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Fred Oberkircher

Issue 55 Jun / Jul 2010

Fred Oberkircher, the 2009-2010 president of the Illuminating Engineering Society, has led a career-spanning crusade for the advancement of the lighting and lighting education. He described to Vilma Barr how IES and other lighting organisations are cooperating to form a partnership to promote lighting within total building integration.

“We are in the midst of a cultural shift in the lighting profession,” states Fred Oberkircher, FIES, the current president of the 7,500-member Illuminating Engineering Society. “It is being driven by a combination of elements that comprise the culture of our times — the culture of energy conservation, and the cultures of the various lighting organisations.”

Oberkircher retired last June after 35 years at Texas Christian University, Ft. Worth, where he taught lighting and led the growth of the lighting design program. He is now focusing his undiminished energies on his one-year-term leadership of the 105-year-old IES. “It has been an incredibly rewarding experience to learn about other lighting organisations and be part of the collaboration for the advancement of our profession,” he says. “We are on the cusp of an integrated building systems revolution that will revise how buildings are perceived.”

An architect by training with two degrees from Pennsylvania State University, Oberkircher arrived at TCU after a 24-month assignment at the U.S. Air Force Exchange Service in Dallas, and two years teaching at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Although, he started teaching lighting at TCU in 1980, his commitment to lighting began in the 1990’s, aided by a grant from The Nuckolls Fund for Lighting Education. Lighting at that time consisted of only one course, and was offered only to third and fourth year students at TCU. Oberkircher’s first educational crusade was to convince those in charge of establishing course requirements to allow first-year students to take lighting. “The academic rationale at that time was that only upper class students were mature enough to handle the technical requirements of a lighting course. I pointed out that physics and chemistry courses were open to entering students, and that lighting technology was no more difficult to grasp that these science courses. They finally agreed, and did amend the program to allow freshman to take lighting,” he relates.

He next campaigned to establish a home for lighting at TCU. “There were classes offered in vision and behaviour as part of other courses, like theatre, dance, psychology, radio/TV, and interior design. But lighting didn’t have a home identity like business, nor a multi-million dollar sponsor,” Oberkircher explains. While he didn’t succeed in establishing a specific home for lighting, he established and built a lighting laboratory. Then in 1998, his persistent efforts to offer a lighting minor within TCU’s interior design program met with success, and he welcomed the first students at the start of the next term.

Oberkircher and other proponents of lighting within total building integration are applauding Lightfair’s first-ever Building Integration pavilion, bowing at the 2010 event that was held on May 12-14 in Las Vegas. “It demonstrates that Lightfair’s management and advisors recognise the need to expand from a trade show that has emphasised lamps and fixtures to now dealing with the entire building,” he comments. A total of  22,000 professionals attended this year’s event.

Aggressive organisational outreach is another effort that Oberkircher has helped to guide. He points to the over three-decade IES partnership with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) that co-publishes the ASHRAE/IESNA Standard 90.1 that has been adopted as state or local energy code in many jurisdictions and continues to be updated. And in January 2010, Standard 189.1, the first code-intended commercial green building standard in the U.S. was also published in conjunction with IES and ASHRAE. “The leadership of the profession’s organisations has come to the conclusion that design and construction is holistic, and that improvement won’t occur from groups that don’t speak to each other,” he asserts. “We have to deal with the environment holistically.”

Development of documents and materials to allow the lighting industry to integrate all forms of light into the built environment is a long-standing commitment by the IES. “However,” Oberkircher points out, “daylighting wasn’t considered a factor in the lighting of buildings by the highly regarded engineers who founded the IES at the turn of the last century. We presently have an unresolved opportunity to integrate all forms of lighting, including daylighting into future guidelines,” he says.

Last year, when Oberkircher was vice president of IES, he was involved in the strategic shift within the society from a passive mode of writing, editing, publishing, and distributing technical documents, to becoming a more assertive voice within the profession. “It became apparent over the last two years that the Society was not serving its members well by honing to a business-as-usual format,” Oberkircher says. He cites the IES mission of “…bringing together those with lighting knowledge, and translating that knowledge into actions that benefit the public” as the catalyst for cross-organisational activities.

Oberkircher acknowledges that quality as a lighting metric has been an industry hot-button topic. In response, the IES last year issued an invitation to the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) and the American Lighting Association (ALA) to participate in a coordinated attempt to promote quality lighting at the national level. An important first step in this process was the creation of a common memo of understanding between the three organisations. “It was approved by the three boards and represented a marker that we took the turn signal in the road marked ‘active’ from ‘passive,’” he says.

IES gave impetus to moving from passive to active in lighting policy in the spring of 2010 by creating the position of a full-time Director of Public Policy. It was filled by Robert Horner, a veteran of a 20-year career with Osram Sylvania in marketing and product management.

Under development by IES was a common statement concerning quality lighting based upon IES DG-18-08, “Light + Design: A Guide to Designing Quality Lighting for People and Buildings.” In its complete form, it was a 189-page guide to the principles of quality lighting design. “It was then summarised in brochure format as the first collaborative public policy outreach document,” Oberkircher indicates. The next step was determining the best method for utilising the brochure.

“Interestingly, the ALA had already drafted plans to travel to Washington, D.C. in early March to educate legislative and advocacy groups,” he points out. Upon further communication, it was decided that a joint educational quality lighting activity would occur under the leadership of the ALA and consist of a two-day series of visits.

At the two-part core of the effort was, according to Oberkircher, the providing of assistance and information to: 1) appropriate legislative organisations in the field of energy advocacy, and 2) to legislators directly or through their designated staff members. The event was an initial success for what Oberkircher describes as a milestone for the task force that was composed of representatives from major lighting organisations.

As his first official responsibility, Bob Horner was the IES representative in the recent national-level educational meeting in Washington, D.C. Following communications between Douglas Reed, ASHRAE’s Director of Governmental Affairs, and the IALD’s public policy representative, John Martin, a legislative caucus luncheon was held in late April with quality lighting as the agenda item. Attending the luncheon held in the Rayburn House Office Building were 25 congressional aides and advisors. Hosted by Reed, the event featured comments from Katherine Abernathy, president of the IALD, followed by an illustrated presentation by lighting designer Randy Burkett, FIALD, who heads Randy Burkett Lighting Design, St. Louis.

Oberkircher indicates that the results of the first luncheon justify the joint effort to further the concept of identifying lighting within total building integration. Similar meetings are planned for the future. “This briefing did its job: to begin to promote the concept of lighting quality as it relates to energy reduction and management.” Contact has been made with the American Association of Architects and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association to gauge their interest in participating in an expansion of the program.

“We’ve now agreed on a name for the group: High-Performance Buildings Congressional Caucus Coalition. It’s an important step in our establishing a public identity.” For Oberkircher, it’s mounting another crusade, this time with the encouragement and support from organisations and colleagues who recognise his admirable record of advancing the cause of the lighting profession.


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