Jim Benya: The Illuminator

Benya designs energy-efficient lighting systems for commercial, public, and residential projects

4 min read
James R. (“Jim”) Benya
Lightwork: Jim Benya designs lighting that’s environmentally friendly.
Photo: David Stuart

Twilight falls on California’s Yosemite National Park. Pulling on gloves and zipping their jackets against the fall evening’s creeping chill, a group of park employees huddle around lighting designer James R. (“Jim”) Benya. A burly 200 centimeters tall, with a shock of thick gray hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, Benya towers over the small gathering as he explains the evening’s lighting demonstration. His team is about to switch on three new 6-meter-high, 50-watt metal-halide lamps in the parking lot and three 3-meter-high, 13-W compact fluorescent lamps along the footpath fronting the cabins of Curry Village. Besides hosting visitors, the village soon will house dozens of park staff.

At night, there’s hardly any light at all deep in Yosemite Valley, except for the anemic lemon-yellow glow from the jelly-jar lamps screwed above each cabin door. The National Park Service, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, wants to use the lowest amount of light possible. Ideally, no light should pollute the star-studded night sky or disturb the circadian rhythms of the park’s human and nonhuman inhabitants.

The Park Service’s desire is Benya’s mantra: “How low can you go?” In other words, his goal is to provide adequate lighting for park visitors and resident workers returning alone late at night, while at the same time preserving nature’s nocturnal wonders.

Benya, an electrical engineer, lighting designer, consultant, and principal of Benya Lighting, West Linn, Ore., has been challenging himself, architects, and interior designers to go low throughout his career. A self-professed geek—he earned his ham radio license at age 11—Benya, the son of a mechanical engineer, was also an Eagle Scout, and took to heart the ethic that you should leave the environment better than you found it.

After graduating in 1973 from the University of Michigan in his hometown of Ann Arbor, with dual degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, he took his first job at the SmithGroup, an architecture, engineering, and planning firm based in Detroit. His first assignment: designing the lighting systems for American Motor Co.’s headquarters in Southfield, Mich. While working on this project, he essentially blundered into the nascent discipline of green building design. When specifying the lighting ballasts for the AMC building, he chose super-low-heat ballasts that cost US $1 more apiece but used 40 percent less energy than industry-standard ballasts.

“I didn’t know the ballasts cost a dollar more,” Benya admits. “It just struck me as good engineering. Why would I want to waste energy if I didn’t have to?” The developer, Cushman & Wakefield Inc., in New York City, told him that the light levels weren’t high enough and that he needed to double the power—and to stop using expensive ballasts.

Six months later, when the Arab oil embargo sent energy costs through the roof, the developer came back to Benya. “They asked, ‘What did you say about lighting buildings for half the power?’” he recalls. “And I really haven’t let up since.”

In 1984, Benya took his pursuit of efficient lighting to San Francisco, where he took the reins of the Bay Area’s first and best-known lighting design practice, Luminae. His marketing plan consisted mainly of holding seminars about lighting for architects, interior designers, and building owners to show that his services went beyond the technical. A good lighting designer, he told them, not only revels in the fine details of circuits and control systems, but also has a deep appreciation of architecture and landscaping. Benya often winds up contributing to the architectural plans, especially when he wants daylight to play a major role in the lighting scheme. In those cases, he helps design the facade and fenestrations to let in the right amount of light at the right angles.

Thanks to those marketing seminars, word spread quickly through the Bay Area that Benya combined the practical skills of an electrical engineer with the deft touch of an artist. In late 1984, Hewlett-Packard Co. commissioned his firm to light major new projects on its Cupertino, Calif., campus. Soon Benya was designing the lighting scheme for Oracle Corp.’s campus in Redwood Shores as well, which led to a job on three homes owned by Oracle potentate Larry Ellison.

While two-thirds of Benya’s work involves commercial and institutional buildings, he still enjoys a significant practice in residential lighting. He has even designed lighting for some of the rich and famous, including Senator Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), actor Clint Eastwood, and Russell Indexes financier George F. Russell Jr.

The one downside of Benya’s success at Luminae was that his role had become more about managing a business and less about hands-on design. So in 1995, he sold Luminae and moved with his wife and two sons to West Linn, just outside Portland. There, in a much smaller firm, he started taking on projects that appealed to his various interests.

Between gigs designing the lighting for new buildings at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Benya—a wine connoisseur partial to merlots—is currently working on two California winery resorts. As an active member of a group that preserves the buildings of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, he’s also lighting a golf course clubhouse in Maui, Hawaii, that’s a larger version of a house Wright designed for Marilyn Monroe. And he’s helping the University of California, Davis, develop a lighting-design curriculum, with an eye toward eventually teaching at the university level full-time. “I want to create an educating environment that is founded on and embodies the principles of sustainability,” he says.

Then there’s the project for the Park Service, which retained him in 1997 to develop a master lighting plan for Yosemite, and perhaps ultimately for the entire National Park system. After listening to Benya’s opening remarks on the night of the demonstration, eight years after he signed on to the project, Yosemite Park personnel milled about, discussing among themselves how they felt about the parking lot and footpath lights. The consensus: the footpath lights were good, and the shielding provided by the precisely specified lampshades effectively prevented light from flooding into the cabins or polluting the sky.

As for the parking lot, Benya and the staff decided to test 39-W lights also—and maybe, just maybe, all the way down to 27 W—with the hope that people would still feel safe. It was exactly what Benya wanted to hear: he could go lower still.

Jim Benya (M)

Age: 55

What he does: Designs energy-efficient lighting systems for commercial, public, and residential projects.

For whom: Benya Lighting

Where he does it: California’s Yosemite National Park; Maui, Hawaii; California wine country.

Fun factors: Lighting design “involves a wonderful mix of art and science, amazing clients, travel—and an opportunity to make a difference.”

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