Notes of a Keynote

DSC_4011Last night I was honored to deliver the keynote address at the American Institute of Architects Illinois Prairie conference in Carbondale. I had fun tying together thoughts from a number of blog posts and writing this “sermon.” 

Lighting is a product. It costs you money.

Light is a gift. Light can help you live better.

When I was born, I was given the double gift of sight and light.  You cannot have one without the other- without light our eyes are useless, color is meaningless, sunsets do not exist, and smile is only a word.

I’d like to tell you that I said “thank you” for the gift of light at a young age, but I did not.  I took it for granted, a little bit like getting clothes as Christmas presents.   Imagine me as a spoiled 8-year-old, still blissfully unaware of fashion and not yet begging for Reebok pumps and parachute pants.  I unwrap a pair of blue jeans.  That’s nice, I suppose, but when have my parents ever let me go naked?  They were going to keep me clothed anyway, so why did they waste Christmas money on jeans when they could have bought more Legos?

I just expected light, and I was fortunate to have extra.  I was born on a farm in central Illinois and I spent a lot of time outdoors, soaking up sunshine.  This was an era when extra-curricular activities were extra- not the main attraction the seem to be now- so I still had plenty of free time.   I spent a lot of that free time outdoors, often defending the family farm from communist paratroopers who fortunately only attacked on the weekends when my friend Brian came over.

Outdoors was not just for fun- walking the corn fields doing detestable detasseling had its moments, but I hope I never ever have to do that again.  All that time, I took light for granted.

Around junior high age I discovered light as a toy.  I discovered that light could be used to manipulate emotions.   Picture me as a seventh grader, a lot smaller and geekier, standing on the tiny stage in the tiny gym in the tiny small town school. It’s a school dance, and Bon Jovi is blaring from the DJ’s speakers.  I’m punching the buttons on the drama club’s light board, making colored lights pulse along with the music, and I am having a ball.  Why?  Because I can translate audio into something visual.  I can heighten the emotional impact of the music.

At the same time I got involved with an extra-curricular that would take all of my time for the next 20 years.  My first involvement in the drama club was as an actor, and I peaked rather early when I donned green tights for my starring role in Peter Pan in seventh grade.  I would go on to become famous for my portrayal of third-man-in-crowd in Fiddler on the Roofwith the Villa Grove Community Theater company.

Sometime in high school I noticed that Darren- the lighting guy- got to wear all black, strut around looking important while wearing a cool wireless communication headset, and get a check for two hundred bucks when it was all over.  Two hundred!  As an actor, I had to pay $20 to be in the show!  I was just beginning to understand that light might have potential beyond a toy.

This casual exploration continued into college when I launched myself as “The Architect of Sound.” I had t-shirts printed up with my Ionic capital logo and left the junior high stage behind for drunken frat parties. I was a terrible DJ.  I could never match beats or scratch vinyl, but I had an awesome light show.  I was mostly having fun, but before long I was inexorably marching away from Light and towards Lighting.

Lighting is a product. It costs you money.

Light is a gift. Light can help you live better.

I won’t regale you with the details of how I moved away from architecture and into architectural lighting design as a career.  Stuffing Jimmy Johns franchises into strip malls, as I did in my first architectural internship, just couldn’t compete with lighting an exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which I did in my first lighting internship.  I started using lighting as a product.

Let’s take a break from my nostalgic stroll down memory lane and look at what I was missing all those years: Light is a gift.

In the beginning, there was darkness, and just about everyone agrees with that point.  I wasn’t around to see it, but I like to combine my faith with science and think that a couple billion years ago the Creator touched off a pretty big bang. Whatever the case, light happened.

Light has been a gift from the beginning, and our ancestors knew it.  I knew Zeus threw lightning bolts, but I thought there was also a Greek god of the sun.  I asked my kids, who of course knew the answer.  “Yeah, dad, that’s Helios.  He rode his chariot into the sky every morning to start the day.”

Prometheus, another Greek titan, was celebrated by humans and punished by Zeus because he gave humankind light we could control- fire.  Light was a gift from the godsto the Greeks.

This was not just a Greek thing.  The ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra, and the Israelites recorded in the book of Genesis that the first words of Yahweh were about light.

And what did their God say? “Let there be…40 footcandles on the horizontal task plane delivered at less than 1.0 watts per square foot with an average life of 70,000 hours and a CRI of 90+”

The Hebrew God did not say “Let there be a product” or “Let there be a utility.”  The words were “Let there be light.”  And God saw that it was good.  This is not the only reference to light in what we call the Bible. I’ll ask for a volunteer to sing “This little light of mine” when we wrap up tonight.

Our ancestors, in other words, knew the importance of light.  In fact, many of them worshipped light.

Then something happened. We got thirsty for more light, more control of light.  We hunted whales to the brink of extinction for their cleaner, brighter burning oil. Yes, it was the lighting industry that caused this early environmental destruction, and we did not learn our lesson.

Thomas Edison, the Elon Musk of 1900, packaged and produced the incandescent light bulb, a modern miracle. Instead of worshipping light, we idolize Edison.  And Edison was in it for money.  His desire for electric light had very little to do with light and everything to do with creating a commodity, a utility, a product.  Edison, from the beginning, was much more interested in selling us electricity. He just needed the light bulb to work so that every home and business in America would buy his power.  His company was Edison’s General Electric.

