Hoare Lea

20th February 2024

During our time as a publication, we have run interviews with practices from across the full spectrum of the lighting design world – from solo ventures to international studios, each coming to us to speak of their inspirations, design approaches, and overall appreciation of the power and beauty of light. Given the diversity of lighting design as a profession, it is always fascinating to see the differences, and similarities, in the way that these firms operate – from ateliers and independent studios, to lighting design divisions of larger multi-disciplinary and engineering companies.

One such example of a lighting design studio within a multi-disciplinary operation is Hoare Lea. Formed in 2000 by Dominic Meyrick, the lighting design department has since grown from a small start-up to a major contender in its own right, with offices across the UK and beyond, and a number of award-winning projects to its name.

Now led by Directors Jonathan Rush, Juan Ferrari, and Ruth Kelly Waskett, alongside Meyrick, the company is leading the charge in sustainable practices, with its North Star initiative putting people and planet at the heart of everything it does.

Keen to learn more about how a lighting design studio operates as part of a wider, multidisciplinary offering, arc travelled down to Hoare Lea’s London office – just a stone’s throw from the trendy Coal Drops Yard – to sit down with Rush, Ferrari, and Kelly Waskett to talk people, planet, and more.

While Meyrick established the lighting design wing in 2000, Rush and Ferrari both came on board in 2005, having worked together previously at another lighting design practice. Kelly Waskett, by comparison, joined the team initially as Principal Daylight Designer in 2017.

As is the way with lighting design as a profession, each of the Directors arrived at the company through their own, unique route. Kelly Waskett recalls the journey that led her to Hoare Lea: “My path is like most people’s: it’s got lots of twists and turns, but broadly my background is mixed between engineering, architecture, and lighting. I started with a degree in engineering, and I worked as a building services engineering consultant for about five years. During that time, I felt a bit restless because what I was doing wasn’t satisfying me creatively, so then I did the MSc in Light & Lighting at UCL – that was around 2005.

“I continued to work for multi-disciplinary practices, and later did a PhD in Daylighting – and after that I started doing some work at UCL, because it was setting up a new degree in Architecture & Engineering Design. I wrote some of the material for the new module on lighting, and then Hoare Lea reached out.

“So, I came here, and I was absolutely delighted because at that point I’d realised that I didn’t want to go down the academic route. I’d done a bit of time in academia, and I’m really happy that I did – I’m still a visiting lecturer at UCL – as it brings something different to what we do here.”

Ferrari shares an equally convoluted route to Hoare Lea, although his took him down a much more theatrical path, as he recalls: “I started as an actor, then moved into directing theatre and teaching in schools. In doing that, I fell into musicals, and through them into lighting.

“Not being very good at playing any instruments but loving musicals, I could “play” a lighting desk – I thought that it was the way that I could express myself.”

“Long story short, I then trained in theatre lighting. I came to the UK and studied at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and then decided I wanted to explore architectural lighting – I was fascinated that everything was lighting, but it was approached in very different ways. So, I started studying it, and through that I fell more and more into architectural lighting, and that’s how I’m doing architectural lighting now; by being curious, you fall into something, and you end up doing it.”

By comparison, Rush believes his story is “much more boring than all that”. He adds: “I did a furniture design degree, I needed a job and I needed to learn CAD, because my university all those years ago didn’t have CAD, and so I found a job, and it was at a lighting company that did sports shops. I did that and I thought it was quite interesting; I’d quite liked architecture before, and it seemed like a route to architecture without having to do any of the hard work, if truth be told. I worked for a series of practices, and then came here in 2005.”

These varying routes between Rush, Ferrari and Kelly Waskett are also reflected in the wider lighting design team, with members coming from paths as diverse as interior design, product design, theatre, engineering, and even psychology. It’s something that the team feels is only a good thing.

“It’s beneficial, because you end up with a very diverse way of thinking, not just one fixed route, but they always tend to be more human-centric and put people at the heart of things – even product design, everything about that is the user experience of that product. I think that’s probably where there’s a common thread between us all,” Rush says.

“We like to think that we can do everything related to lighting, and that comes from the fact that we have a team that has multiple backgrounds, and therefore can plug in different ways to whatever the requirements of the project are,” Ferrari adds. “I’m very proud of that fact, and that we have always balanced perfectly well the technical side and the aesthetical side of lighting, and we put that forward to all of our projects.”

While Ferrari leads the architectural lighting design element of the team, Waskett oversees the daylighting team – again demonstrating the diversity and scope of the practice. She explains: “When I joined Hoare Lea, it was mainly to develop the daylight offering that we have as part of the lighting team. It was recognised as a huge part of lighting, and that it deserves to have a place within the lighting service offering. Over the years, I’ve built up that team, and I’ve got a number of people whose sole focus is daylight, and integrating that with not only the lighting design service, but also with the other things that we do at Hoare Lea – it’s a huge part of sustainable building design.

