Alexander Cortez

On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, environmental design consultancy Atelier Ten, which has 11 offices worldwide and is based in London, published Invisible Architecture (Laurence King Publishing, 2015), a 230-page monograph chronicling its 25-year history of research in sustainable design. One chapter pertains to Atelier Ten's lighting division, located in the company's New Haven, Conn., office and founded in 2006 by Mark Loeffler, who serves as director, and associate director Chad Groshart. Architectural Lighting spoke with Loeffler and Groshart about how the lighting industry has shifted from a focus on aesthetics to a more holistic approach to lighting that combines beautiful visuals with energy-efficient technologies.

Atelier Ten Mark Loeffler
Atelier Ten Chad Groshart
Alexander Cortez

Chad, you contributed to the chapter on lighting design. What does the phrase “invisible architecture”—the title of the monograph—mean to you and how does that reflect the firm's vision?

CG: It's a little bit of tongue-in-cheek for the lighting group when we talk about "invisible architecture" because our first job is literally to make the architecture visible. I liken the lighting portion of Invisible Architecture to my theater days when designers talked about how lighting creates mood and expectations, sets the stage, and helps the audience to feel a sense of place. We also learned that lighting shouldn’t be too obvious and shouldn’t announce itself; it just supports the entire project. We feel the same way about architectural lighting as a strong piece of the collaboration and the environment that’s created.

How does the lighting division contribute to the firm’s approach to environmental design?

ML: We’re fundamentally environmental consultants helping mostly architects and sometimes owners to turn their ideas into reality. It’s not just about the energy efficiency or the environmental performance of buildings, it’s about the human performance. The quality of light, façade optimization, and daylight optimization combines to create enjoyable and appealing places that are also environmentally responsible, healthy, and resilient.

CG: Much like our environmental designers, we have to respond to the architect’s vision and help push the project along into newer technologies or emerging approaches. We work on projects that push the envelope, and take experiences to new firms that perhaps haven’t done projects with some of these advanced techniques or technologies before.

How has lighting technology changed over the course of your careers?

ML: I started out in the days when everything was either incandescent or halogen, and we weren’t all that concerned about energy consumption. Technology has gone from incandescent and halogen which is beautiful and not very efficient, to new forms of compact fluorescent, which was a bridge technology that got everybody thinking about lumens per watt, efficiency, color temperature, and color rendering. Now we’ve gotten into solid-state lighting and we’re returning to the ability to dim, but also do tunable white, color changing, and connecting to security systems. Lighting technology has also taken on a much greater importance in building technology because it is becoming part of the information network.

CG: Lighting design as a concept has not changed. The same rules—about layering light and creating a comfortable visual environment—that we live by now are the ones that we learned in design school. What has changed is the hardware we use to achieve those goals. There are a few new tools that LEDs have given us: much smaller form factors and the ability to graze surfaces that we might not have been able to before. We see lighting controls as a huge piece of the puzzle for the future of lighting design. As the Internet of Things becomes a reality, the idea of fine grain controls reporting information on the status of fixtures, outside of the ability to also rezone them or change how they’re configured, is exciting. We’re on the cutting edge of fixtures that are able to be tunable—warm light to cool light—and we’re close to a world in which we’ll be able to easily dim fixtures up and down, make them warmer or colder, and allow them to respond to the rhythms of natural light.

What is the role of the lighting designer in working with the architect and how has the relationship between the two evolved over the course of your career?

ML: When I got into architectural lighting in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, the profession was still establishing itself. It was all about helping the architect make the project look beautiful, winning prizes, and drawing attention. Over the years, the definition of “good lighting” has changed to mean something that’s an essential part of a high-performance, responsible building. We spend more time thinking about operations and maintenance issues, durability, intuitive controls that actually work when you need them to, daylighting, lighting power densities, and occupancy-responsive systems. We’re pioneering the green edge of architectural lighting, which means we spend a lot of time in collaboration with architects. We’re all in this together for a great project delivery, and it pays off in buildings that look great and perform well.

CG: Lighting designers used to be hired by architects to help their projects look beautiful. If a project looked great and performed the way it needed to, the architect stamped it a success and we got hired again. There are a whole new set of drivers now. First among them is the visual quality that helps to accentuate parts of the building. We also have to provide lighting that is economical, energy efficient, that may or may not satisfy any number of local codes or LEED requirements, for things like low mercury content and controllability. We also have a new awareness from our clients that light can contribute to health and wellness. Our role has expanded in not just being the lighting designer, but being the lighting consultant.