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Kit Cuttle

Issue 61 Jun / Jul 2011

When Kit Cuttle’s paper, “Towards the third stage of the lighting profession”, was first circulated, the theory created a tsunami throughout the lighting industry. Arguing that codes and standards, written by engineers not designers, pay lip service to visual performance, Cuttle states that familiar notions of lighting effectiveness and efficiency should be turned upside down and an entirely different way of thinking about interior lighting design should be adopted.
By Margaret Maile Petty

Kit Cuttle is a man with a mission. And this is no small mission. Cuttle wants nothing less than to change the very way we specify, measure and predict illumination levels. He believes that the current focus on the horizontal work plane misdirects designers to adopt lighting distributions that are visually ineffective and energy inefficient. His conviction that things must change in the lighting industry is not the result of a rebellious impulse, but rather it is the outcome of a long period of experience and engagement with lighting the built environment — both as a designer and an educator. Cuttle’s impressive career in lighting spans over half a century. He is a Fellow in a number of the leading professional societies including: the Society of Light and Lighting, UK, the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, the Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia and New Zealand, and the Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers. He has garnered numerous awards for both his research and design work. He’s also authored two editions of ‘Lighting by Design’ (Architectural Press, 2003, 2008) as well as a comprehensive work on museum lighting, ‘Light for Art’s Sake: Lighting for Artworks and Museum Displays’ (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007), not to mention the one hundred plus papers on lighting he has either published or presented at conferences.

Cuttle’s passion for lighting, as for many, came about “by accident”. He joined Falks Limited in London in 1957 as a trainee electrical engineer, but stumbled upon the lighting department and immediately identified with the people and ideas he found there. After gaining qualifications in electrical and illumination engineering, in 1963 Cuttle made the transition to lighting design, taking a position with Derek Phillips Associates, the first independent lighting design consultancy office in the UK. At the time the practice was quite small and this experience of working closely with Phillips, recalls Cuttle, “really opened up my eyes about how to think about light in space”. While initially employed to “do the number crunching” for Phillips’ lighting concepts, soon Cuttle became more involved with design tasks, including meeting with clients and talking through their lighting design proposals. “This really was a big start for me,” says Cuttle.

Another turning point for Cuttle came in 1965 when he took a position with the Pilkington Glass (Merseyside, UK) Daylight Advisory Service. Here Cuttle became deeply involved in lighting research and in particular with predicting all aspects of daylight performance and control. As he describes this period at Pilkington, “The approach towards how you predict the availability of daylight, how you control it, how you take account of thermal interactions, all of this was going through a major transition. We were very much at the forefront of these developments.” During this period Cuttle gained a Masters’ degree in Architecture at Manchester University and began teaching the City and Guilds Illumination Engineering curriculum for two nights a week at the Salford College of Technology (this was one of only two professional programmes teaching lighting in the UK then). Finding the experience of teaching highly rewarding he began to look further afield for new opportunities. After a decade with Pilkington, Cuttle decided to move half way around the world to take part in setting up the Building Science programme at the new Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture in New Zealand. Starting from “nothing in place”, Cuttle worked closely with Dr. George Baird to design and build the programme according to their shared belief in developing sustainable approaches to the built environment that also provide for human satisfaction.

After fourteen years with Victoria University teaching in the Building Science programme, another unexpected opportunity presented itself when Cuttle was contacted by Dr. Mark Rea regarding a potential position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Lighting Research Center (LRC). Rea had himself recently been appointed the first Director of the LRC, and even though the initial phone call from North America came at 4am, Cuttle jumped at the opportunity. As he recalls: “The job was to become Head of Graduate Education in Lighting and to initiate the Master of Science in Lighting Degree Program. I went over on a three year contract and stayed for nine years.” Over his nearly decade-long term at the LRC from 1990-1999, Cuttle worked to build strong industry support for graduate research at Rensselaer, ensuring that the best and brightest students would have funding for their studies. In addition to securing the financial viability of the Masters programme, he was also closely involved in the development of the lighting design studio curriculum. When he arrived at Rensselaer, Howard Brandston had been engaged to teach the first year lighting studio and Cuttle was to teach the second year studio. Striving to create a holistic programme for the Masters students, Cuttle designed his studio to compliment and build upon Brandston’s first year studio, rather than attempt to reinforce or compete with Brandston. As Cuttle describes this reciprocal relationship, Brandston helped students learn how “to envision a space and to be able to envision the influence of light on the appearance of that space”, while he taught students how “to communicate that vision to other designers” and to produce “a technical specification for lamps, luminares, and controls that will achieve that vision”.

