Meet Nic Burnham

What path did you take to become a lighting designer?

As with most lighting designers, the path I took was long and roundabout. Originally, I did industrial design at RMIT and while graduating with distinction, I decided I didn’t want to do Honours at that time. I ended up doing a random job for a liquor distributor, which at the age of 20 was good because it got me into every bar or nightclub, skipping all queues.

I then moved to the UK and started a temp role at Foster & Partners (the architects) for 6 weeks. Due to having a good understanding of how things come together they kept me on. My role was to run the day-to-day functions of the Materials Research Centre which was modelled on the Materio Centre in France and Materials Conexxion in New York. Norman Foster visited them and wanted one for his studio. After about 3 years, there was a shake up in the practice and at that point I was made an associate,which was a bit of a surprise. My role was to assist the architects and interior designers in selecting interior finishes, how they would appear within a space, their appropriateness for specific applications and how spaces would look with lighting and services overlays.

After almost 4 years, my partner wanted to move back to Australia. When we returned, I needed a job and was now highly specialised in an area of architecture and design that didn’t exist in Australia. I interviewed at a couple of firms but they were more interested to learn about what I did at Fosters, rather than hire someone to do the same.

A friend of mine, who knew Ian Hopkins (former CEO of NDY), set up a meeting with Ian and he offered me a trial to see how I’d fair as a lighting designer. The rest is history…18 years of history.

Why does light matter to you? And why should it matter to our clients?

Light is probably the most essential element in any space. Le Corbusier probably said it best, that ‘architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in light’.

Well considered lighting to a space, whatever it is, is critical to its success and how a lighting approach is developed can create vastly different experiences.

The impression is often that lighting designers just do fancy lighting and spend $$$. In some cases, this may be a fair judgement, but we aim to carefully protect a client’s budget throughout the project to ensure they get the best value for money. In some cases, we have done initial designs for tendering purposes to spaces we know will change to make sure that the client receives a competitive price for the lighting and installation. We can then massage or change this to get the right outcome but, preventing provisional sums is critical to arriving at the best outcome.

What’s your career highlight project?

My career highlight is the penguin display at Melbourne Aquarium. It’s a little old now but jobs like that don’t come around often. The lighting to that project was classified as a life support system that was not only critical to the appearance of the enclosure, but more importantly, the birds’ health and the likelihood that they would breed.

The lighting may look fairly simple but it was hard to get it right, delivering the ability to create roughly 85 lighting scenes that transition based on a specific longitude and latitude in the Antarctic. I specified the use of LED metal halide and halogen lighting, which proved to be challenging.

Ultimately, the outcome was successful for the health of the birds and the breeding.

Tell us about the lighting on this project.

The lighting to the penguin enclosure, how it was detailed and where it was located was complicated. The lights couldn’t be in the enclosure as they generate heat and impact the birds. These were placed in a channel along the front of the enclosure behind high performance double glazing. To access the lights to maintain and replace the lamps, an extra-large access way was built above the channel with a lift up floor to enable staff to rotate the lights to replace the lighting. This access way was also used by the mechanical engineer, in conjunction with the heat from the lighting, to create a continuous slot above the 100 mm thick acrylic wall that pushed warm air down it and acted as a defrost system.

Do you have any other favourite projects?

If I was to pick another project, it would be less of a single project and more of a project type. I really enjoy workspace projects, for a couple of reasons:

They are quicker projects with a faster timeframe from start to completion. This means the visual outcome for our hard work is tangible sooner. Workspace projects also require faster decision making and design timeframes. You need to focus and consider your approach and be VERY collaborative with the interior designers to get the best results that balance the visual experience with the functional outcomes. Functional outcomes are important for workspaces as they have high usage. If the lighting doesn’t work, it’s immediately evident.

Workspaces are also a type of project where our hard work and diligence can positively contribute to people’s lives. Creating a welcoming, visually interesting and functionally appropriate design to a workspace makes a physical difference in the lives of those that use the spaces, making their working life more enjoyable and more interesting. People that enjoy their workspace are generally happier and perform better. A poor workspace with poor lighting has the opposite effect.

Workspaces are also a much more balanced blend of art and science, delivering a functional outcome to a space that still looks amazing is a real challenge. Lots of other project types, while great to work on, are less balanced with the focus more on the visual experience rather than how someone can use the space successfully.