Lighting was a product. We forgot that light is a gift.

This continues even today- in fact, I help perpetuate the mistake.  How many of you have attended lighting lunch and learns or been visited by lighting reps and shown the latest and greatest product?  This is how I continue to learn about lighting.

I learn about light from manufacturers whose livelihood depends on me buying their lighting as a product. I first delivered lunch and learns because I needed architects to hire me to deliver lighting design as a service, so I could eat.  And so we try to convince you to buy our product or service by using numbers and data points. Lumens per watt.  Watts per square foot.  Hours of life.  Footcandles delivered. Uniformity Ratios.  These support the specification and sale of a particular product.

As a product, we want to spend as few dollars as possible, because lighting as a product is competing for the exact same dollars as toilet seats.   We might put a nice-looking fixture in the lobby of the hospital, but in the patient exam rooms, where the staff works and the patients wait for hours, we put the cheapest most efficient lighting possible.  This is lighting as a utility, as a commodity.

This can be a little different in residential lighting design.  Most houses treat lighting as a utility; how else do you explain ceiling fan light kits that leave all the seating in the dark while shining four bare light bulbs directly into your eyes no matter where you sit?

It is not that way on all projects, however.  Recently I have been working quite a bit in higher-end residential projects, and I have heard and read in multiple places that “Lighting is the jewelry of the home.” That sounded nice to me at first- at least it was nicer than lighting as a utility.

Jewelry is not a commodity. It has little to no utility.  It is not, therefore, competing for the same dollars as the toilet seat.  Jewelry can have carte blanche in the budget.  Instead of spending thirty bucks on a cheap downlight, we might spend a thousand dollars on a trendy chandelier over the dining room table that we use twice a year.

When I get dressed in the morning, jewelry is the last thing added to the project.  It may serve a sentimental purpose, like my wedding ring, but it typically serves no practical purpose.  Jewelry can even be harmful to us, like the gold ring I used to wear on my right hand.  The ring was smashed flat when 170 pounds of sheetrock landed on it.  Fortunately, I was wearing a multi-tool and was able to pry the ring open and let blood flow back to my finger.  That jewelry almost cost me a digit.  Lighting can cause harm, too, in the form of eyestrain, glare, headaches, or sleep disruption.

Jewelry can be made cheaply with flimsy materials, designed for glittery glamour.  It can also be made ridiculously expensive, dripping with expensive gems or crystals.  Just like a chandelier.

Did you notice that started this diatribe talking about Light as a Gift and ended up talking about Lighting as a Product?  That happens when we talk about light.  Before long, we’re talking about lighting.

Let’s unwrap the gift of light.

Speaking of gifts, when I was a kid I got gifts every Christmas from Aunt Jean.  When she got her job at Rand McNally, we got cool gifts like maps.  But before that, I got tube socks.

Back then, tube socks were not necessarily uncool.  We wore them with our white leather tennis shoes, pulled up tight nearly to our knees so you could see the colored stripes in all their glory.   Where I grew up- near the University of Illinois- the acceptable stripe colors were orange and blue.  For some reason, Aunt Jean always sent me what I considered odd colors, like purple and green.  Like any spoiled kid receiving the gift of tube socks, I shrugged, tossed them over my shoulder, and went back to the tree in search of Lego sets.

We do this with light. We might not even unwrap the gift fully. We see tube socks peeking out of the package and we’ve already moved on.  We see warm white 60-watt equivalent on the package and we’ve already moved on. Feet covered?  Check.  Light covered?  Check.

But tube socks are nothinglike the gift of light.  If tube socks were like the gift of light, they would have hidden promises we didn’t see at first.

With magic we don’t quite understand, those socks would help us do better at school, run faster, and sleep better.   With magic we don’t quite understand, they would help us know where we are and where we are going.  Those socks would help us feel better, relax more easily, even heal faster.  Those socks would help us adapt to changing seasons easier, even help us deal with aging easier.  And the stripes on those socks would tell our story, remind us what we value.

If we open the gift of light and treat it like tube socks from Aunt Jean, we’re going to miss out.

Why?  Because light is not just any old gift.  Light is the first gift.  Light is a gift of radiant energy, and it IS nearly magical.

Light can help us do better.

Light can help us know more.

Light can help us feel better.

Light can help us change easier.

Light can help us tell our stories.

Light can help us. 

These are what I call the five promises of light.  I suspect there are more just waiting to be unwrapped.  But when we treat lighting as a product, we might get one, perhaps two, of the promises.  And they might be canceled out by the glare.

I am asking you, for your own wellbeing, to fully unwrap the gift of light.  Don’t treat it as a product, a commodity, a utility, or even jewelry.

Treat light as the sole provider of sight.

Treat light as a key contributor to our emotional wellbeing.

Treat light as a drug that can help us heal faster and require fewer medications.

Treat light as a tool that can help us cope with aging.

Treat light as the revealer of where we are, as the lighthouse for where we are going.

Treat light as an energy force that keeps us focused on what matters to us.

Treat light as a gift that can help us do better, know more, feel better, change easier, and tell our stories.

Lighting is a product. Light is a gift.

Your mind, body, and soul need this gift.  It’s time to unwrap it.

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