the advice offered in the webinar I just did with my excellent colleague Jeremy Steinmeier, architect and lighting designer extraordinaire, “A Machine for Light- the Building as Luminaire” (available soon online at they will begin to consider lighting first when shaping building envelopes. This is a crazy idea to most lighting people now, but with a closer look at design history, not so crazy – as we show in the webinar it was common practice before electric lighting came along. I don’t know what to call it yet (“Positively Fabulous” sounds like a new Netflix show, I know huh?), but I’m convinced that lighting can lead the new aesthetic. 

Based on the quality of the lighting and architectural design shown in the Lux Award project submissions we saw, I would also suspect that if this brave new aesthetic emerges, it has a strong chance of doing so first right here in River City, in our own front yard by the Bay (well there’s a river out there too). We can have it all, but not through technology and engineering alone, nor by following design styles irrationally, but by combining beauty, efficiency, and intelligence. Our local design community is already Positively Fabulous, we just need to get the rest of the world on board. 

-Clifton Stanley Lemon