Inspired by the United Nations’ International Year of Light, Lightswitch is exploring Why Light Matters throughout 2015.

We have asked our designers why light matters to them and will be sharing their responses in a short Q&A each month. Each Q&A will focus on a different way light shapes our lives—from buildings we live in to the emotions it evokes. We hope our stories will inspire you to think about why light matters to you, and we invite you to join the dialogue on Facebook: What does sustainable lighting mean to you?

“Green,” “sustainable,” “energy-efficient”—For many of us in the lighting community, these terms have become part of our everyday lexicon. But do we really think about what they mean and why they matter? What exactly makes a lighting system “energy-efficient”? What constitutes “green” design? We all know that LED lighting uses less energy than comparable traditional technologies, but is it really “sustainable”? Moreover, how do all these technologies and the designs they result in really impact our environment? Charles Foster, Director of Lighting Design for Lightswitch New York, reflects on what “green” really means.

Q: What constitutes a 'green/sustainable/energy-efficient' lighting system?

Charles: Ultimately all of these measures are relative. If you replace 1,200 watts of load with 400 watts of LED, is that green? It might be green in a stage show, and it might be gratuitous in a retail environment. I think that lighting is a relatively easy place to make demands (cut your power load!) and to plant a flag and claim victory (we beat code by 20 percent!). I think that over time, we’re going to see a much greater use of measured load as a metric for success, and this is going to drive controls-based solutions. The best way to save energy is not to use it when it isn’t needed.

Q: How does the type of project you're working on affect how you define 'sustainability'?

Charles: I think that every architectural design is shaped by sustainability—by necessity. Energy codes and client concerns about lifecycle costs drive design choices, and many clients want to go above and beyond by creating projects that can showcase sustainability as a feature.

Entertainment projects are embracing the same technologies, and in many cases entertainment pioneered the advancements that later feature in built spaces. The concerns on entertainment projects tend to be more focused on the ability to maintain the design intent over a long period of time, which is a different kind of sustainability. Fortunately for us, the same technologies that extend life and consistency of lighting also save energy.

Q: What drives designers to consider the environment?

Charles: In some cases, we’re required by regulations to think about it, which is the most clear-cut situation. Ultimately we look for intersections between design, utility and environmental responsibility. If we can check all of those boxes, we’ve created a ‘best-case’ scenario, where the client will be happy, the design will be successful and we’ll keep a minimal impact on the environment.

Q: About those energy codes—Do you think they are effective?

Charles: I think codes are a place to start. These codes are pushing industry and practice, and also being pushed by them. It’s a give-and-take environment. I think the most important thing is for the rules to be kept flexible and be updated as needed.

Q: Sustainability was a key component on one of your recent projects, The Solutions Grassroots Tour, which encourages audience members to use renewable energy sources. Tell us about that project.

Charles: I’ve worked with the director, Josh Fox, for many years. He was one of the first people who took a chance on me after I moved to New York, and I designed theatrical shows for him. Josh placed himself at the center of the ‘fracking’ natural gas debate, making strong and persuasive arguments that fracking is a net-negative for society, even if it comes with short-term profits.

Solutions Grassroots is an optimistic, affirmative movement to get people to use renewable energy. I think that renewables, which were once just a dream, are now a reality. If enough people transition to renewables, if enough people demand renewables, then we’ll find ourselves with a better and cleaner world. Josh is making that happen, one conversation at a time. We’re proud to be a part of the conversation.

Q: What about renewable lighting technologies, like solar lighting? How are they improving the world?

Charles: I’m particularly proud of our work with SolarAid, bringing clean, affordable, renewable solar light to people who otherwise would live in a world where fire is the primary source of illumination.

Much of our work with light rests on the distinction between experiences that are good or experiences that are great. That’s an important distinction to me, but it isn’t the whole story. Light is also primal and necessary. Light liberates those people to work and study after dark. It extends their potential.