Clementine Fletcher-Smith

“The positive impact of artificial light on our sense of wellbeing shouldn’t be underestimated”

Clementine Fletcher-Smith is a partner of Speirs Major Lighting Design.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional background? How did you decide to be a lighting designer after being trained as an architect?

I studied Architecture as I felt it was the academic core of design education, that I could use no matter which design direction I decided to pursue. In my final year, I met someone who worked in the lighting industry, and I instantly knew it was the direction I wanted to go in. I have always had a strong feeling for light:  I used to rearrange and re-light my bedroom when I was younger and make textiles for lamps, playing with layering and opacity, so combined with my architectural education it felt exactly right for me. I started working at Speirs Major with no formal lighting experience other than my own feeling for what looked and felt right. I learnt a huge amount from the studio and after 3 years, decided to take the MSc Light and Lighting course at the Bartlett to add scientific knowledge to back up my working experience. I then continued to gain knowledge and experience through working on a huge range of fantastic projects.

The Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, Speyside, UK (Photo:James Newton)

Your presentation on microdosing light therapy in the built environment was very interesting. There are many articles explaining how artificial lighting altered the circadian rhythm of living organisms including humans. What can lighting designers do to overcome the adverse effects of artificial light in buildings and cities?

Given that we spend 90% of our lives indoors, electric and natural lighting in the built environment will obviously have a big impact on us. As the developed world has lived predominantly indoor lives for thousands of years, the reason for the current focus seems to be about our changes in lifestyle and the developments in technology.

There is a lot of publicity about the negative impacts of the blue spectrum of light on our circadian rhythm. The concern is in regard to exposure to the melatonin-supressing wavelengths in the evenings, providing misinformation to our bodies about ‘normal’ time-appropriate biological responses. The prevalence of this concern comes about due to our excessive use of screens, which emit high levels of the blue wavelength, but also the use of LEDs which typically have a spike in the blue wavelength spectral distribution, even if the light appears to be warm. In actual fact, this greater quantity of blue wavelengths in LEDs aligns more closely with the spectrum of natural light during the day, albeit at a far lower intensity. So, in that respect, the use of LED technology may have actually improved our bodies ‘natural’ biological response to artificial light by day. The potential cause for concern is actually more about the lack of light intensity by day, and about the wavelengths we are receiving in the evening. Even if we get the spectral distribution right by day, there’s still no way that we can get the dose to be the same, especially if we are considering the environmental impact of power consumption.

Lighting designers need to be educated about the impact of light on people’s physiology and psychology, but it is lighting manufacturers who need to develop the right tools that support people in creating ‘healthy’ lighting schemes. Even the definition of ‘healthy’ lighting is currently largely based on intuitive assumptions. Whilst our assumptions may be right, there is very little empirical evidence to show that being predominantly exposed to daylight or artificial light that mimics daylight creates a ‘healthier’ person, be that physiologically or psychologically. Given the increasing understanding of how extensively light influences our physiology, it seems incredibly important that there is considerably more research into the topic before the design world responds without fully understanding the potential impacts of that response. Science is still in its infancy.

Not all projects have the privilege of having a lighting designer involved, so information needs to be accessible to all specifiers: contractors, developers, architects and domestic users. It is like the nutritional information on food packaging. Perhaps there should be more legislation about the provision of technical wavelength information, which in turn might result in manufacturers focusing on ensuring that their products are ‘healthy’ so that people will be more inclined to buy them.

This question identifies the adverse effects of artificial light, but I think it’s also really important to focus on the incredibly positive effects that artificial light brings as well, when applied in the right way. The positive impact on our sense of wellbeing of being in appropriate and enhanced atmospheres created using artificial light shouldn’t be underestimated.

You mostly work with architects, providing them with lighting design for their projects. How do you start working with an architect and what makes a lighting design brief a good one?

