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Chou Lien

Issue 60 Apr / May 2011

Better lighting choices for our commercial, residential and public spaces increasingly equate to leadership in energy and environmental design. Chou Lien, President of Brandston Partnership Inc, visiting Sydney in June for the SPARC International Lighting event, reveals upcoming lighting trends and how industry professionals involved in designing and managing lighting solutions can position themselves in the world of the ‘low carbon’ concept.




Like many lighting designers, Chou Lien’s career in the profession came about due to a happy accident. Studying Environmental Design at the Pratt Institute, New York in 1978, a friend who was working part-time for Howard Brandston Lighting Design asked him to help with some drawings she was working on. Brandston was so impressed with his work that he immediately offered him a job as project manager.

“At the time I didn’t know what a project manager was paid or even that a fluorescent light needed a ballast!” remembers Lien. “I inadvertently drove a hard bargain for my salary but Howard accepted it!”
Despite no formal knowledge of lighting, he quickly progressed to become studio manager and then, in 1986, became a partner.
His fine art background allowed him to learn how to manage the design process and to create without fear.

This was all a far cry from his previous life in Asia. Born to a poor but well educated family in 1944 in Chongqing, China, and then moving to Taiwan for political reasons after the fall of Republic of China in 1952, Chou Lien had a fascination with sculpture that led him to work for a marble production plant and then, with the encouragement of his parents, moving to the US at the age of 26 to study sculpture at the State University of New York. The rest, as they say...

Following Brandston’s semi-retirement in 2000, Lien and his fellow partners took over the firm changing the name to Brandston Partnership Inc, commonly known as BPI, with Chou Lien becoming President. The lighting design firm has used Chou Lien’s Chinese background to expand into Asia with project involvement and the opening of an office in Taiwan (in 1993) and three in China (Shanghai in 2003, Beijing in 2005 and Guangzhou in 2006). BPI is now a global firm with over 60 professional staff and a wide variety of award winning projects, including Chung-Tai Chan Temple, Taiwan; the American Museum of Natural History Hall of Biodiversity and the Fossil Halls, New York, USA; the Ring of Fire Aquarium in Osaka, Japan; and the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville, USA.

The President of BPI has a very hectic schedule, dedicating much of his time to education, including going back to Taiwan and China a few times a year to teach lighting design.

“I love to educate and to teach. I like to share my knowledge with people. I believe that the only way to receive more is to give what I have in order to create more capacity in myself to learn.” 

Flitting between his native China and adopted home in the US, he is now preparing to travel to Australia to speak at SPARC, Sydney’s inaugural International Lighting Event taking place in June, where he will be discussing how to position ourselves in the world of the low carbon trend. A subject that is very important to him.

“Living in a visual culture, lighting design and management significantly influences us physically, psychologically and sociologically,” states Lien. “Clever lighting choices improve our life, transform the way we feel about a space and enhance our interactions within that space. Clever lighting choices cannot be separated from pursuing improved energy efficiency and lighting longevity. More than just switching off the lights when they’re not needed, the ‘low carbon’ trend gathering pace will soon be dominating decision making on all new buildings, private and public spaces alike.”

“The low carbon trend is driven in part to decrease energy bills, contribute on behalf of corporate social responsibility and also meet increasingly stringent legislative demands. It relates to making lighting decisions based on the entire carbon footprint of the lighting system throughout its lifespan. It also considers the lighting system in the context of the lighting environment and how to manipulate other aspects of the space to rely less on artificial lighting.”

SPARC is a biennial event that will alternate every second year with Light+Building in Frankfurt, Germany. A joint initiative between the Lighting Council Australia and the Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia and New Zealand, SPARC is a truly international event and a first for the region. A unique and key feature of SPARC is the exhibition format and rules that restrict participants to a single demonstration pod and a lighting product or solution that has been on the open market for less than 18 months. Coinciding with the annual Vivid Sydney and Smartlight Festivals, SPARC’s June 6 - 8 program includes architectural lighting displays at some of Sydney’s foremost landmarks.

