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Tech companies, co-working brands and office tenants across the country are evolving the office workspace along with the millennial “work-hard-play-hard” ethic. Lighting design for these spaces must support AV integration and global networks, collaborative social spaces, health and wellness, and countless individual work habits – with an emphasis on visual comfort – to maximize employee recruiting and retention. The most imaginative and creative examples of these workspaces have an element of fun: a carefully researched narrative that expresses the owner’s brand as an immersive environment.

“I am very inspired by how lighting and design can shape peoples’ perceptions as they walk into spaces,” said Elizabeth Cooper, senior lighting designer at Arup’s San Francisco offices. “By highlighting some improbable elements pulled in from the world around us, they’re transported into different worlds.” Cooper is working with large-scale tech clients that use office spaces and amenities to compete for employee talent and to market themselves to clients.

According to Cooper, the design process for these creative spaces draws from carefully scripted theme park experiences and the Rainforest Cafes of yesteryear (note, there are still a few locations here in the West). “That’s exactly what I have been working on with my clients; what the end-user wants to have. I’ve provided a series of scenes, highlighting features in the space like plantings and sculptural items; and branding, making sure it is represented well.” But in addition to the architect’s “narrative” for occupants moving through the space, the individual spaces change dynamically throughout the day. “We’re moving forward with the technology and involving all the aspects of IoT, sensors and interactivity to ensure that energy is kept to the minimum and the control systems in general become much more smart.”

Compared to most tenant-improvement projects, she explained, the creative aspect to these intensively engineered spaces demands a closer relationship with the owner, plus extensive mockups. Acoustics and digital displays are crucial to these experiences, so AV consultants are closely integrated with the design process and client demonstrations. “We initiate the conversation with the client and then with the architectural team to strategize on how best to express the architectural developments in the space and make sure their work unfolds naturally.”

The office is the product

Noele de Leon, senior Lighting designer at WeWork, engages in a unique branding exercise – along the lines of hospitality – where the owner’s product is the space and its amenities. “We have a unique opportunity because we have interior designers and architects and a whole design team here that can create an immersive and collaborative environment for our members.” She described the roles of the WeWork real estate, interior design and graphics teams: “Since we are in 75-ish cities, they do a lot of research on the building, if there’s an historical context or not. And then we work together to really make that space special. Of course, we have standards that we like to use, but we definitely cultivate the local history of all of our spaces. Each one’s unique and special, but there’s a very strong connection among all of the WeWorks on the planet.”

De Leon delved into the variety of programming for the different space types within in each WeWork location. She balances a wide array of tasks – largely office/computer work and some handiwork – against individual work styles and preferences: “Because there are so many members, and everyone has different preferences, in common/shared spaces we will vary the light levels. Some members may want to be in a sunny corner or a darker, moody lounge. Other people want to be in a brightly lit desk space. While there might not be individual lighting controls, there’s always different, you could say, microclimates of lighting, so everyone can still fill their needs.”

Several of Cooper’s recent office projects include dynamic circadian lighting systems that push a residential ambiance and full-on hospitality amenities. “That’s largely, I think, to do with how much time people are spending at the workplace, and the importance of social connections. Some companies want employees to stay there as long as possible. They are creating more social areas, more collaborative spaces,” she said.

Community socializing and happenstance collaborations are a primary selling point of coworking sites, so lounges and dining areas are expanded. De Leon augments light levels to pull people through the space and create “moments” of gathering: “We’ll emphasize those moments, like around a beer island or around a large seating area. It’s very subtle. We use architectural lighting to create these unperceived moments where people just naturally gather. People can be like bugs, they’re attracted to the light.” The blurring of home and work lives demands that comfortable residential/hospitality feel. “We’re balancing the office amenities with home amenities. Likewise, with the design, there’s a functionality but there’s also the aesthetics that are familiar and soft and welcoming,” de Leon said.