“I’m really proud of the fact that we have daylight as part of our offering, because there are a lot of firms out there that do some beautiful work, but they don’t address daylight – they shy away from it and treat buildings as if it was just night-time all the time. You can have a lot of fun with that and do beautiful things, but there isn’t a recognition of the 24-hour life of a building, of people in that space, and the fact that most of us, in reality, experience light coming from multiple sources, natural and artificial. I love to embrace that, and that’s part of the reason why I’m here.”

Elsewhere, Meyrick looks after the environmental impact side of things, with Rush serving as Group Leader. However, he feels that despite the moniker, it is a much more democratic process.

“Everyone is massively autonomous, and there’s no dictation – it’s not hierarchical. We try and communicate most things, and most things that we do are discussed as part of the team; we try not to be authoritarian.”

This collective approach to leadership is something that ties into the overarching culture that Rush, Ferrari and Kelly Waskett are trying to instil within their team. “We want to provide good jobs for nice people,” Rush adds. “Work is work – we’d all rather be on a beach somewhere, relaxing and drinking mojitos, but we have to work, and therefore we prioritise staff wellbeing in what we do. We want to provide good jobs, challenging jobs, while giving people the root space to grow.

“Our design philosophy follows that because we want it to be relevant; there’s no point in doing something that the world doesn’t need just to hit the zeitgeist of the time.”

“And the new generation know that too,” Kelly Waskett continues. “From what I see, the people coming into the industry are looking for something that has a purpose and a meaning. Designing beautiful things without that purpose isn’t enough anymore, there’s a vacuousness to it. The world that we’re in today means that we cannot just get by designing beautiful things. We’re always looking for a greater meaning in what we do, a greater social and environmental impact.”

Taking a more socially and environmentally responsible stance is something that ties in with the wider Hoare Lea philosophy of people and planet. However, while there are a lot of companies operating under a similar “ethos”, Hoare Lea is striving to do more than just talk, taking tangible steps to improve their environmental impact. These steps vary from encouraging staff to commute via public transport, to an electric car scheme, to meat-free catering in the office, and measuring the carbon impact of everything it does.

And Ferrari adds that the firm is still eager to do more. He explains: “We have always been very conscious of the sustainable side of things, and this is continuing as we are learning. We know that we don’t know everything; we don’t have all of the answers, but we love the learning, both on the human-centric side and the planet side of things.

“With regards to sustainability, being a multidisciplinary company and having a sustainability team within our company that we can relate to and learn from is one of the very basic benefits of being part of Hoare Lea. That’s why you won’t hear us say ‘engineering company’. We talk about a multi-disciplinary consultancy as we’re constantly sharing with a wider range of professionals. It’s amazing the wealth of knowledge that you get to progress your own specialism from working in a firm like this.”

Kelly Waskett adds: “We’ve got people that are trained at doing embodied carbon assessments for the entire building, from start to finish. We have a huge amount to add to that in terms of the knowledge that we have about our bit – when I say “our bit”, it is significant, because we specify a lot of equipment, but that’s one of the benefits of being part of a wider firm.”

Having been with the company for nearly 20 years, Rush continues that the collaboration with the wider team is something that has grown stronger over time, particularly in recent years. “Historically, we considered ourselves as a studio that happened to be part of a bigger thing, although in the last five years or so, we’ve made real efforts to not be that, because we’ve seen the benefits of being part of a more collaborative unit,” he says.

“If you’re looking for influence and collaboration and innovation, what better way than just getting up from your desk and talking to someone from the Sustainability, Acoustics, or our Intelligent Buildings team. So many times, you can have a conversation and you’ll hear about one of your colleagues in one of the other teams that are doing something, and you’ll think ‘we’re not doing that, what do we need to do?’ And it drives you. You can talk to them, ask them how they approached it, and learn from that. It’s so easy to collaborate to drive innovation and thinking internally.

“We don’t really have a thing called ‘business as usual’; I believe that there are lighting design firms that are probably still doing exactly the same thing now that they were doing 10 years ago – except they now do it with LED. Whereas we now say, ‘what are we going to do?’ And we get so much more freedom to think about it because a lot more conversations are not just about what’s happening now, but what is coming, what is happening in five years’ time, where do we need to be then? We do what Ruth calls ‘Horizon Scanning’ – looking ahead. That comes back to employing good people, keeping good careers, because we want to be relevant in five years’ time, in 10 years’ time. We need to keep moving with the massive changes that are coming.”

Ferrari adds: “If you ask me, the future of Hoare Lea, of our practice lies not in the three of us, but in the younger members of the team; and they’re already actively involved in shaping our progress and moving us forward. There is one thing that you get in a multidisciplinary practice, or in a larger firm, time. You have time to think together about the future, you have time to help people develop.”

“As part of a bigger firm, we can afford to not be egotistical. If I was running my own practice, it might serve me better to keep my brand as me. Whereas our brand is not us, it’s a bigger thing. It’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than everybody. It’s quite a liberating thing,” Kelly Waskett explains. “On a slightly more banal note, we benefit from the fact that we’re part of a bigger organisation with infrastructure behind it. We don’t have to worry about accounts or HR or certain things that we’re not trained to do.”

