Sustainability in Lighting Design
March 30, 2012 - 2:44pm

California’s Title 24, compact fluorescent technology, LED alternatives: As the call for—and debate about—energy-efficient illumination has dominated industry forums in recent years, such terms have become familiar entries in the lighting lexicon. But what about Forest Sustainability Council certification? Product recyclability? Non-toxic finishes?

Part of a growing movement toward truly sustainable design—product that’s better for both the home and the world outside—these words are just beginning to affect not only the built environment and its ancillary industries, but American culture as a whole.

There’s no doubt about it: The United States is going green. With roots in the 1970s energy crisis, environmentalism lost a lot of steam in the booming ’80s and early ’90s. Though many of its tenets have crept back into public awareness in the past 10 years, the green movement has sprouted new and exciting growth as of late.

“Three years ago [when I started my company], there was a barren contemporary sustainable design landscape,” says Josh Dorfman, founder of green home furnishings e-tailer Vivavi. “But there’s been a mass culture shift, so that what we’re offering is right in the middle of a dialogue that’s going on in our society.”

Indeed, just last month, “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film about global warming starring former Vice President Al Gore, hit movie theaters nationwide, and Vanity Fair magazine—the high-browed publication read by more Midwestern housewives than New York socialites—debuted its “green issue.” Biodiesel pumps are surfacing at more and more gas stations, offering clean-burning, petroleum-free fuel made from domestic, renewable resources. Even Wal-Mart is experimenting with green stores in McKinney, TX, and Aurora, CO, that use wind turbine-produced energy and harvest rainwater. When that American retail icon dedicates $500 million a year to increasing fuel efficiency, reducing greenhouse gases and cutting solid waste, something big has to be afoot.

“Every manufacturer is trying to do something green,” says Lyn Falk of Milwaukee-based sustainable design firm Solterra Studios. “We refer to ‘shades of green’ from light to dark, where there’s a real overhaul to processes. It’s starting out at the corporate level and filtering its way down to consumers.”

The movement’s biggest advocates may be the design community itself. In 2007, the U.S. Green Building Council will officially roll out the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Certification program for residential housing; its established counterpart in commercial design and architecture was a driving force in many of the energy-efficient technologies on the market today. With LEED-Home awarding points for “environmentally preferable products,” waste reduction and non-toxic materials, an increasing number of contractors and interior designers will soon be seeking out sustainable lighting and other home furnishings products.

Fortunately, a community of green product designers and manufacturers stands ready and eager to meet their needs. In fact, many of them gathered last month at the debut of the HauteGREEN exhibition in Brooklyn, which ran concurrent to New York’s trend-setting International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF). Though early sustainable designs may have carried an unpalatable aesthetic that was too much for many mainstream consumers, the creations coming out of modern workshops and studios are anything but crunchy.

“What’s the point of hitting people over the head with the ‘recycledness’ of [a design]?” asks CP Lighting’s Christopher Poehlmann, who manufactures his lights from salvaged, post-consumer waste. “Why not make a beautiful product that’s well-designed and has value-added, semi-secret green qualities? That way, you’re still impacting the people who don’t necessarily care about the environment [but just want a beautiful product].”

Pervasive throughout the industry, this attitude is helping spur on the green movement. Designers are eager to find “what’s new” by their very nature, and thus, are sourcing interesting, beautiful materials—bamboo ply, coconut woods and veneers—and even developing their own technologies and processes so that their products, while perhaps made from 100 percent recycled materials or covered in non-toxic paints and finishes, are trend-savvy enough to give their unsustainable counterparts a run for their money.

David Bergman, whose Fire & Water studio is a leader in sustainable lighting, calls this idea “transparent green.” In addition to his own design work, Bergman teaches at New York City’s Parsons School of Design, where, he says, more and more students are integrating sustainability into their projects as a matter of fact. “For them, it’s as important as looking at a product’s form, its marketability,” he says. “Soon, it’s not going to be a specialty anymore, just another listing in the criteria for successful design.”

Still, it’s not yet truly easy being green. Sustainable materials—wood from certified eco-forests, non-toxic finishes, even salvaged metals—take time and money to locate and process. This cost must be eventually passed on to the consumer. What’s more, because green design is, for the moment, virtually the sole purview of designers from small, independent studios, there are no economies of scale.