Communication is the key. We need to understand as much as possible about the project context, the design intent, intended use and client aspiration. Many people in our studio have architectural training, so it really helps that we can speak and sketch like architects to communicate our ideas. A good relationship with the architect enables there to be a flow of ideas back and forth, so the development of the lighting design really feels in tune with the architecture as it develops. The best kind of lighting briefs are those that aren’t too prescriptive. It’s great to explore what possibilities the project might have and what direction it can go in, which is considerably harder if people have very fixed views about what they want or what they feel a space needs. We want the process to be collaborative and the opportunity for our ideas to be innovative.

Harley Gallery, Welbeck Abbey(Photo: James Newton)

You are part of the winning team in the Camden Highline competition. Congratulations on that. Illuminating an open public space should be difficult given the diversity of its users and functions. However, I think the most challenging task is to work with landscape architects because your lighting design must adapt to the developing plantation in the future. How do you work with landscape architects?

Thank you very much! We’re delighted to be a part of the team. It’s always special working on projects that are on our doorstep, and this project has had such international attention, it’s going to be a cracker!

We work with Landscape Architects almost as often as we work with Architects, as lighting masterplans and landscapes are a core part of our work. Landscape growth is a really good point and is something we specifically address as part of our design process. We worked on a project in Hong Kong recently where we illustrated as part of our concept how the scheme would look when it was installed, 5yrs later and 10yrs later, demonstrating how the lighting scheme should be adapted to respond to the landscape growth. There’s nothing more disappointing than the anticipation of a beautifully illuminated landscape, only to see disproportionately large luminaires lighting tiny saplings with light. Sometimes the solution is about dimming and flexible fixings and sometimes it’s a case of installing the infrastructure but adding elements of the lighting once the landscape has matured.

What was the most exciting/challenging project you have worked for?

The Macallan distillery in Speyside, Scotland, was probably one of the most exciting and challenging projects we’ve worked on. Your earlier question about what makes a lighting design brief good is really demonstrated well here, as our client had huge ambitions for the project, wanting to create something truly unique, so they championed and protected our ideas all the way through the practicalities of delivering a project. We also had a great working relationship with RSHP which made the process so much more enjoyable. The most challenging aspect of the project was how to deliver a really dramatic theatrical concept, to meet the visitor experience aspect of the project, whilst still meeting the stringent technical requirements of what is effectively a building for industrial production. We had to learn a huge amount about ATEX compliance, which is the regulations for a highly explosive area, because of the alcohol vapour, including getting specific luminaires officially ATEX approved.

The Macallan Distillery (Photo:James Newton)

In comparison to the world cities you’ve visited so far, do you think London’s public spaces and streets are well lit? 

That is a tricky question. I think what I love about London is its diversity. There are so many little villages stitched together into a whole, each with its own character and demonstrations of good and bad lighting. A huge number of streets and spaces are overlit, but you can also find darkness in the city which is great for ecology and also for just reducing the visual noise of our city. I don’t think I have ever visited a city where I have thought that it was universally well lit or poorly lit, it is the rich tapestry of light after dark that adds to each city’s unique identity.  

What’re your favourite well-lit places in London and the world?

Of all the questions, this is definitely the hardest! Especially during the lockdown as it’s been so long since I’ve been anywhere. When I think of my favourite lighting moments, they tend to be just that, where the lighting fits the mood perfectly and turns it into something magical, rather than it being a favourite ‘lighting scheme.’ I’m a sucker for festoon lights in restaurants and landscapes and some of my most memorable moments have been when light and music have been combined….so the purpose of the lighting is purely about enjoyment and joyful expression. Festivals and gigs are great at doing this.

Fortnum&Mason Bar at the Royal Exchange (Photo:James Newton)

In terms of permanent lighting, I’m biased, but a few of our London projects really have that feeling. The Fortnum & Mason bar in the Royal Exchange feels so special in the evening, the light reveals the materials beautifully and creates a sense of calm elegance. The Gasholders in Kings Cross have this almost haunting beauty after dark from the really crisp light on these amazing historic industrial structures. A real celebration of the industrial heritage of the area that is then balanced with really soft, very human, light inside and on the roof terraces. I feel I can choose these projects as I wasn’t directly involved in either, so appreciate them like everyone else!