Lien is intrigued with the way Australia has tackled its carbon footprint and has studied its implications.

“Currently in Australia, life cycle assessments (LCAs) are used as ways to promote an organisation’s responsible building choices and product selections. Factors that are quantified and rated include material product inputs, the system’s energy consumption over its expected lifespan as well as the final recycling potential for the system. It can be expected that regulation will play a greater role in the use of LCAs.”

Already very important in the USA, which Australians can also expect to see in the coming years, is the internationally recognised Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification system that encourages building designers to use strategies to improve energy savings, reduce CO2 emissions, improve indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts. LCAs contribute to this rating system.

“With stricter regulations comes the necessity for industrial engineers and lighting designers to be more sophisticated,” explains Lien. “We have to change the way we think about the size of light fixtures and the need to use lighting materials which are, and can be proven to be, more sustainable. Smaller sized lighting fixtures (capitalising on today’s smaller sources) means less material of every kind in each fixture. More thoughtful fixture design and selection also means consideration of the manufacturing processes, transportation of components and finished fittings, as well as the eventual disposal issues. Also many lighting fixtures are disposed of not because they have reached the end of their useful life, but because the space they are illuminating is renovated. Perhaps thought needs to be given to a systematic recycling of used lighting fixtures, rather than disposal as the first option.”

Also acknowledged in this rating system is the importance of an integrated, whole-building design system of practice. This works to limit power use to a bare minimum by considering more than the lights alone. How can the design industry encourage best behaviour?

“Increasingly lighting consultants, electricians and designers are expanding their scope of consideration. Affecting lighting choices should be things such as the colour of the walls, the building orientation and the source of the electricity. Many designers and space planners forget that walls absorb a great deal of light. Lighting designers often promote lighter-coloured walls, but also lower walls, or open plans whenever possible. This way of thinking needs to find its way into space planners’ considerations as well.”

So, more early consideration of the orientation and configuration of the building in the early stages with the thought of maximising daylight use in the interiors needs to become more common, then? After all, in the early days of electric lighting, even high-rise buildings in large cities were planned so as to illuminate as much of the interiors as possible with the windows, and the electric lighting was considered supplemental.

“There is, of course, a tightrope we walk finding the balance between quality lighting solutions and energy efficiency,” qualifies Lien. “All too often we overestimate the level of lighting necessary to enhance the pleasure of the space, leading to waste and unnecessary energy consumption. Significant change will come from those who make light fittings and control systems as well as lighting designers who are working to improve the design of architectural elements in lighting systems. Lighting designers have for years preached the value of vertical luminance (i.e. lighted walls), rather than concentrating exclusively on horizontal illuminance. Especially in this day-and-age of computer use in almost every business and home, the over-lighting of desktops is all too common. Demonstrations, mockups and general education of clients are required to make them comfortable in using the low end of lighting recommendations rather than the high end.
“These changes will help make it easier to find that necessary balance. A good analogy is that low-calorie food won’t be eaten unless it tastes good and the same goes for energy efficient options that do little to improve the pleasure of the environment.”

One perspective changing the way designers are looking at lighting systems as a whole is calculating lighting power allowances for building spaces and whole buildings within the context of the way the lights are used. In Australia building rules regulate on the wattage that can be used per square metre, with differences based on particular building types. Little respect is given to how the lights are used and that not all lights are used at the same time. It can be expected there will be more sophisticated measurement around how lighting systems will be used. But how can this be done?

“With a different measurement, I expect a trend toward more automated lighting systems that can sense how a space is being used. Take for example a lecture hall that traditionally sits over 100 people, but on many occasions is only half-filled. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the lighting system was able to tell that less than half the hall needed lighting and responded by only lighting up the front rows of the hall. With little personal incentive for individuals in public and commercial spaces to control the light systems themselves, automation will be a necessity and a sure trend in the building industry.

“I believe these technological advancements, improvements in measurement, and legislative changes will light the way to enhancing the personal and the broader built environment.”


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