This is changing. At New York-based MetaFORM Studio, it’s been a matter of learning to produce the Sunflower Lighting Series at a lower price while still maintaining green principles (the offerings are made from the thin wood of discarded vegetable crates). Whereas it previously took owner Khader Humied-Safi two days to make one fixture by hand, he’s now able to turn out 10 lights in just one day thanks to new computerized cutting machines, and his prices reflect that.

Vivavi’s Dorfman sees this trend among all of his vendors. “It’s great to sell one piece for $4,000,” he says. “It’s phenomenal to sell 10,000 for $1,000. A lot of our designers feel that if they’re able to sell 10,000, they’re getting more people into the [green] lifestyle and actually starting to make a difference.”

As the demand increases, both materials suppliers and importers will take notice and, eventually, begin offering their products at a more attainable price point. But because the green movement is still very much driven from the top down and as of yet only subtly manifesting itself among consumer awareness, the responsibility in reaching that tipping point lies with the designers and retailers themselves.

“We need to begin to push the manufacturers: ‘Does this have sustainable materials? If not, why not?,’” Bergman says. “The more people ask these questions, the more [larger companies] will see there is a growing market.”

For its part, sustainable lighting has its own set of hurdles to clear. Though LEED awards certification points for various types of sustainable materials, there is a specific exclusion for mechanical equipment—including lighting—so that the only area in which illumination can currently accumulate points is energy efficiency.

“It’s fine and great to use energy-efficient bulbs, but that has nothing to do with the design of a lamp,” Dorfman says. “What about the poisons that went into the groundwater to make it? A lot [also] use PVC, which is a toxic substance that should not be in our homes.”

That’s why, just as understanding the importance of what we put into our bodies fueled the organic food craze, home health is proving to be one of sustainability’s biggest selling points. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air quality is worse than outdoor in some places, and some of the leading contributors—formaldehyde, glues, flame retardants—are found in home furnishings. While consumers may have a hard time connecting with the idea of protecting trees in far-off lands, making sure the air we live in is free of cancer-causing toxins and chemicals hits much closer to home.

Despite such compelling arguments, designers still have significant ground to cover before completely sustainable lighting is in widespread use. Coming out of contemporary-minded studios, the leading products all have a modern edge, which simply doesn’t resonate with more traditional aesthetics. But those on the frontline believe that the day when green is no longer a movement but a way of life is much closer than casual observers might think. 

“We just have to shift consciousness,” MetaFORM Studio’s Humied-Safi says. “There were less than 10 years between the day the Wright Brothers took off in that field to the day the first airplane crossed the Atlantic. It happens.”

Vivavi’s Dorfman agrees: “It’s on the same horizon [as now] that the mainstream will be seeking out sustainable designs,” he predicts. “In the next two to three years, the best designs will come with environmental responsibility.”

Sustainable Packaging

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paper and plastics account for almost half of the 236 million tons of municipal solid waste generated in the United States; much of this comes from packaging refuse. While European manufacturers are required by law to take their boxes and packing materials back, most Americans take these things for granted.

Among sustainable designers and manufacturers, however, green packaging presents one more way to clean up the waste stream. Using corn starch-based packing peanuts or those made of recyclable Styrofoam is one way to make a difference. Streamlining delivery processes is another: MetaFORM Studio’s Khader Humied-Safi delivers small, regional orders himself rather than utilizing the energy-intensive trucking industry.

What’s more, new technologies, like California-based AVC Corp.’s reusable “book” packaging, allows end-users—both consumer and retail—to find new life for these necessary evils as long-lasting storage containers.

The Greening of America

Of all the home furnishings categories, sustainable lighting resources can be the most difficult to source. Their ranks are growing, but don’t be fooled by “greenwashing,” warns Lyn Falk of Wisconsin-based design firm Solterra Studios. “You have to be pretty diligent in asking the right questions”:

   • Is the piece made from all-natural or recycled materials?
   • What binders hold the items together? Are there toxic glues?
   • What sort of finishes are applied? Are patinas the result of
   natural aging or chemicals?
   • Can you clean the lamp with natural cleaners?
   • Can the piece be recycled at the end of its useful life?

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