A space is more than just a space—it’s an experience. And lighting arguably has more of an effect on how a person experiences a space than any other design element. Lighting and environmental designer Elaina Samardzija shares her insights on how lighting can be used to define the spaces in which we live.
Q: What role does lighting play in architecture?
A. How we perceive a space is directly related to how the lighting is integrated into it. Without light we cannot see the work of the designer. Add enough light and you can see the architectural shapes, the colors, and materials. Integrate thoughtfully designed lighting and you can see the beauty of the design’s forms and rhythms, along with the subtleties of color and texture. In addition to revealing the architecture, lighting has more of an effect on how a person experiences a space than any other design element. Lighting designers can affect people’s moods and behavior within a space. How lighting interacts with the space and the people within it, can directly affect how a person experiences a space. Daylight along with artificial lighting can provoke different visual experiences and moods. A person can experience different moods and atmospheres within the same environment throughout the day, and throughout different lighting scenes. Architectural lighting brings all elements of architecture together in a sensory, cohesive manner.
Q. How can we use light—both electric and natural—to define a space? To create an experience?
A. Before selecting fixtures and lamps, and determining placement and quantity, a lighting designer first must ask the owner and/or users many questions on how they intend to use the space, what activities will occur in each space, what overall feeling do they want to have, etc. Then, and only then, can the lighting designer start to manipulate the architecture to allow for the optimal use of natural light and also start to integrate the electric lighting to highlight important architectural features, direct people to where they need to be, and allow them to work and function with comfort and ease. If you want a specific feature in a space to stand out, such as a piece of art, you’ll want to try to accent it at a 3:1 ratio of brightness. (This means, the featured element should be 3 times brighter than its background.) People are instinctively drawn to light, so if you want to lead someone down a hallway, for example, perhaps the features along that path are highlighted brighter than the rest. And creating a comfortable working environment really depends on how well you can control brightness, intensity, and glare. Once you start to play with all these aspects of lighting, you can truly start to create an experience you’ll enjoy.
Q. How can a well lit space can make a homeowner feel good? How can different kinds of lighting make people feel?
A. I would have to say that it’s more about the quality of light and amount of light, rather than the type of light that can affect people. It’s like the old saying goes: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” There’s a place for fluorescent, just as much as incandescent in a home environment. Typically, a residential home lighting scheme will have much softer and warmer qualities to it than a corporate office lighting scheme. If a homeowner is looking to feel good, they would be best to determine first how they want to feel in the space. Do they want to feel calm, comfortable, and serene? If so, they will then want to focus on lighting that is much warmer in color temperature (i.e., more orange like a candle, rather than blueish like daylight) and with more control over the brightness (i.e., dimming capabilities). Do they want to have a high functional space where they aren’t struggling to see or perform a task? If so, then they might be better off with cooler, brighter light, which can help them feel more productive and less tired. In all cases, incorporating different layers of light in one space can allow the user to experience different scenes and atmospheres with each task or activity.
Q. How do you balance the functional needs of a space (i.e., proper light levels) with the aesthetic ones?
A. I always believe in first looking at what activities will be occurring in each space. If you only focus on creating aesthetically pleasing spaces with lighting, the user will not be happy if they can’t function within it. Once you understand the functional needs of the space, and know all the colors and materials used within it, you can start to integrate the lighting to satisfy both. This is the point where you can determine quality of light required to create the “feel,” the intensity and brightness required for tasks, form, and distribution to appeal either the aesthetic or functional design, along with color, direction, and movement to help create the rest of the experience.
Q. What are your favorite sources to use in each of the major living spaces of a house?
A. In the more “living” spaces of a house—like the bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms—I prefer to have softer, warmer light with lower levels to help create a sense of peace and calm. In more “functional” spaces—like the bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms—I tend to opt for higher light levels and cooler light. I’m still partial to the warmth of true incandescent compared to the warmer color temperature CFLs within a home. However, if a homeowner opts for a higher quality fluorescent with proper color temperature selection, a high CRI, and dimming controllability, I would see no reason why it couldn’t be incorporated into a scheme. With that being said, the rapid advancements in LED technology are now allowing people to achieve a closer version of that incandescent source, in a more sustainable option.
Q. How does sustainability fit into this?
A. Lighting has an important responsibility to be one of the most sustainable areas of design by conserving energy, environmental resources, and money. As mentioned above, LED technology is quickly moving towards becoming quite the competitive sustainable alternative to traditional sources of light, with much more flexibility and control than with the previous energy-efficient contender, the fluorescent lamp. However, it’s not just about the money. Yes, it’s a very important aspect that can help manage initial costs with specifications that reduce operational and maintenance costs. Lighting sustainability should also focus on human needs by using design techniques that support the health and well-being of the client and that consider their changing visibility needs throughout their lives. It should also consider the long-term effects on the environment; reducing carbon emissions, hazardous waste, and controlling outdoor light pollution.
Q. What is one of the biggest design challenges you face in your work?
A. There’s no easy, one solution to any lighting scheme for a home, so I always tackle each project as its own unique challenge. One of the biggest problems in lighting a home is identifying the needs of ALL the users and trying to come up with a scheme that will satisfy everyone. Every person experiences a space differently and in lighting, it really comes down to controls. I would have to say that is the aspect to sell to clients. With an integrated control system, you can provide the users with several different ways to light their spaces, according to which user or which activity is occurring. I created a lighting scheme for a family of four that allows them to use their control system effortlessly (even the kids), to light the space how they want it, when they want it. When I visited the house upon final commissioning, they all wanted to show me how they each like to light their space!
Q. What are some lighting pitfalls that homeowners run into sometimes?
A. One of the biggest challenges for a homeowner is when they are retrofitting a space with new lighting. New spaces pose far less problems, since you know exactly what you’re getting into. When you’re renovating an older space, it’s always a concern of “what’s hiding in that wall or that ceiling?” or “can I get into that cavity to recess and do I even have enough space?” When homeowners are undertaking a retrofit, they should always be aware that there may be drastic changes to the lighting design as the project progresses when unforeseen problems arise. If they’re armed with this knowledge right from the beginning, they can adjust their expectations accordingly and will avoid disappointment in the end.
Q. For homeowners who didn’t work with an architect or lighting designer, is there anything they can do to improve the lighting in their home on their own?
A. If people are not seeking the help of a professional, I would urge them to start paying attention to how they feel in the space and more importantly, how the lighting is affecting them. I would suggest they observe what qualities of light make them feel comfortable and in turn, what makes them feel uneasy. From there, that will help them understand what sources or qualities they should be looking at to improve the lighting in their home. A space is more than a space, it’s an experience. Find out what makes you feel good and make it happen in your space.
Elaina Samardzija works for S3 Interior Design in Winnipeg, Canada. She graduated from the University of Manitoba’s Environmental Design program in 2003 with a focus on Interior Architecture. Since then, she has worked within the lighting industry learning many techniques and applications, elevating interior design to a new level. Before joining the S3 Team in January 2012, Elaina has spent a couple of years in London, England, working for international lighting design firms. There she assisted on many large-scale commercial projects, including office spaces, hotels, and exteriors. The project base with S3 consists of residential, commercial, and institutional projects. When Elaina is not focusing on design, she spends her time with her other passions: photography, food and wine, yoga, and her very playful and energetic dog, Oliver.