Preview: Sustainable Lighting for All

Ahead of this month’s panel discussion on lighting innovation as it relates to wellness, energy savings and biophilic design, presenter Chad Groshart (Atelier Ten) shares insights from the world of lighting design. Groshart, who also teaches Lighting in the Developing World at Parsons, explains how his work in developing communities impacts his high-performance and wellness-focused projects.

What’s the impact that light and energy poverty have on the global community?

While we’re making great strides here in the developed world, it is also important to remember that over 1 billion people in 2017 are affected by issues related energy and light poverty. Almost 20 percent of the world’s population strikes a match after dark to see. With minimal alternatives for lighting, families in developing countries are often caught in the cycle of poverty.

Fuel-based lighting (kerosene) is expensive, dangerous and unhealthy while providing poor illumination and contributing to carbon emissions. According to the World Bank, 780 million women and children breathing kerosene fumes inhale the equivalent of smoke from two packs of cigarettes a day. The result is that two-thirds of the adult female lung cancer victims are non-smokers in developing countries.

Kerosene lamps produce carbon dioxide (CO2), and it is estimated that each lantern with a weekly fuel consumption of one liter of kerosene produces 0.1 tons of CO2 each year. In general, fuel-based lighting in the developing world is a source of 244 million tons of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere each year. This amounts to 58 percent of the CO2 emissions from residential electric lighting globally.

In some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, a family can spend up to 25 percent of their yearly income on kerosene. If we can replace kerosene with a renewable LED solar lantern or similar technology, how much more education, healthcare and nutrition could that family access?

How has your work in developing communities affected your projects going forward?

As a lighting designer, spending time in places with very little controllable lighting always helps reset my “visual light meter.” True darkness exists when there are no streetlights, neighboring homes lit up, or even LED phone chargers.

The populations we work with go to bed with the sun and rise with it. This natural circadian entrainment is the ideal that we strive for in the developed world as it promotes health by keeping us in synch with the natural world and our internal clocks. Working in this space has attuned me to the overwhelming abundance of light that exists for us here in the US. We gorge ourselves on light. Understanding that light is a precious resource and treating it like one allows my work to “right size” the illumination; lighting what is essential, but letting some areas drop off toward a lower illuminance.

How can developed areas such as New York City learn from the lighting solutions in the developing world?

Lighting in the developing world is served by the shot glass, whereas in NYC it’s more like drinking from a fire hose. As the ambient light all around NYC increases, we have to do more and more to create contrast. The result is far more light than we need, wasted energy and visually uncomfortable spaces indoors and out.

Looking at spaces and starting from darkness is a technique that we find focuses the design on what is needed for the task. We then look at what other light might be needed to fill in and balance the visual environment. Far too often, the opposite is done. In order to have “maximum flexibility,” owners want to flood the space with even light and then add task lighting and art lighting on top.

The other lesson we can learn is to understand the inherent sustainability woven into the fabric of people with few resources. Naturally they use daylight in clever ways, but not because they have spent years as a daylight designer to understand how to optimize daylight. Through years of trial and error, indigenous architecture has learned to make the most of natural resources.

To learn more and be part of the conversation, join us on March 27 at the USAI Lighting Showroom.

About the authors

Urban Green Council
Dedicated to transforming buildings for a sustainable future.