Don’t fall foul of the lighting code paradox

Can lighting guidelines cater equally to the needs of design experts and non-specialists?

There is a body of opinion that believes the best thing you could do with lighting standards and guidelines is drop them down the nearest well.

The perpetrators of this heresy are not necessarily your typical young mavericks either. In fact they are by and large quite venerable, academic and, I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, long in the tooth.

The problem with rule books and codes is that they contain an inherent paradox. Like any other area of expertise, the people Who Know What They Are Doing don’t generally need recourse to a reference book unless they are brushing up on an area they are a bit rusty on or someone’s moved the goal posts on a bit of legislation.

But even then they don’t really need it because they know already how to bring a good lighting scheme in well under the wire of any legal stipulation or European standard.

The people who do need guidelines, however, are the non-lighting specialists, and the problem there is getting them to follow the spirit not the letter of the law. In other words, not latching on to the wrong bits or getting them out of context, or considering all lighting design criteria to have been achieved because a light fitting manages to squirt a particular percentage of its output on the ceiling.

The drawback with guides and codes is that they can lead to trammelled thinking, misinterpretation and conformity rather than creativity. Or as General Douglas MacArthur put it: ‘Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.’

Especially the last bit.

Falling between two stools

Guidelines often fall between two stools because they don’t go far enough for the experts but have to stop short of baf ing and deterring the nonexpert.

The writer of the rule book has to steer a tricky course between sounding woolly – it’s really much nicer if you have some light on the walls and ceilings so your office doesn’t look like Shrek’s house – and being prescriptive.

The people who are clinging to every word are by definition unsure how to go about things. ‘So how much is good?’ they ask. Well, it’s not really about putting a figure on it; we could say 30 per cent, but… too late, they’ve grabbed the figure and scurried off into the corner with it.

One can sympathise with Peter Raynham, who together with Peter Boyce and John Fitzpatrick, has just produced his fifth version of the SLL Code for Lighting, which is the sort of code of codes in that it summarises all the others. This latest version reflects the shift in emphasis to lighting for the specific task and for people by introducing values such as mean cylindrical illuminance.

‘What always worries me when I’m writing a code is that somebody is going to extract selectively from it some weird and wonderful bits and pieces, and just use that for box ticking,’ he said during an interview I did with him for Cibse Journal.

‘You will always get a strange bit of any SLL document like this picked up. How people will choose to abuse it I can’t say.’

Raynham is a fi rm believer that the code is not about teaching grandmothers to suck eggs, but rather steering the non-specialist away from making a pig’s breakfast of it. ‘It’s actually to stop bad lighting rather than to promote good lighting,’ he says.

Following the code will at least stop people doing anything terrible, he argues, although just following it to the letter will probably result in mediocrity. ‘Lighting design by numbers alone will only produce an inferior result.’

Let’s hope the non-specialists who carry out 85 per cent of all lighting schemes recognise that too.

Jill Entwistle, associate editor, design

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