A primary tenet of WeWork lighting is for members to look good and feel good, according to de Leon, describing a wash of indirect lighting to enhance face-to-face collaboration and digital relationships via videoconference. Modeling and excellent color rendition are also key to art, graphics and special “curated” moments in the design. “We’re definitely inspired by the California codes, because they’re more stringent, so we base a lot of our standards around that. The California market is pushing the manufacturers to provide high-quality lighting: high CRI, high R9 value, and no flicker…. We have almost 250,000 members, so it’s a high priority to keep a health-conscious mentality in choosing light fixtures and light sources.”

A couple of Cooper's projects have living walls, wrapped around columns of the facade, and seating areas with integrated grasses and ferns and tropical flowers.

Cooper emphasizes biophilia to promote well-being, explaining the human need for a connection to the natural world, a respite of peace in a stressful life. She works closely with interior landscape architects to maximize and maintain these owner investments. Horticultural lighting requirements focus on photosynthetic active radiation (PAR) and photosynthetic photon flux density (PPFD – analogous to the visual system’s lux), which is the amount of useful light (PAR) that reaches the plant surface each second. “A couple of my projects have living walls, wrapped around columns of the façade, and seating areas with integrated grasses and ferns and tropical flowers. It’s about providing the right spectral distribution of lighting to reduce the costs of repotting and recommissioning the spaces. Not just preventing die-offs, but encouraging the production of flowers and growth to create a more vibrant space.”

Scripting the space for different vibes

De Leon portrays WeWork design charrettes as “pretty loose and open. Because of our scale, we are able to write something up, send it around, and evolve and finetune very quickly. It all seems very natural. Because a lot of people here have very different backgrounds and different experiences, it’s so inspiring to work with all my coworkers.”

Both Cooper and de Leon describe these projects as challenging and exciting. “They are really, really fun,” Cooper emphasized. “It’s certainly been a challenge and definitely opened up design possibilities. This has been an imaginative and truly creative experience for me.”

De Leon specifies a “controlled” palette of luminaires: linear direct-indirect pendants for a soft quality of light combined with trackheads to highlight artwork or provide additional tasklighting. Decorative lighting can connect to the individual location’s theme or provide a pop of color where needed. Careful design extends into the various workspaces, even what others might consider “throwaway” spaces like a breakroom, copy center or bathroom: “Every single space is important to us for the full experience.”

At WeWork, videoconference rooms and private offices offer dimming with super-simple controls and lounge lighting can accommodate special events with a few presets. She deploys a variety of low-voltage and wireless systems, depending on the specific construction and regional costs. “We’re not afraid of piloting new technologies or emerging technologies.” WeWork is beginning to explore lighting-based networked sensors to track space usage and room availability, and they’re testing dynamic circadian lighting. While there are no WELL-certified sites, de Leon does evaluate lighting systems using vertical footcandles and circadian stimulus (CS) scores. “For us it’s more about luminance than illuminance. It’s more of a composition than measuring footcandles. Of course, we have to meet requirements for light levels, but that’s not really our focus.”

Cooper relies on DMX controls to produce a circadian lighting schedule with functional lighting throughout the workspace and to set scenes for theatrical lighting elements in key areas, often cued to audiovisuals. “I’m using RGBW color and control sequences to make sure that the client has a simple way to change a scene or override for presentations, third-party productions (where they bring in lighting boards and DJs), or other special events,” she said.

“It’s understanding the story, and then tying in an exciting lighting solution. We also look at the psychological aspect of creating immersion whilst you’re in the space. Hopefully it will inspire people to go and do great things with their work. We’re always trying to lead a journey rather than just provide lighting to code. It’s about going above and beyond and trying to create spaces that are more imaginative.”

Lois I. Hutchinson

About Lois I. Hutchinson

Lois I. Hutchinson is a freelance writer specializing in lighting and energy issues. She is also the content marketing mastermind behind Inverse Square LLC, a Los Angeles–based consultancy. Contact her via with your comments and any article ideas that concern the lighting community here in the Southwest.

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