Lighting Design at Newman: A Conversation with Caitlin Toczko

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Molly Sullivan: I’m joined by Cait Toczko, Newman’s new in-house lighting designer to talk a bit about herself and the world of lighting design in Connecticut. Cait, should we jump right into it?

Cait Toczko: Sure!

MS: Let's start with where you studied and what you studied. You studied at RPI in a unique program. Could you tell me about that?

CT: I started out in the architectural program. I went to their five-year Bachelor of Architecture program and while I was there, I learned that there was a lighting path and so, for one of my electives, I decided to take the lighting design class, which was something like “Intro to Lighting Design”. It was very similar to a lot of my architecture design studios, but it was focused on lighting very specifically. They gave us architectural, designed spaces that were completed and asked us to focus on how the lighting was going to interact with them.

And I found it so interesting and exciting. In architecture school, we're designing these very grand, impressive spaces, but we're not necessarily thinking about “how is this actually going to feel when you walk into the space in terms of the light?” We might be thinking about daylighting, but we're not necessarily thinking about the electric lighting inside the space. Having a whole semester to start thinking about that in-depth really opened my eyes and from there I thought, wait, I can actually do this for a job? I can do this for a program?

So, after that, my third year of architecture school, I started taking lighting courses every semester, and I decided to stay and get my Masters. Some of the classes were focused on the technical aspects of lighting. There were more design courses. There were classes about the physics of light. There were classes about the finances of light. It was a wide variety.

There were a lot of research-based classes as well, because the lighting program at RPI at the time was called the Lighting Research Center.. Their research is focused heavily on light’s effect on human health--that's where I started down that path.

MS: Very interesting. Would you say that you’re more interested in the technical side of light or in a narrative approach to an experience in a space?

CT: I think for me, one of the things that attracted me to architecture at the beginning, before I even understood lighting, was that it was very much a combination of the two. There's the narrative as you described it: the emotions, the aesthetic components of the design, the story that you're telling, and how you're trying to make people feel when they're in a space that I find very interesting. Then there's the piece where you think, "this is my goal in terms of aesthetics; how do I actually get there? And so that's where the technical part comes in." I think that's my favorite part.

MS: You've worked for lighting design firms. and now at Newman you're working as the in-house lighting designer in an architecture firm. How have you found the design process differing between these two types of firms and workflows?

CT: I'm still learning, but one of the things that I am really excited about is I can just turn around at my desk and ask a question. I don't have to write an e-mail, call somebody up to get their voicemail. It makes the design process much more integrated. I always pushed to make sure that lighting wasn't something that was applied over the architecture. We want to make sure it feels integrated, and it feels like it's all one piece of design. It's getting even more integrated now because I'm part of the design team. I'm in all of the meetings. We're having the design discussions on the fly, my team members are coming over to my desk. I think that's really the big difference.

MS: How does that translate to the client side? What can a client expect from a firm that has an in-house lighting designer versus a firm that has to go and hire a consultant?

CT: The thing that I'm noticing now that will benefit the clients in the long run is that as even very minor architectural changes are being made, I can be going in and making lighting changes that respond to it right away. It may be kind of difficult for some clients to see that because they may be more removed from a typical design process, but in the long run the product is going to be much more cohesive.

MS: You've done a lot of work with sustainable lighting, including studies, developing guidelines, renovations, and new buildings, and, maybe most notably, the Delos Headquarters, who are the creators of the WELL standard. This was the first ever WELL platinum project as well. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities that accompany designing to such a high-level of sustainability?

CT: The Delos project was really fun and challenging because not only was it a WELL platinum project, but it was also a LEED platinum project. It was also Living Building Challenge certified, so there were a lot of different layers of sustainability we were tackling at once. One of the good things about sustainable projects is, if you’re pursuing certification, at least when it comes to lighting, the goals of each certification are going to start to overlap.

But then because LEED certification is focused on environmental sustainability and WELL certification is focused on human health and wellness, there were some components in conflict. We used types of light fixtures that had a very broad range of tunability. They went from very cool light to very warm light, and we had them programmed over the course of the day to mimic the color temperature of the sky. But, at that point in time in 2015, the light fixtures with that capability typically have much higher wattages. With the higher wattages now we’re consuming more power to get the same amount of light onto the table. Even though it’s doing all these wonderful things we’re contradicting LEED, because with LEED we’re trying to use the least amount of power so we can get the most points in the Optimize Energy Performance category.

When it comes to lighting, I think one of the really interesting things that is happening now is increasing transparency in the industry, with the materials as well as the construction. In a light fixture, we have the body of the fixture, which is typically metal. Then you have the lens, the LED board, the driver, and you have the wiring. You have all these different components—but where are each of those coming from? We can think about lighting in terms of the carbon footprint, we can think about lighting in terms of how ethical the supply chains are. There are certain labels you can get for light fixtures, one of them is called a Declare label, to dive into those details, and we’re starting to see some projects where those are being required or requested. That’s exciting, to be getting down to that level of understanding, and making sure that the products that we’re using are sustainable in many more ways than one.

MS: Do you think there’s going to be a trend towards adding more and more sustainability certifications, each with a focus on different aspects of design, and the amalgamation of all those certifications mean you have the most “sustainable” project? Or are all these certifications going to have overlap in their own set of criteria and you end up with a sort of a core that everyone agrees is sustainable, with each certification having its own addition?

CT: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think we’re already starting to see the latter in certain certifications. For example, the SITES certification has a lot of similar credits to LEED. They have an entire document that tells you that if you’re going after LEED and you get this point, you will get this point from them too. So, we’re already starting to see that. I’m hoping that it starts to trend more that way.

MS: One last question to wrap it up: what is one of the most exciting things in the lighting world right now? What is making you excited to be a lighting designer today?

CT: Let me frame it this way: in the world of lighting, there’s a push towards sustainability. All of these lighting manufacturers have been making the same light fixtures for decades and have now upgraded them to LED from fluorescent or metal halide. They have a specific way that they manufacture, right? It's typically aluminum or steel or polycarbonate, and they have specific machines that create these fixtures, and now they're trying to take that and they're trying to fit it into a sustainability box.

I attended an event last night for a new company that has said they’re not going to even think about how we used to make lights. They’re going to just start from scratch. Their new light fixtures are 95% biodegradable. They are made from wood, wool, hemp. They’ve got this really awesome batwing indirect distribution which means that the lighting that’s aimed upward washes the ceiling very evenly rather than having a hot spot right above the fixture. And there’s no lensing because everything’s made out of wood, and it’s just very comfortable to look at. That innovation is really interesting.

Light is still light; physics is still going to work the same. You can’t bend light around a corner without having something to reflect it off of--but the industry is figuring out how to redefine what a luminaire is.

MS: That sounds super exciting. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It’s been so great to hear about all of this.

CT: Thank you.