Blurred city lights; Blurred city lights;

Profiles in Design: Lighting designer Renee Thomas

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. In our Profiles in Design series, we chat with engineers, architects, policymakers, and designers about their lives, careers, and daily aspirations.

Renee Thomas joined Arup’s San Francisco office as a senior lighting designer in January 2020, bringing 25 years of multidisciplinary design and project management experience. But this is only one of the roles she’s inhabited over a long and genre-defying career that includes stints as a classical ballet dancer and a theater lighting director.  

Renee joined us to talk about some of her most defining moments, including her second career in the Coast Guard Auxiliary and how her experience as an emergency responder inspired her to pursue impactful virus-mitigating research and development at Arup.

When did you get interested in lighting and design?

I was always enthralled by science. I got my first professional telescope when I was six years old so I could study nebulae and comets. My interests just grew from there.

My fascination with lighting was indirectly sparked by a very influential drama teacher I had in high school. Charlotte Brown instilled in all her students the belief that you could do and be anything you could dream to be — both on and off the stage. As someone who recognized from a very early age that I was different, that lesson had a profound impact on me. 

By the time I reached high school, I knew that this difference was called being trans — a fact I’d learned from browsing abnormal psychology textbooks at the public library when I was 11 — but I hadn’t yet owned that truth in my everyday life. The theater provided me with a safe and accepting place to explore those aspects of my humanity. And it was through them that I first got fascinated with how lighting can be used to tell stories and create a tableau. 

When you chose to focus on architectural lighting design in college, was your intention to work in the world of theater?

When I first started out, my intention was to be a professional dancer. I trained as a classical ballet dancer and earned a bachelor’s in dance education. Then I moved on to Southern Methodist University to get my master's degree in dance, but I injured my knees and had to reassess.

I ended up leaving my program and spending the bulk of my twenties working as a lighting director and designer for touring theater companies, like the Dallas Shakespeare Company. I loved the work itself — the science and engineering involved in creating certain effects and modeling space — but I ultimately grew disenchanted with how fleeting and transitory it was. I wanted something more permanent, so I went back to school to get my bachelor’s in architectural design from Arizona State University.

How was the transition from the world of theater to the world of architecture? 

Right after I graduated, I was approached by a local architecture firm who had just been hired to remodel the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, California. This ended up being my first job out of architecture school!

At first, I was very jaded about it. I thought it was going to be so corny. What I discovered when I got to California was a really warm, lovely family who wanted to honor their mother and father. I had a great time doing the project and when we celebrated the opening, I got to visit with all the Hollywood luminaries who’d come to pay their respects. It was fantastic.

It was a good introduction to the industry, I think, because it taught me to challenge my own assumptions and always let my curiosity lead — an approach that has served me well both professionally and personally.

In addition to your lighting design work, you spent several years working as a product developer. Did spending time on the other side of the table give you any special insights?

Yes, after nearly ten years in architecture, I was recruited by a company called Lighting Science Group in Central Florida to work on the development of new solid-state lighting products. I learned a lot about lean manufacturing and product design, which has served me in a variety of ways. But I think my biggest takeaway had to do with the project management process and what’s required to keep projects running smoothly and efficiently without compromising quality. 

At the time, managing the production process really consisted of people chasing each other around with Excel spreadsheets and little slips of paper. I got really fed up with this and ended up immersing myself in learning about the Japanese total quality management process, which was just emerging in the States back then. Eventually, I developed a seven-phase gated manufacturing process that went on to form the basis for the company’s ISO 9001 submittal. 

Have you ever experienced any discrimination there or in other professional environments?

When you’re working in the middle of Florida, you're typically dealing with a very conservative mindset, but my main priority was always just to do the best job I could do. Being trans for me is on a par with being right handed or blue eyed. It’s a simple fact that has no bearing on the work I do. That's how I regard it. How you regard it is your business. 

This is the approach I’ve taken at Lighting Science and everywhere else, and it’s worked out well for me — even when deployed on active duty with the US Coast Guard.

You’ve been a Coast Guard Auxiliarist for close to ten years. Can you talk about your role and what prompted you to join?

I’ve always wanted to leave the world better than I found it. And I think, on some level, I also wanted to prove that I could step up to the highest level of commitment and professionalism, both as an individual and as a member of the LGBTQ community. 

I joined up in 2011 and I’ve steadily risen in rank based on my ability to commit to the mission and my willingness to acquire the skills necessary to do what I need to do. I started out working as a surface operation specialist — the coxswain or commanding officer of a small boat response team. Now I’m a planning section chief dealing with national incident management. My last lengthy active-duty posting was at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington DC, where I helped coordinate an oil spill and hazardous materials mitigation mission for the Hurricane Dorian response.

Has your role in the Coast Guard influenced your professional work in any way? 

I think it’s given me perspective. I’ve often told the junior associates I work with, “Yes, doing a good job and meeting deadlines is a priority. But at my other job, if we come up short or come unprepared, people die. Here, at least, no one’s gonna die.”

That said, this pandemic has blurred the lines between my EMS work and my design work in new ways. In addition to serving as a Coast Guard reservist, I’m a certified EMT, and I volunteered for the California Disaster Healthcare Corps in March, April, and May when California was experiencing a big surge in COVID-19 cases. Providing care for COVID patients within the acute care and skilled nursing setting definitely motivated me to do whatever I can as a designer to help curb infection rates. I believe the work we do right now really can have life or death consequences.

Has this experience fed the work you’re doing at Arup?

Our Americas lighting design leader Brian Stacy and I recently won an internal grant to explore how to maximize the efficacy of UVGI (ultraviolet germicidal irradiation) to fight viral transmission in offices and other spaces. The genesis for this work came out of a conversation I had with Coast Guard colleagues who were exploring new ways to disinfect medevac helicopters more quickly and effectively. I suggested using a portable UV-C light.

I’d seen UVGI used in hospitals I’d worked at and the more I thought about it, the clearer it became that it could be applied to improve disinfection in a lot different settings, if it was deployed properly. So I decided to bring the idea to Arup.

Could you tell us more about your research and development?

Right now, we are focused on developing tools that allow us to perform sophisticated multimodal risk assessments and determine proper UVGI energy dosing. Essentially, these are modeling programs that quantify appropriate energy intensity levels, what levels of risk are associated with various actions, and how UGVI can be deployed for greatest effect.

If UVGI systems employ proper dosing algorithms and are deployed in close proximity to the point of infection (i.e., the sick person), they can disinfect both the adjacent air volumes and the surfaces around them. They are a powerful way to augment other infection-fighting interventions, like HVAC system design upgrades to enhance airflow mixing and outside air exchange rates.

What are the next steps in your research?

Our UVGI tools are already quite far along, though we’re continually refining them. Right now, we’re actively working to get the word out to clients that Arup can assist them with UVGI implementation. Down the road, we might explore the possibility of developing our own UVGI fixtures. The products on the market now were designed for healthcare settings and they tend to be very large and very expensive. They also employ mercury entrained lamp technologies. I think as this technology gets rolled out more widely, there will be growing demand for products that utilize zero-mercury LED lamp sources and are tailored for use in offices and elsewhere —products that are more aesthetically pleasing, more affordable, and fit to purpose. That’s where my experience at Lighting Science comes in handy.