In the Light with Charles K. Thompson, FAIA

One thing awaiting him — along with meetings to attend, deadlines to meet, documents to issue — is a voice mail from a residential client who is surprised that the exterior lighting holes have already been cut into the high-end wood soffits. She thinks the plan was to wait until Thompson was available to field-verify the positioning. And, in fact, she is right. As it turns out, through a phone call to the client, Thompson finds out that “she isn’t angry; she’s just surprised.”

The innate affability that helps Thompson navigate a potentially difficult client conversation seems somehow related to the laid-back, slightly quirky, aura of his office. Picture a suite of five smallish contiguous zones he shares with the three other members of his firm, all of whom happen to be female. Stepping through the front door of the space, one encounters a reception desk sporting color-changing LED accents (programmable to millions of colors) and eight rare lava lamps. Then there’s the “ego wall” of photos that show projects ranging from small residential to large commercial (not yet pictured is Austin’s Formula 1 racetrack project, now under way). And hanging all around are various types of lighting fixtures suspended from a wired pipe grid system. “You can’t very well view a ceiling fixture when it’s lying on a table,” Thompson says.

On exhibit in his personal office is a casual array of lighting toys and gizmos acquired over the years. A classic “Lite-Brite” toy with a supply of colored pegs to arrange creatively into a matrix of lighted holes. A few mechanical toys that light up and spin around. And from his mom, an illuminated pink flamingo. The toys all set a fun tone for the office. “There are lots of people who gulp down some coffee and toast each morning and head to a job they hate,” he says, “but I’m glad to say that’s not me.”

Thompson knew early on that he wanted to be an architect, and ended up defining his career for himself. Early drafting experience during both high school and college gave Thompson a thorough familiarity with technical plans for lighting, electrical, and air conditioning. As a 1981 high-honors graduate from the UT Austin School of Architecture, he focused on a career in architectural lighting — although he has been registered as an architect since 1984.

On this particular day following his return from Big Bend, a jobsite tour and meeting of Austin’s Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN) is being staged at a rambling, several-million-dollar residence under construction in the Mirador Escala neighborhood on a hilltop ridge above Barton Creek. Thompson is serving as lighting consultant for the hill country contemporary house designed by Austin architect James D. LaRue.

Moving informally through the series of spaces, random commentary becomes a forum for Thompson’s ideas — true convictions — about lighting. “We want to do our part in creating spaces that people want to use and inhabit because they feel comfortable there,” he says. For Thompson, those ideal results emerge from a close collaboration with the architect. “We try to understand the architect’s vision and pursue it as our own,” he says. “If there’s no passion from the architect, no clear articulation of a vision, that’s a bad place to start.”

Nestled into a ridge with dramatic views, the house being toured has an elaborate outdoor terrace and pool area, complete with a bocce ball court. Proceeding through the dining room, Thompson reveals the Archillume scheme for a chandelier of sorts comprising 22 lighted globes hanging in a seemingly random pattern at varying heights. “That’s an allusion to the bocce balls,” he says, “and viewed through the wall of glass that is part of the entry sequence, they become a signature element for the house.”

He points out, in this same room, the “layers of light” that he often uses in a space to achieve pleasing contrast: uniform lighting for floors and walls, punctuated by a source of crisp light (the chandelier), and additional “punched up” areas as warranted (special lighting for art on the wall). “All too often,” he laments, “designers consider the ceiling as the only mounting surface, so they treat the lighting plan as just an exercise for the reflected ceiling plan — rather than drawing on options such as wall sconces and lighted coves, or fixtures in the floor, in furniture, or in millwork.”

Inevitably, the conversation turns to the widespread current use of LED lighting in the interest of energy conservation and low life-cycle costs. He endorses LED lighting as a resource, but stops short of accepting it as a panacea. “We’re still proving up some of the long-life claims, and you have to watch out for inconsistency in color, low light output, and the sometimes prohibitive cost of fixtures.” Thompson also cautions against “sledgehammer measures” to achieve low consumption such as mandating that all walls be white or establishing unreasonable limits on watts per square foot. “There’s a whole generation out there that will be needing higher levels of light — not lower — in order to function well,” he says. “The best way to reduce lighting-related energy consumption in buildings is to reduce the burn time.” And of course the way to do that is through lighting controls, which is why Thompson, in this large house project, found himself negotiating with the architect for more technology space to accommodate ten 18-inch-wide dimming panels.

Back in the office after the jobsite tour, Thompson discusses his missionary role as one committed to “spreading knowledge” to design professionals — illuminating them — on the discipline of lighting. He does so through his lighting design course at the UT School of Architecture and through numerous lectures for professional groups. He also is launching a for-profit venture called LUX-ed Education Services, which is based on the idea of offering intensive one- or two-day lighting design courses for professionals in smaller cities who don’t have ready access to such continuing education resources.

Thompson looks at it like this: “Through our firm, we can have a direct impact on the lighting quality of maybe 20-plus projects a year. And in the U.S. alone, architects outnumber the world population of professional lighting designers by maybe 70 or 80 to one. So if I can teach future architects and fellow professionals how to create better lighting in buildings, I can have a positive effect on every job they will ever do throughout their careers. That to me is gratifying. It’s a very exciting thing.”

Not unlike straddling a high-speed Harley on the open road.

Guest Editor Larry Paul Fuller is a principal in fd2s inc.
Texas Architect,
May/June 2012