Urbis Schréder: manufacturer and designer working together in the Public Realm . . . the bespoke conversation

The relationship between the designer and the manufacturer is arguably the most important factor in determining the success of a lighting project. The Light Review spoke to Sacha Abizadeh of WSP (the designer) and Mark Searle of Urbis Schréder (the maker) about how they make it work.


Photograph of London Bridge Station by Giovanbattista Cannella

TLR: Clients come to you with new ideas, or maybe new ways of doing old things. How do you respond to those demands? What kind of gulf do you find between the design team and the manufacturer?

Mark Searle and Sacha Abizadeh, with an idea . . .

SA: First off, as the design team, we have to look at what is it that the client is asking for. Our job is to satisfy those demands, but also to provide a lighting solution that is safe within that aesthetic. We have to bring together all of the requirements of a lighting installation in the public realm within the form factors,  the physical space and the preferred materials of the client brief.

We have a matrix of project requirements that includes things like:

  • What will the finished scheme actually look like?
  • Do we have a sustainable solution?
  • Are we satisfying the long terms client needs for maintenance and ultimate replacement?

It all needs to come together as one, and that may call for bespoke solution from manufacturers. We choose to bring the manufacturer into the conversation at an early stage to talk about the possibilities and opportunities. We can talk about the current state of technology – and also where there may be gaps between what we hope to do and what we can practically achieve.

What tends to drive the bespoke nature of the work?

SA: The design of lighting columns is changing. This is about mounting much more than just street lantern; we now need to incorporate cameras for security, for example – and that can influence the functional aspect of the design.

MS: We first look at how a bespoke request might impact on a standard product. The projects team has many years of experience and they can see how far a standard solution might carry the project, before engaging with something ‘special’. Sometimes it’s more about repackaging stuff that’s already there. We take a holistic approach, but we get the technology sorted first – the aesthetics may follow from there, but they are remain a key factor in most instances.

SA: The matrix that we use helps to flag-up where there may be gaps in the process. This is a back-and-forth process, ironing-out potential glitches as we go. Some clients, such as London Underground, may have specific requirements, such as using a separate compartment for emergency lighting cabling. That, inevitably, calls for a ‘non-standard’ solution in the design of the hardware.

MS: And while we’re having those conversation, any alterations to specification have to go through our structural and electrical testing procedures, so there’s a parallel back-and-forth process going on inside the manufacturer.

Developing product development with design concept


TLR: The Public Realm is beginning to look very different. We are seeing lighting used in a way that we haven’t seen before, including the integration of lighting into architecture.

SA: Yes, this is happening. And at the same time, we’re obliged to satisfy the performance criteria of the Standards. It becomes challenging when the aesthetic potentially comes in conflict with those performance criteria. The designer is the person who has to take on the risk; the manufacturer sits behind the designer so the product development is very important.

MS: LEDs have been the game changer. There are no longer ‘standard’ optics, as we had with HID lamps. LED performance can be tuned to suit the project demands. And even though it may look like a custom product, in most instances it will be built up of standard components, already fully tested and available to utilise.

SA: We’ve been talking about a design that calls for a lighting performance from a column that simply can’t be met by standard product. The architect wanted a particular aesthetic – and that’s where the conversation began. We identified the shortfall on light output from any ‘standard’ offer – and that was the challenge that we put to Mark:

“This is what we want it to do, what can you do?”

MS: Once we knew that a bespoke solution could work using columns, it then became a series of issues that had to be met concerning the physical criteria – mounting arrangement – robustness of structure – internal cabling.

SA: And eventually, it will come down to checking things like glare – something which can’t be confirmed until there’s something to look at and something to measure. The LED has opened the door to solutions like this, but visual inspection has become more important to the design process. Perception matters to a large degree. Its not just about the safety and security of movement, its also about what the solution looks like. And it’s not just the client, other professionals will have an opinion as well.

TLR: As the manufacturer, are there times when you say (quietly to yourself) “Oh No . . . now what’s he asking me”

MS: These are the exciting times. This kind of engagement makes the job more interesting. Personally, I’m from a design background so I really enjoy the process. And with guys like Sacha, you can have a sensible conversation! And if that relationship pushes design possibilities right up to the line of what’s considered possible, that’s an exciting place to be in.

