Simon Thorp, architectural lighting designer

Simon Thorp, architectural lighting designer

Simon Thorp is an architectural lighting designer and a director at LAPD Consultants Ltd (Lighting and Product Design), leading on architectural, retail and landscape projects. He and Louise met a few years ago and used to run into each other on the train into London (Louise heading into the office and Simon on site visits with clients), but now it’s while out on a walk with their families or queueing for essentials outside their local Co-op store.


Illuminate us!


Louise: I think we all recognise when a place is nicely lit – it ‘feels’ right and we use words like ‘ambience’ and ‘atmosphere’. We might say it’s cosy or cheerful. Probably very few of us appreciate how that is achieved through lighting design. Do you have one of those jobs that needs a lot of explanation?


Simon: It depends! The lighting design profession is well established in the fields of architecture, design and construction, as well as in the world of theatre, and needs no explanation. Outside of those industries it is sometimes unheard of. I never know how much explanation I need to give each time and I think I can often end up leaving some people a bit confused.


What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on recently?


Over the past few years I’ve had a steady stream of really interesting projects, from movie and concert halls to public realm areas, and I’ve been enjoying them all. I love what I do.


I did once work on a project to direct dappled sunlight into a basement area three storeys below the roof level. The project involved working with a heliostat (large sun-tracking mirror) which at the time wasn’t used anywhere in the UK.


We are lucky in that we have a great deal of natural light in our offices, with large windows on to a balcony and light tunnels above. How much difference does it make, having natural light in a workplace?


It makes a huge difference for many different reasons. Sitting indoors, at a desk for most of our waking day/week is not what humans were ‘designed’ for. Since humans evolved we spent our days outside, exposed to the full spectral distribution of natural light. Only since the industrial revolution have we spent so much of our time indoors.


We need natural light to provide us with vitamins that are not delivered from the limited light spectrum of artificial light. We also need the changing nature of natural light to regulate our circadian rhythm through changes in the colour temperature of the light and its intensity. The un-changing light levels within our working spaces provide no stimulation for us.


“Views to the outside world make us aware of the passing of time during the day and the year, connecting us with nature.”


A lack of daylight is linked with depression, anxiety, increased absenteeism, insomnia and osteoporosis.


Is there a decent alternative to natural light? Do SAD lamps have the same positive effect, or are they a waste of money?


There is no ideal replacement for natural light but there are some measures you can take to help.


“A well designed lighting scheme will help to create a more stimulating environment with a high level of visual interest that helps to maintain our focus throughout the day.”


With the continuous advances of LED technology there are now light sources that emulate daylight and contain wavelengths of light close to it. We can also vary the colour temperature of our light sources throughout the day, using controls technology, to replicate the shift from warm light in the morning to a cooler light at noon, which then shifts back towards the warm end of the spectrum as evening draws in. This helps to regulate our circadian rhythm.

Turn out the lights…


You were involved in several projects at the start of lockdown. Presumably, not being able to get on site has been a big problem. Have you been able to continue as before? What changes have you had to make to the way you work?


I’m working on numerous projects internationally at the moment. Most of them are in the construction phase and I won’t be making too many site visits until later this year and early next year. Hopefully things will have eased a little, but all of the projects have implemented stringent safety measures as a result of Covid-19.


Also, it’s amazing how photos and videos from site can be used to raise queries and give me enough information to suggest what to do.


More and more people are considering a longer-term shift to working from home, which could mean more flexibility for firms wanting to work entirely remotely, or at least not pay for offices that remain half-empty. What will this mean, longer-term, for your profession?


“Fewer people will use offices but they will still exist. Office interiors will change and will need to be re-designed in the wake of Covid-19.”


The days of travelling to work every day just to be in the office are gone. Most of the world has established a way of working remotely but they have also discovered the drawbacks that go with it, so they will use an office for some days of the week. Companies will want their offices designed to suit their specific needs and this will obviously vary. They will become less standardized and lighting will be used to support this and respond to the different functions across each space. A lighting designer’s role can sometimes be confined to the façade, landscaping, impressive entrance area, lobbies and circulation spaces. The office interiors themselves are sometime a more standardized solution. Now there is an even greater need for the lighting designer’s scope to continue into the work spaces.


I’m really interested in the idea of a green recovery, and sustainable homes. Are there any developments you know of that are doing innovative things with natural light or with energy efficient lighting?


Natural light is being used in offices effectively, but more can always be done if the building can be designed from the outset to use natural light. Various retrofit technologies also exist such as sunpipes, to bring daylight into a space, from companies like Monodraught. There are also solar powered lighting technologies and fibre optic channeling of light from companies like Parans.


LED lighting is continuing to improve and achieve greater savings over time as improvements in LED chips are made. Also, lighting control systems from companies such as Mode Lighting save huge amounts of energy by ensuring light is only used when needed.


Considerate lighting design of course can also bring significant energy saving across a building!

Spotlight on Simon


In a previous interview I asked Cat Hoad (of Absolute Project Management) for her suggestions on setting up a comfortable and productive workspace at home. What are your top tips, particularly for those of us with limited space and little spare cash?


Sitting in low levels of light at a computer screen even for short periods can cause eye strain.


“It is best to have a balance between some directional light to light your desk area and some ambient light to light the ceiling and get some soft levels of light onto the walls close by.


Dimmable lighting will ensure you can balance light levels to be exactly as you want, you will also be able to vary it as natural light levels change.


I imagine you are doing a lot of work on Zoom (or similar). I have struggled to light myself effectively as I have a window behind me. I often appear as a silhouette. I can’t rearrange the room. What should I do?!


If you are using Zoom on a laptop with a camera you can experiment before you set up a meeting by switching the camera on and turning the laptop, and yourself, in different directions. You will see how light affects the way you are seen by others. Natural light works well but ideally you need to have the main source of light, ideally diffused light, shining onto your face and less light behind you. If you can’t set up in any orientation and you don’t have enough natural light on you face, then you can infill with some diffused, warm light in front of you from a simple table lamp with a shade. You may need to use a blind on windows behind you to prevent silhouetting. A good quality LED ‘bulb’ with a colour temperature of 2,700K will emit a warm light, the shade over it will diffuse it.


Does your understanding of the benefits of natural daylight and circadian rhythm directly influence your lifestyle and behaviours?


Yes – I like to be outside as much as I can. The lockdown weather has been great for that. Thanks for having me on “Lockdown Lowdown”.


Interview originally published in July 2020.