Elsewhere in the world the lighting that I’ve found most striking is that which is totally in contrast to what I’m used to.  I remember travelling around Japan and being amazed at the visual overload of lit signage, which can look both amazing and slightly scary in terms of energy use and light pollution.  Walking through Osaka in the rain was just like Blade Runner.  Then in total contrast I remember sitting in an onsen (public hot spring) at dusk watching the light catching the steam and taking on this beautiful tangible quality.

Battersea Power Station (Speirs Major)

Which current projects are you currently working on? 

We’re working on a really diverse range of projects at the moment, which always keeps it exciting. Projects that I’m directly involved in include an office development that’s really pushing the boundaries on low energy construction, an iconic brutalist building refurbishment, an idyllic development on a Greek island, a classic British fashion brand, the permanent exhibition at the Museum of London. That one is being designed by Atelier Bruckner and will be installed in the museum’s new home in the south end of Smithfield Market. There are many more in various stages of construction that will come to fruition in the next year or two. A couple of projects that are starting to really take shape on site are the 1000 Trees development in Shanghai by Heatherwick Studios and the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station by Wilkinson Eyre.

1000 Trees (Speirs Major)

Communicating your designs which rely on mood and intangible assets must be quite challenging. How do you prefer to represent your ideas? Do you have your internal team of photo-realistic visualisations or do you work with external CGI agencies? 

We actually try not to produce photorealistic visualisations and CGIs because we find that whilst they might convey the lighting proposal, they so often fail to communicate the character and atmosphere that the lighting will create. Instead, we prefer to use illustrations and looser visuals that are more about the experiential aspects of the lighting proposals. We have fantastic in-house skills in creating visuals using a wide range of software and techniques so that the lighting illustrations suit the style of the project. We also pride ourselves on our visual communication throughout the studio, so we’re able to convey our ideas throughout the evolution of a project, not just when it comes to the final presentation material.

Speirs Major illustrative technique

How do you choose the photographers to document your work? Do you have a preferred photographers list or do you consider commissioning new photographers for each of your work?

We are incredibly lucky that one of our lighting designers decided to move their career fully into photography, which means that they have a perfect eye for capturing light and understanding what we might want to communicate through the images of our projects. On some projects, the lead designer may have already commissioned a photographer, in which case we may share their photographs so long as lighting is part of their brief. If we can’t input on the brief, then an architectural photographer has a very different agenda to a lighting photographer.

What do you expect from a photographer while documenting your works?

We need to strike a balance between getting a few hero shots that might be great for marketing, but also getting into the detail of the project to really capture the smaller moments as well. It is always useful to take images of all elements of the project, as you never know when in the future you might be asked to demonstrate experience on some of the less glamorous aspects of the design that just wouldn’t be shown in the hero shots.

It is also really important for us to have people in our images if at all possible. We design lighting for people, so they are a fundamental part of documenting the project. On some projects, we find moving images to be really helpful too, and certainly photographing how a project changes over time, from daylight, through sunset, into the evening and the night. Many of our lighting designs are responsive to the pattern of use and the time of day, so we want to capture that.

The Macallan Distillery (Photo:James Newton)

How do you communicate your services to architects and potential clients? Do you work with an external communications consultant or an agency, or do you have an internal communications team?

The best way to communicate our services is to demonstrate our capability through our portfolio. We often find that doing a great job on a project can result in repeat work with the architects or client, which is always gratifying, but we also work hard on other avenues to make sure that we find new opportunities, remain relevant in the market and at the forefront of people’s minds. We give talks, produce brochures, write articles, and we are also increasing our presence on social media. We have just launched our new website and journal where we share our work and our thinking about light-related topics. We believe hugely in the power of meeting people face to face when possible, which has obviously not been possible over this last year due to Covid, but we look forward to when we can again. We do work with an external marketing consultant, but we remain very much hands-on with our communication approach. Our team includes a practice manager and admin team who we work closely with, as we feel strongly that potential clients or architects want to speak with the people who will be leading the design.