After leaving the LRC, Cuttle knew he wanted to write a book based on his experience at Rensselaer. Recounting his motivation Cuttle says, “You start with human perception, seeing lighting not as the force that makes things visible, but the force that influences the appearance of everything you see, and you have to be able to move from there right through to a technical specification. That is the point where I think a lot of lighting education fails.” These beliefs, which were solidified during his years teaching at the LRC, became the foundation for his book ‘Lighting by Design’.

Cuttle sees the division of lighting design into discreet areas of interest or expertise as symptomatic not only of what is wrong with lighting design education, but also what is wrong with the lighting industry as a whole. And this is the basis of his mission. Cuttle believes that the discipline needs a wake up call. He says, “A lot of people like to give big addresses at conferences where they seem to be very happy and complacent about the lighting industry. I don’t share that optimism. I’m concerned and I’m worried about it.” He continues, arguing that the fracturing of lighting engineering and design that has occurred over the last three-quarters of a century has caused a “situation where the science and technology based societies have dug themselves in and they take care of anything you can specify by putting numbers on it.

This they believe to be a solid foundation and basis of meeting the human needs for light. Then we have another group that shun the idea of measurement, calculation, and numbers, and believe that you have to speak from the heart in order to be able to deal with the complexity of the human response to light.”

Cuttle argues that both camps are missing the bigger issue. “Historically the lighting profession was founded on the notion of applying illumination to meet human need. If we compare recommended light levels proposed in the early twentieth century with recent research on appropriate lighting levels for various tasks,” Cuttle says, we can see that “human needs for light haven’t changed in a hundred years. What has changed is peoples’ attitudes.” He believes that our expectations of what is an adequately lit building has led to the “ramping up the old standards” focused on “providing unnecessarily high levels of illuminance on the horizontal work plane, uniformly”. This emphasis on the horizontal work plane is the real culprit according to Cuttle. He suggests that instead we should be paying attention to the light arriving at the eye, not the work plane. That, he says is “how people gauge if a space is adequately lit”. By thinking in terms of reflected light arriving at the eye from the surrounding room surfaces, “a completely different approach to lighting spaces emerges”. Instead of employing “fully recessed, low-glare luminares with mirror optics that deliver light efficiently onto the work plane, we should seek surfaces that have high reflectance and that put a high proportion of the lumens back into the space where they are available for vision. Ceilings and walls do that much better than floors and work surfaces”. But to achieve this new way of lighting spaces is more than “just a matter of fiddling with the numbers, it requires completely new thinking about how we distribute light in spaces and how we do this for human satisfaction, rather than to satisfy some notion of visual performance”.

This approach would require a complete overhaul of how illumination requirements are specified in lighting standards. The effect would be that the planning of lighting installations, regardless of type, would start from a design-orientated approach with the need to devise a light distribution that relates to the distribution of room surface reflection properties. As Cuttle says, “There are whole ranges of luminaires, catalogues, design procedures, computer programmes, etc. that are all based around the illuminance of the horizontal work plane. Uniformity is seen to be crucial. The idea of changing that is a colossal upheaval.” Those who have responded most positively to his proposal have been lighting designers, Cuttle has found. However, as he explains, “The lighting design profession doesn’t really involve itself much in setting lighting standards and recommended practice documents. They tend to leave that to the engineers. So really, nothing is happening or changing.”

Cuttle says that during his long career in lighting he has “made very few enemies” but that he has made “very many good friends”. He will need the support of these friends as well as that of the next generation of lighting designers and lighting manufacturers if there is any chance of realising his proposal for a ‘Third Stage of the Lighting Design Profession’. Ever an optimist though, Cuttle says, if his proposal is broadly adopted then “the scope of lighting design can really take off”.

And that is a tantalising future for the profession indeed.


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