I was at a coffee shop with my brother, Krister, a few weeks ago sitting next to the window and drinking out of some more-or-less sustainable “for here” cups when we got talking about energy usage and good lighting. A designer by profession, he began to talk about lighting and how giving up the ambiance of warmer, more energy expensive lights isn’t the only answer to conserving energy through lighting. Apparently when it comes to lighting design, there are many ways to think about energy usage, and this got me thinking about sustainability practices in basic design in general.

As design is a huge industry, and we are seeing LEED certifications become the trend, it seemed to me that there was also something intrinsic to good design that was more sustainable than, well, not-so-good design. I started by asking the question – how does sustainability play a role in Plank Island Studio’s business practice? Well, it turns out that being a designer in a small town means necessary supplies aren’t always easy to find. So first off, when Krister buys something for his work, he only wants to buy it once. Though it may be more expensive, a quality tool or product lasts longer, works better and reduces both shipping and manufacturing costs and emissions in the long run. He also likes to reuse and repurpose. His desk is a good example. The glass top is actually the door of an old downtown candy shop which has been recently renovated into a vintage ice cream parlor. His studio has been created in the forgotten location of an old labor union office, slowly renovated over the past few years to bring back the history of the building. He adds that a friend once made the point to him that beautiful buildings are the greenest buildings because they never get torn down, thus a new building won’t be needed to replace it. (Though efficiency updates may be in order.)

So how can we tie elements of design sustainability into hunger? Let’s focus on lighting. Energy consumption affects natural resources and pollution levels. According to an ELCA Shareholder resolution filed in 2009, “U.S. power plants are responsible for nearly 40% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, and 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions.” Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases contribute to climate change which plays a role in shifting water levels and rain patterns globally. According to ELCA Advocacy, “as the earth’s climate gets warmer, droughts will grow more frequent and more severe in many parts of the globe, particularly in areas that are already water-stressed.” Droughts negatively affect crop production and access to clean, drinkable water. Yet in good design, lighting is everything. So what are we to do? Here are a couple of interesting examples of how good lighting design can help a normal home become more energy efficient, thus working toward sustainable emissions levels to keep our climate change impact low.

The subject of our coffee conversation that day was how to use lighting better. Track lights, dimmer switches and task lighting, Krister believes, make all the difference. You can dim incandescent bulbs always, and you can buy dimmable compact fluorescents (CFL). So whether you prefer the warmth of an incandescent or are just as happy with an energy saving CFL, dimmers help to keep energy consumption low no matter the type of bulb. Additionally, accent lights and track lights are commonly halogen, a form of more efficient incandescent light. You can also use CFLs for many types of accent lighting. Check out Krister’s offering of 5 Tips for Better Living through Better Lighting on The Table. (Note: incandescent bulbs require the use of the metal tungsten – while the majority of the tungsten used in the US comes from abroad, one-third of our supply comes from our own recycling of the metal1. Additionally, CFL bulbs contain small amounts of mercury which can be released if broken, however, they cause considerably less mercury to be released into the atmosphere through power production than incandescent bulbs.)

Next, as lighting technology continues to transform, LED is hitting the scene. LED lights are cool to the touch and require incredibly low levels of energy to function. They also outlast any competition. Plank Island Studio recently teamed up with a local furniture maker to design a commissioned bedroom side table that doubled as a night light. It utilized a low impact LED light to shine through Japanese shoji paper without heat concerns. It serves as an example of energy efficient task lighting. Plus, LED lights contain no mercury2 and because of their efficiency, expend little in power production as well.

To be truly sustainable we would probably all need to buy 100% renewable energy or install a windmill on our roof to produce the electricity which lights our homes. Kudos to those of you who do so, and to the rest, please consider good lighting design as a step in the right direction. Proper lighting for proper places means sustainable energy usage and sustainable, happy ambiance.

Lesson 1: When possible, buy tools and supplies that last.

Lesson 2: Design (and restore when possible) beautiful buildings that stand the test of time.

Lesson 3: Utilize good lighting design and you’ll be on your way to a more sustainable energy consumption level. This will be good for the environment and your pocket book.

Next book in cue: Strategies for the Green Economy, by Joel Makower

Today’s favorite link: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_barber_how_i_fell_in_love_with_a_fish.html


1: http://www.mii.org/Minerals/phototung.html

2: http://www.newmoa.org/prevention/mercury/imerc/factsheets/lighting.cfm