We’re always interested in origin stories; where did your interest in lighting begin?
When I was a kid, I was always playing with light bulbs and switches and extension cords and stringing them around the house. My father was an engineer for General Electric, and our house was sort of a 1950s ‘home of the future.’ The living room was all lit with fluorescent tubes behind architectural valances. We had colored spotlights over the dining table, and there was a low-voltage remote control system that GE was really pushing at that time. It’s all been superseded now.
And you pursued architectural lighting design right away?
Actually, I started out in theatrical lighting. If you scratch the surface of many architectural lighting designers, you’ll find theatrical lighting designers underneath. I’m a little unique here at Lam Partners because the tradition is architecture. I realized my passion was lighting, and I evolved to a point where I found that architectural lighting design was where I needed to be. It was my passion for lighting design that got me into stage lighting, not the other way around. Lighting intrigued me, and I saw the theater as a way to explore it.
How did you come to be with Lam Partners?
While I was at another job, I took a continuing education class in architectural lighting. It was taught by Paul [Zaferiou], who’s now one of my partners. That led to a job here, and I got hired in 1995 and got put to work.
When Paul was teaching that class, did he strike you as someone who could be a good mentor?
Absolutely. Paul and Bob bought the firm from Bill Lam, and it became very flat structurally [regarding hierarchy]. The environment is a fantastic place to learn and get involved with amazing projects quickly. We don’t compartmentalize people and stick them in a corner and tell them to do the same thing over and over again.
Have you had opportunities to invest in others, as Paul did you?
Yes. Seventeen years later, I’m serving that role to some degree with others. To me, mentoring is about giving people the opportunity to learn and grow and do good things. It’s hiring people with potential. You look for people who have that spark, that drive, and you set up the conditions for them to go crazy—in a good way. There are no bad ideas, and we encourage everyone to put their ideas on the table. It’s not about people making mistakes and learning the hard way; it’s more about letting everybody contribute to the discussion, as opposed to the guys with the experience dictating the solution. We’re constantly going to each other with challenges and solving problems together.
It provides freshness and a diversity of opinion.
Right. It’s the same way that we work with our clients. ‘Collaborative design’ is an overused buzzword, but I think we really practice it. We work best when we’re seamlessly integrated into the design team and not just seen as technicians. The architects who understand what we offer treat us like equals, and we all sit around the table and throw ideas out. The best projects, when you get everything done, are the ones where you don’t remember whose idea was whose.
The push for sustainability may help shine a spotlight on the fact that lighting needs to be incorporated in the early stages of design. What’s been your strategy for approaching projects as an integrated team member?
You have to start off the project with a full understanding of the program, the context, the owners’ goals, and the architect’s vision. That’s what the first meeting should be. It’s surprising how often that doesn’t happen. Even if it’s a type of project you’ve done before, say, a school, you always want to make sure you’re not just assuming it’s like all the others. Maybe there’s some new objective or teaching methodology that’s going to be applied. We just started work on a project that has very aggressive net-zero energy goals, so that imposes another whole layer of challenges. You have to talk that through before you even get to any design solutions.
With the Institute of Peace, what was your starting point for trying to convey something as abstract as peace?
You know, conveying a specific concept wasn’t necessarily the thought process. What we were doing was lighting and revealing the architecture. We had worked with Moshe Safdie on a number of projects, and we understood his style. What was a driver on this project was the illumination of the translucent roof. It was such a design challenge that it dwarfed everything, and we really had to start there. If you want to interpret the roof as a dove of peace sitting on top, which some people have, then our lighting is just supporting that. Bill Lam’s fundamental philosophy was that lighting and architecture really are the same thing; if you don’t have light, you’re not going to see the building. The light should reveal the architecture, not fight it or be stuck onto it.
You guys are known for an ethical approach, even when not mandated by the client. The Kauffman Center, for example, is a building that isn’t known foremost for its green design, but you still looked at it from a sustainable perspective. How?
You can have great energy efficiency, but if it’s a miserable place to be, what’s the point? In the Kauffman Center . . . in many cases we had to use halogen, which is one of the least efficient lighting sources, but there are ways to minimize even that energy, like the halogen infrared technology we used in all the lamps. We’re on a dimming system with complex programs, so they’re only on to the level they’re needed. At the back of the house—the stuff you never see in the photographs—is maximum energy efficiency. A side note is that Missouri is one of the few states that has elected not to adopt an energy code, but we made . . . energy-efficient design choices . . . because it was the right thing to do.