Being part of the wider multidisciplinary network also means that opportunities can arise for the lighting design team to work on projects that they otherwise might not have been presented with. It gives the lighting design team an interesting mixture of projects to work on.

“It does open up our call to bigger projects, and projects that we might not get as an independent,” Rush says. “In addition to that, we work on projects just because they are fun, creative or engaging – for example, we do a lot of heritage buildings, which to some extent doesn’t quite fit within the mould of the bigger multidisciplinary practice. We have the ability to do our own small, unique pieces of artwork at the same time as larger infrastructure projects.”

As Kelly Waskett puts it: “One of the things that we’ve always tried to do is balance out the fun and unusual with more day-to-day projects. There will always be a flow of new-build projects, but then there’s also a recognition of the fact that we need to deal with existing buildings and retrofitting, and that has influenced the type of work that we do as well. There’s nothing that we would definitively say no to without evaluating it on its merits. We’re thinking about the fulfilment of our work as well, and the fact that we enjoy some smaller things, because we just want to have a bit of fun with it.”

Rush adds: “You have small studios, or you have engineering practices, and then you have the rest the lighting that goes on in the world, which is done by electricians and manufacturers. And it’s really rewarding when you can do something where you can say ‘we probably wouldn’t have been employed as a small studio to do this, but we’re actually using the skills that we have to make a space that’s better for people’.

“Healthcare is a good example of that. Typically, they wouldn’t employ a lighting designer or a small practice lighting designer, but we know that light has a huge power to make people’s lives better. There’s a lot that you can do within the healthcare sector to effect better outcomes for people. That’s one of the benefits of being part of a multidisciplinary company, you get to experience and influence a lot more buildings and spaces.”

Ferrari continues: “That’s one of the reasons that we tend not to say no to something, because there is always something to contribute. Whether that’s looking at the human side of data centres, or helping hotel clients to understand the sustainability side and be more efficient, while still being gorgeous, it’s fascinating. There’s always something to learn in every project.”

To that end, with the lighting design department forming just a small part of the overall offering at Hoare Lea, there are occasions where they won’t be directly involved in projects, but will instead guide and support the electrical engineering team to ensure that the highest standards of lighting are maintained.

“There is a lot of knowledge sharing with our electrical colleagues on that front,” Ferrari explains. “There are a lot of electrical engineers, not only in our company, but in every single company that does lighting, and they have a reason to do lighting, so we need them to do it in the most appropriate manner from a company perspective, because we have the same signature, and so it is always important that their level of lighting knowledge is paired to ours.

“This extends to the planet perspective as well – as an industry, we cannot judge ourselves for being energy efficient on a museum project or art installation, but then build schools, offices, hospitals, that are not efficient and doing everything wrong for the people that use them. It is important that we bring other people with us on our journey, and we start by bringing our own firm colleagues with us.”

Kelly Waskett continues: “We want everyone to start from a good level of quality as a minimum, and it’s about making sure that we’re not just designing sustainable lighting that’s horrible, and people don’t want to be in the space, and vice versa.

“Last year, Juan and I went on a roadshow around our offices, which was really fun, and it was about sharing knowledge. It wasn’t us talking at people and lecturing them, we had games, workshop activities, and we got lots of great engagement with electrical engineers and sustainability professionals around how we can do this better together.”

“It brings everybody to a higher level of lighting understanding, and therefore there is a better output for everything and everyone,” Ferrari adds. “Something I am very passionate about is the fact that the places we spend more time have the worst possible lighting, not only in the human sense, but in sustainability terms – schools, offices, even homes, have often been neglected of lighting design, and those are the things that we want to influence. And one of the ways of doing that is sharing knowledge, pushing together, upping our game.

This approach means that the team has a broad portfolio of projects to look back on, spanning across multiple sectors and specialisms – to the point that it is hard for the team to pick out landmark favourites.

“We’ve got a lot of great projects, but I always find it really difficult to separate them,” Rush says. “To some extent, the ones that you feel more fondly about are those that were smaller, where it was a really nice team, it was fun and you felt you were doing something that had a bit more value, or a bit more like you were having a cup of tea rather than a meeting.”

“It’s not always the glamourous, big, shouty projects,” Kelly Waskett explains. “When you say landmark projects, some of the things that come to mind are not the obvious blockbuster buildings.”

Ferrari, however, is a lot more romantic in his view: “I have a poetic vision, in that I see cities as our landmarks,” he says. “I think that’s what happens when you walk around a city like London, and you see your input on the landscape, it is quite telling.

“Using London as an example, when you arrive in London, if you travel by plane you might land in Heathrow Terminal Two, the Queen’s Building as it is called – that is one of our projects. You move into central London, you walk around, and you will see the Middle Eight hotel, Greenwich Market, Apollo Victoria Theatre, Kings Cross, NoMad London, the Grain House; The Bailey and so many others, it’s incredible when you start walking a city and you realise the volume of work that you have done. Picking up those landmark projects within our portfolio is quite difficult, but to look particularly in the cities that we have a lot of presence, is good because you can feel that you are working in your own house. We have done it internationally too – we have left an indelible mark in many cities and countries.”