Technocrats and Glowing Panties

D Magazine , July 2003

Whenever I go to Victoria's Secret, I think of Fred Oberkircher.

No, it's not that. I'm a happily married woman.

Oberkircher is founder and director of the Center for Lighting Education at Texas Christian University, the best place in the country to get an education in lighting if you're an undergraduate and want to study design, not engineering.

And every year Oberkircher tells his interior-design students to go to Victoria's Secret and count the lights. Male students always find the homework slightly embarrassing, but it makes a dramatic point. The small Victoria's Secret near TCU has 82 separate light fixtures. The one at Mockingbird Station, where I did the exercise, has 79--in just one of its three rooms.

Customers don't notice the lights. They aren't supposed to. The effects are subliminal. "All you see is glowing panties," Oberkircher says.

Outside the theater, lighting has traditionally been an engineering field. Guys with calculators (or slide rules) figured out what fixtures would produce enough illumination to light the room at a given cost. But over the past couple decades, all of that has changed. For retailers, restaurants, and hotels--for any business that wants its customers to feel special--lighting isn't just illumination anymore. It's identity, emotion, drama.

Sure, Victoria's Secret could save a lot of trouble, energy, and money if it just installed enough fluorescents to make the room bright. But neither the merchandise nor the customers' skin tones would look as good. The "immersive experience" of shopping wouldn't be as enjoyable. The unmentionables wouldn't move off the shelves.

The Wal-Marts of the world can still get away with plain fluorescents, of course. Their flat light disguises inferior fabric textures and leads customers to expect bargains. But specialty retailers need more than simple illumination to draw customers away from the big-box competition. That's why TCU's lighting program, with its retail emphasis, is flourishing.

"There is a significant difference between being able to see and being able to appreciate," Oberkircher says. "That word appreciation means a lot. It would be like asking, 'What's the difference between wearing coveralls and a designer dress?'"

Texans, however, can expect more lighting coveralls in our future. The technocrats are exacting their revenge. By force of law, they're turning lighting back into mere illumination.

Beginning last September, all new construction must comply with the International Energy Conservation Code, which limits watts per square foot. (Although the name makes it sound like some kind of United Nations treaty, the code was written by the International Code Council, the same private group responsible for standard building safety codes.) The code effectively wipes out most incandescent lighting, favoring fluorescents. By dictating fluorescent lights, it makes dimming harder and more expensive. It penalizes rooms with high ceilings. It gets rid of cove lighting, which typically uses high-wattage fixtures on dimmers. In short, the code makes shoppers feel a lot less special.

To make matters worse, the law doesn't restrict the watts you do use. It limits the watts you could use. Inspectors base their calculations on the highest-watt bulb each fixture can take, even when the design calls for much lower light levels and even when the circuits would blow if every fixture were at full capacity. The calculation is the same whether you leave the lights on 24 hours a day, turn them off at night, or rely mostly on natural light during the daytime. In other words, the code favors Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and Dilbert-style cubicles over more aesthetic environments.

For instance, on a new office project in the Crescent, lighting designer Andy Lang busted his budget by using 3 watts per square foot in the lobby, twice what the law allows for office space. To make up the difference, he kept the watts low in work areas. Even the CEO will get plain fluorescent ceiling boxes, and the art on his walls will have no accent lighting.

Or take that Victoria's Secret at Mockingbird Station. It's using 4,330 watts in a room of no more than 1,000 square feet. The code limits retailers to 2.1 watts per square foot. If the store tried to get a permit today, the spotlights around the perimeter alone would exhaust its lighting quota. No more glowing panties.

Robbed of their favorite tools, lighting designers are frustrated. "You have to have incandescent sources to be able to light the space nicely, softly, to get that warm feel, even in contemporary spaces," says Granville McAnear, a senior designer at Craig Roberts Associates. His stylistically traditional clients aren't happy. "No client wants to see fluorescents or metal halide fixtures or anything industrial. They don't want to see that look."

The law is supposed to clean up the air, but its lighting provisions take a suspiciously indirect approach. They don't attack air pollution. They attack electricity consumption--and they do even that in a peculiarly roundabout way. New construction accounts for a tiny fraction of light use, and lighting itself uses only a fraction of total electricity.

The Energy Systems Laboratory at Texas A&M is supposed to track the law's effectiveness. To project a significant effect on pollution from the lighting rules, analysts there assumed that every single household in Texas would replace 10 incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents--an assumption that has no connection to either the code's provisions or likely real-world behavior.

If clean air were really the goal, the law would attack pollution directly. It would go after car exhausts and power-plant emissions, not incandescent spotlights. If energy conservation were the goal, the law would reward using less energy. Or it would raise the price of electricity to encourage people to use less. It would focus on how much energy people use, not how they get to that total. It wouldn't tell retailers what light fixtures to buy.

The dirty secret is that this is really an aesthetic battle. It's the latest version of the old American conflict between pleasure and Puritanism (the triumph of the latter led to the current smoking ban in Dallas restaurants). Efficiency-minded engineers regard anything more than simple illumination as waste. Environmental activists are repulsed by "unnecessary" consumption. The boards that set energy codes and evaluate their effectiveness include engineers and environmentalists. They don't include artists or designers, much less lingerie shoppers.

In the behind-the-scenes meetings that establish the rules, no one speaks for pleasure. You can't measure aesthetic enjoyment with a light meter, so enjoyment doesn't count. We wind up with a law that makes it illegal to reproduce a Victoria's Secret. Legislators don't even know what they've passed.

After all, the prophets of "negawatts" always claim that they've discovered a free source of energy savings. Unlike buying a smaller car or turning up the summertime thermostat, they promise, switching to fluorescents will be painless. No one will even notice. And if someone does notice, does complain, then that someone is just being silly.

"I can demonstrate through research that your color perception is better with fluorescent than it is with incandescent," says Mark Rea, director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Interior designers, he says, just don't know what they're talking about. "Designers are comfortable with incandescent. They've always made it work. They are not staying up with the latest research that shows it is not the best technology for color."

By providing a balanced spectrum of colors, he explains, today's fluorescents make it easier to distinguish shades of color that can look the same under incandescent bulbs--maroon versus violet, for instance. But even Rea admits that human beings don't always want a balanced spectrum. Skin tones look better under the long wavelengths of incandescent lights.

That's an important exception. Color-matching may be important for sweaters or carpet swatches, but retailers have other concerns. They want to show their wares and their customers in the best possible light. "When it comes to people, I don't want the truth," Oberkircher says. "I want to look good."