Fishing for quality lighting

Robb Allen, AIA, IES, helps engineers notice the art and science of lighting.

April 11, 2011

Who: Robb Allen, AIA, IES

What: Founder and President, Clear Stream Studio, LLC

Where: Green Bay, Wis.

About: Allen is a licensed architect, industrial designer, and lighting and optical design consultant with more than 25 years of experience. He founded Clear Stream Studio in 2002 to bring his multidisciplinary services and experiences to a diverse customer base of corporate and manufacturing clients. He has spent half of his life designing and managing commercial facilities projects, and the other half designing furniture and lighting product solutions for several original equipment manufacturers.

Q. When you first wanted to be something in life, what was it?

A. An archaeologist. There was something fascinating to me about new discoveries and the outdoor work environment.

Q. What changed your path? Or what helped keep you on that path?

A. In a way I’ve always been on a path of discovery throughout my career. As an architect, lighting/daylighting consultant, and product designer, I’ve been able to share my discoveries and experiences with a diverse group of clients. While spending my career designing the built environment and products within it, I still just want to be outdoors as much as possible.

Q. If you weren’t a lighting designer, what would you be professionally?

A. I can truly say I am living my dream professionally; there is nothing as satisfying as owning and directing your own company to fulfill its mission. Mine is pretty simple: “Listen, do great work, do what you say you will do,” and people will come back for more.

Q. What is working well in the lighting design profession?

A. I think slowly but surely the architectural/engineering and facilities communities are realizing there is a lot to the art and science of lighting. The more informed people are, the better questions they ask, and the more engaged they get in the potential of lighting to impact energy consumption, the higher the quality of work and the visual experience of architecture.

Q. What is not working well in the lighting design profession?

A. In general, we historically have had a very “dumbed down” lighting culture in the United States. Dialogue like the following in architecture/engineering offices throughout the land for decades has sounded hauntingly similar to: “Throw some rectangles and circles down on the lighting plan, the rep will tell us what to specify, they’ll buy us some crappy sandwiches, and we’ll all be fine.” We can do better—and are, one project at a time.

Q. What one piece of advice would you give to someone considering a career in lighting design or electrical engineering?

A. Get into it, learn everything you can, share it throughout your life. If you aren’t passionate about this or anything you do, why bother? A career is a long time, so “skill up” and enjoy it.

Q. What’s the future of lighting design or lighting products? Where do you see the industry in 5 to 10 years?

A. I see a U.S. lighting industry 5 to 10 years behind Europe and Asia in its implementation of important technologies, policies, and long-term decision making. The United States is about now: How much does it cost today? Will it affect my sales budget or expense budget or capital budget today? Europe and Asia take a much longer view of the world, our experience in it, and what we leave behind. In 2006, I could have implemented 60,000- to 80,000-hour life fluorescent lamp technology in Europe. Please let me know when I can implement that here in the United States—we’re going on 5 years and counting.

Q. How would your coworkers or clients describe you?

A. Enjoys what he does, detailed, creative, good problem solver, expects excellence.

Q. What life adventure is still on your list?

A. Driving through the Alps with my wife, seeing, hearing, tasting, and feeling the ages course through my veins.

Q. What one word best describes you?

A. Creative.

Q. What makes you laugh?

A. Marketing jargon. It permeates our lives and means nothing; it’s tailored to sound sweet and bamboozle us into thinking it’s actually relevant.

Q. What do you wonder about?

A. I wonder why so many people are ill-informed, why LEDs still look “ghostly,” why sales reps can make 5 times what a lighting professional can make in a year, if my bout with cancer is gone for good, and how can I make a difference.

Q. Where is the best place you’ve ever been, and who were you with?

A. The mouth of the Bois Brule River in northern Wisconsin casting the surf at twilight with two older men I had never met. I stood enjoying my every cast while remaining fishless. As they were leaving, one of the men drifted away with his single trout, and the other—who had two trout on his stringer—walked across the riptide and offered me a true gift. As he reached out to me, presenting the most beautiful trout I’ve ever seen shimmering in the low setting sun, he simply said, “Every man should have a fish,” then turned and disappeared into the mist across the other bank.

Q. What do you want to learn more about?

A. How to share with everyone I work with the essence of that evening on the Bois Brule River.