SA: Its my job to feed Mark with the information that drives the solution to that place where we can all be satisfied. It is exciting – and it’s a healthy challenge.

Mark and Sacha in early trial inspection

TLR: This is the synergistic relationship between designer and maker.

MS: Its beneficial to the project that we can work like this. Behind the catalogue there is so much else that can be achieved. The question is how to put the components together in new ways.

The Urbis Schréder reputation has always been solidly in public realm lighting; we’re now moving into new areas, and are finding new ways of lighting these spaces. The company philosophy firmly supports these kind of projects.

TLR: How does the in-house product development team relate to the ‘bespoke’ design project? How do these ‘outliers’ influence the new ranges that are in development?.

MS: There is an in-house developmental flow but bespoke projects can’t be ignored.  There’s always the possibility of an idea that’s created for a bespoke solution being integrated into new ranges.

SA: And we’re already finding bespoke ideas being ‘found’ by other design teams and asking if they can be incorporated into their products. I say; “No – you can’t, because what you’ve seen is unique to a project – it’s an architectural integration”.

MS: And, one day, that solution will be in the public realm – and then we start to get the calls that could lead to future work. That’s an unstoppable process, and has always been the case.

There’s a lot of talk around ‘evidence-based’ design at the moment. How does it work in your project process?

SA: This has to be the starting point. Analysis is essential at the beginning of the exercise. Its our job to make it work, and work effectively AND aesthetically. Evidence-based design goes beyond the immediate needs of the project – we need to look at whole life maintenance and performance and to understand how the installation will mature over time.

The client brief leads to innovative design that understands what is required. We need to work together to achieve that. It’s not just during the design, it’s all the way through to the handover and beyond, well into the working life of the installation.

What happens post-contract? Does the relationship alter?

SA: A lot of our lighting projects will have a long life. Canary Wharf was built in 2008, before LEDs were a practical option. But the question had to be asked, can the installation be retro-fitted in some years time? Future-proofing has to be a part of the process.

We expect early LED installations to need replacement at some point, possibly sooner rather than later. The expected life term on a public realm project is likely to be 25 years on columns and with a life term of 100,000 hours in the lantern, that suggests a lighting re-fit is likely around half of the life of the column. We need to allow for that.


TLR: And how do you see the future?

MS: I need a crystal ball, really. We’re seeing huge changes in the way that light is being used; technology is moving on, and what might be happening in six years is a mystery. Things may get even more efficient – but we anticipate that things will only get better.

SA: And bear in mind that there’s a possibility that the manufacturer may come to the table halfway through the design process and suggest an entirely new generation of light source. If that happens, the client will expect a positive design response and the calculations will need to be done. When things move, they move quickly.

MS: Yes, we’re seeing constant developments from the chip manufacturers. We try to work with the suppliers as far ahead as we can. There are fundamental things that can influence the way that luminaires ae put together. The knock-on from a ‘small change’ in chip specification can cause major disruption to the overall product design.

TLR: we’re now talking about the circular economy, aren’t we?

SA: I’m finding the issue of ‘circular economy’ design coming to the fore in my conversations. The questions are being thrown at me. Our clients know about ‘light bulbs’ – and how we used to be able to change them. They understand that they’ll need to change light sources one day –  but they don’t necessarily want to change the luminaires.

MS: This is something that Urbis Schréder is looking at. We’ve always done this in one way or another, but its now been given a different name. And we feel that the current priority of just keeping capex costs down will be forced to change to a broader approach that makes sense across the life of the installation.

SA: This is the question across the entire Public Realm. Its not just about energy anymore – its about maintenance and management across the life of the installation.

MS: This will call for an entire shift in the way that the industry thinks and works.

TLR: We’ve just about run out of time. Thanks for your insights.

Design meets Making meets Art at London Bridge Station.
Photo by Steven Maddison


Sacha Abizadeh is architectural lighting leader at WSP

Mark Searle is project manager at Urbis Schréder

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