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Mark Hensman

Issue 49 Jun / Jul 2009

Jill Entwistle talks to Mark Hensman of GIA Equation about his passions and his pet hates.

Mark Hensman is the first to admit that he hasn’t always been easy to work with. “It would be fair to say I have a fairly spiky nature. The problem is what drives me, ultimately, is that I have a real passion for lighting and a passion for the detail. Certainly that will push me in certain cases and I’m aware that can be difficult for people. I’m also not good at someone who’s just doing a job, just earning money. To work with me they must have passion.”

He reckons he has mellowed a bit though, especially since Equation’s merger with multi-disciplinary surveying and design consultancy GIA last year. “I think the GIA thing helps because I’m just doing design, I’m not dealing with the nuts and bolts that I don’t want to do. I think I’m also more confident.”

Equation, which was founded by John Bullock in 1986 and which Hensman joined as a co-director in 1987, is one of the UK’s longest established independent lighting design consultancies. Hensman arrived there via an electrical course – which he quickly realised was a bad move – and a six-year stint at Erco.

“When I started the electrical training I realised I’d made a bit of a mistake and really couldn’t do that for the rest of my life. Fortunately, in the middle of it, there was a section on illumination engineering and I was fascinated by it.”

He completed the design in the built environment course, including the lighting section, at what was then South Bank Polytechnic and ended up at Erco through a combination of a family contact and a fluke.

Hensman moved from the technical side to selling and became involved with architectural practices. “Erco was small enough at that point to be about selling a whole concept. There’s a whole load of stuff I learnt there that’s still with me today. It wasn’t about going in and saying ‘isn’t this light fitting fantastic?’, but going in and saying ‘how do you want this space to work?’.”

Erco had quadrupled in size to more than 40 staff and significantly increased its turnover by the time Hensman left. When he joined Bullock at Equation, lighting design was still viewed as some arcane art by many potential clients. “You’d go into an architect and say you were an independent lighting designer and they’d say ‘what’s one of those?’. The first hurdle we all had to get over was getting people to understand exactly what it was we did and that it could be of value to them.

“It was really hard work. But I enjoyed it a lot because I liked the feeling that we were on the edge of this thing that was developing. Maybe it says more about me, but you rarely get something that gets the blood going that doesn’t require a good effort.”

Ask Hensman what characterises his approach to lighting design or what his influences are and he initially struggles to answer. What is indisputably central to his style is a constant analysis of what the lighting is trying to achieve.

“Everything we do is always questioned. Why are we doing this, what’s the basis? Hopefully I’m a bit more insightful in that area. If someone says to me, ‘because it’s a nice effect’, that’s not good enough. I need to know there’s a solid foundation to what we’re doing.

“Very often with a new client I’ll warn them that for the first conceptual view of a project, we’re not looking at light fittings and lighting effects. I’m trying to understand how the building works, how the space works, what their desires are and how they see it working from an operational point of view. Otherwise you’ve got no platform.”

This rigour translates to all areas of the lighting design process, including fighting tooth and nail for the lighting products that have been specified. He see this as central to the role of a lighting designer and reckons that in the whole of his career, he has only lost the battle once to save a spec.

“If anyone breaks a GIA Equation spec, it will be down to us and no one’s fault but ours. If we allow that to happen we are not fulfilling our professional responsibility to our client. Anyone out there who says they couldn’t stop it from happening is just not close enough to the job at those important points. It’s not the contractor, not the client, not the architect, it’s the lighting designer.”

The process begins with establishing the right relationships, he argues.

“For a start, you engage as much as you can with the contractual team. You turn it into a positive situation. You make sure that you’re not percieved as an arty farty, high-falluting lighting designer who turns up, waves his arms around for a bit then goes off again. You get under the skin of the job, making yourself a positive point of contact for that team. If you try to bring them along they will get in behind you.”

The bottom line, says Hensman, is that lighting designers owe it to their clients to get it right and justify the fee they are being paid. “My view quite simply is that you’ve got a choice – you can go to site and do the ball-breaking bit, which is not pleasant, and we do all we can to avoid that, or you can sit on your computer and do a nice visual. I think too many people in my profession do the nice visual.”

His other beef is with budgets. ‘We drive QS’s up the wall. We’ll be on to the QS straight after an appointment and work on the budget. And we’ll want the luminaire budget. And we’ll bring it in on budget. The complaint I get all the time is that lighting designers turn up and spend thousands of pounds. The reason we go after that budget cost so early is because it’s a bit of the brief. If you don’t know the budget, it’s a bit like not knowing what shape the room is.”

So not entirely mellowed then.

With seminal projects such as PowerGen, Coventry in 1994 - an early direct/indirect scheme way before it was fashionable - Hensman arguably has been one of the lighting designers who has pushed forward the quality of lighting in the working environment. Everyone is now discussing the relationship of lighting with well-being, but Hensman argues that’s been his driver for nearly three decades.

“I’m fascinated by the science of light. I love the idea that we can alter the way people feel and the way people act, and make spaces safer or more enjoyable, and that it’s happening at a subconscious level. I don’t know where it turns over into art.

“I like it where the two are working together.”


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