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Looking at Offices in New, Dim Light

Times Staff Writer

There’s a new dark age coming. Sort of. In some places it’s already here.

This isn’t a pessimistic forecast served up by a think tank full of glum, waffling futurists. In fact, there are some who say it’s good news.

In pursuit of energy conservation, lighting in new California office buildings and in new federal government offices--and eventually in most other public buildings, including retail stores--will be scaled back, redesigned, rearranged and sometimes coupled to ultrasonic and infrared switches that turn on in the presence of people.

Already semi-visible in some newer buildings, this dimming of indoor America will accelerate in the latter part of the decade. Within the next year or two, pace-setting federal and California building standards that cut in half the current amount of energy consumed by lighting will take effect. Whereas now office workers typically operate on a light ration of about three watts per square foot, soon many will have to get along with 1.5 to 1.7 watts per square foot.

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Greater Efficiency

But this doesn’t necessarily mean a phenomenal jump in eyestrain, experts for private industry, the federal Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission say. Rather, they insist, lighting fixtures will be more efficient and light will be distributed where it’s needed most and switched off or reduced in hallways, stairwells and other architectural deserts.

Moreover, workers are likely to have a greater sense of privacy in their pools of light, especially now that more and more office buildings have fewer and fewer walls, they add. A few irrepressible optimists even declare that the new light codes will offer a wedge for greater “local control” of their workplace environment by workers.

These cheery predictions are the rosy outcome of a years-long battle between bureaucrats and builders. Over the course of that fight, largely invisible to the public, technicians on both sides have fought eyeball-to-eyeball in an arcane world of calculations, climatic zones, computer models and conjecture. In some cases they were throwing punches in the dark.

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For example, there were fears that less light would impose a strain on older workers who were thought to need more and more light as they aged. Indeed, some studies seemed to prove this and raised the specter of an aging, half-blind, eyesore work force bumping into desks and each other. To a point, this was true. Studies did find that if lighting was sufficiently reduced it impaired worker efficiency. However, these studies were based on the then conventional wisdom that adopted a kind of arms race approach to office lighting--the more the better. Not true. It turns out that some kinds of jobs require more light than others and some, such as working at video display terminals actually demand less. But there’s still plenty of disagreement over how much light different jobs need.

“The big controversy right now is nobody knows how to define the amount of light for a work space,” said Ted Kurkowski, a program manager at the energy department. He added that determining the amount of lighting needed for different tasks has turned out to be extremely difficult--largely because eyes have to constantly adjust to different demands made on them at work. One popular solution is to give workers a lamp they can control at their desk while providing a modicum of ambient lighting for common areas.

All of this sound and fury over light has come about thanks to the oil crisis of 1973 and 1974. That event made the construction industry and its regulators take a look at where all the energy was going. They found that roughly 40% of office-building consumption went to lighting, by far the single largest chunk of the energy bill.

Host of Ways to Cut Costs

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Since then private companies and designers have come up with a host of ways to cut those costs. More efficient light bulbs, fluorescent tubes and light fixtures have been developed. In addition, some companies have come up with ways to turn lights on and off with the use of sensors that react to body heat and movement. The Tishman Research Corp., for instance, estimates it will sell 100,000 of its infrared sensors next year, up from practically zero three years ago. These sensors, as well as others that operate on ultrasonic waves, turn lights on and off when people enter and leave a room or work area.

While all of these measures are more expensive than older lighting systems, they generally pay for themselves in one to three years through reduced energy bills and tax breaks, government and private industry spokesmen said.

The new California standards, which take effect in 1987, and the federal standards, which probably will take effect in about a year, initially will have limited national impact. But they are part of a trend that will eventually include retrofitting of most older buildings, said Richard Charles, president of a San Francisco consulting engineering firm who has been involved in development of the new standards as a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.


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