What innovative new approaches are you seeing when it comes to lighting design?

With the advent of LEDs and their constant evolution, lighting is now continually changing and getting smaller and smaller. This is the typical thing that is referenced as changing design. Starting prior to LEDs and working through their introduction has vastly changed the shape of the industry.

Approaches to design have also changed due to COVID-19. This has seen impacts in workplace design with tenants taking reduced office space but with more varied and flexible spaces. This increased variation allows these spaces to be used for informal VC via Zoom and Teams, and in turn, the lighting needs to respond in a more flexible manner to address the greater variety of functions each space may have.

What advice do you have for aspiring lighting designers looking to break into the industry?

This is complicated as there is no direct pathway into the industry. Everyone’s story is different. I would suggest, if you’re keen, that you learn as much as you can and teach yourself as much as is possible on the tools you have to hand when designing a space. Look at how lighting is used in spaces and how it’s used to create focus and ambience.

How do you ensure that your lighting design meets the needs and preferences of the end users of the space?

This is an equally complicated topic. How a design is delivered, and the actual outcome, is down to using a critical design process. Having people check the design approach and challenge it to see if there are other alternatives that haven’t been considered is crucial. Also, ask questions that may not have been thought of.

Equally important is to collaborate with the design teams, both architectural and services. Lighting can be changed and moulded to deliver a successful outcome in a variety of ways, whereas some of the other services are far more limiting and need to be carefully considered in the design. After 18 years at a multidisciplinary practice, I’ve learned a lot about fire and mechanical design (at least enough to get me in trouble) and starting with their requirements to a space. This often allows us to determine how lighting can most effectively complement a space and hide services that would otherwise be quite visual.

Making sure the detailing of an installation is right is also essential. We can design lighting around a type of detail, but unless that detail is reflected in the interior design, the outcome might not be as perfect as it could be.

Why should a client engage a lighting designer, in addition to an electrical engineer, in the early stages of a project? What are the benefits?

Lighting designers develop their skills around ensuring the outcome to a space is a marriage between visual outcome, performance and functionality and finally the budget. We need an understanding of how lighting will best complement the space, how people are intending to use it and who will use it. Then ensuring it can be managed within the project budget. Often eyes are bigger than wallets in this area but, working the client through the options to bring the design back to their budget enables them to understand what the final outcomes will be.

Electrical engineers are very talented at the wider gamut of engineering design. However, they’re not specialists and focus more on compliance than creativity. The challenge with using an electrical engineer to execute a lighting design is that they’re typically driven by two things – what the architects want and the lighting level in their calculations.

There is nothing wrong with this but, part of a good lighting design approach is to look at:

  • a space
  • a design
  • review if there are other opportunities to enhance the visual experience with lighting
  • challenge the outcomes of the calculations and how they are measured against the standards and then against the function of a space to blend an outcome.

This approach will ensure you don’t end up with a grid of downlights and a visual experience that’s bland and boring.

Lighting design – is it art or science? Why?

Lighting is a balance between both art and science. It is 100% a physics-based science and is in no way magical but, by careful design, integration and programming it can create truly magical spatial experiences.

You’re known for your love of kicks (or sneakers, depending on your vintage). Do your red kicks add fire to your designs?

No… they are my safety shoes. My new trainers are black with BRIGHT pink soles… I love a whacky pair of shoes.

Nic’s extra tip for clients

If I could make one suggestion to our clients so they can get the best from their design teams, budget and final outcomes, it is to avoid provisional sums. Even if this means having a temporary design that can be tendered to allow a bucket of money for a space that can then be amended post-tender to the right outcome.

In a competitive tender, we would expect to see pricing around the 50/50 ratio as a split between the supply of the lighting and the installation or wiring of the lighting. As a variation post-tender, this can drop to 20/80 supply to install, with roughly 50 to 60% of the budget being spread across:

  • cable trays
  • kilometres of electrical cable
  • data cable
  • access hire
  • duct tape
  • cable ties
  • access panels
  • switchboard changes
  • lighting control hardware.

These elements are all essential but, when it’s competitive, everyone’s pencil is MUCH sharper and many of the above items are absorbed into the whole.

To create something up front that can be priced will allow focus on the final design process of the lighting only.