Harald Sommerer, CEO of the Zumtobel Group, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Questions to
Harald Sommerer

Nov 30, 2012

Robert Volhard: Mr. Sommerer, “Your light in a world of change” was the motto chosen for Zumtobel’s presentation at this year’s “Light and Building”. What kind of changes are you seeing going on around you? How will “light” change the way we live and work in coming years?

Harald Sommerer This is a fundamental maxim for us at Zumtobel for we recognize that our industry, a world driven by innovative, technological possibilities and by LED and control engineering in particular, really is in a state of flux. But the motto is just as perfectly compatible with our understanding of the instrumental role played by lighting when it comes to questions surrounding “sustainability” and “energy efficiency”.

And what do you consider to be Zumtobel’s particular role as regards such changes?

Sommerer One has to understand that in today’s world 19 percent of the electricity produced worldwide is used to power lighting and that thanks to the implementation of new technology in all of our projects we are dealing with potential savings of 60 to 80 percent. That alone shows how great a contribution we are able to make. We already believe that it is our task to use our knowledge to find solutions that can be optimized to suit the relevant application and thus contribute significantly to a project’s sustainability.

Nowadays, good design is a matter of course. Having started out in the 1950s making electronic ballasts for fluorescent bulbs, over the years Zumtobel has evolved from a lighting manufacturer to a leading international supplier of integrated lighting systems. But in addition to this the company faces an exceptional challenge to design systems that can be networked as well as being user-friendly and manageable. What approach do you take to addressing the needs of the user and how do you go about finding out what these needs are?

Sommerer For the most part, this comes from daily interaction with users and from the many challenging projects on which we are currently working, and they include projects with artists, which continuously push us to the limits of what is possible. We learn from these experiences. And we gain insights, which we are then able to apply in the office, in schools or other everyday settings. It is a question of constant optimization.

How far do your system concepts go? To the automation of entire buildings?

Sommerer We are not going to fly the flag for complete building automation. But more and more of the individual systems used in this respect are being networked with one another; as a result what we all need is to understand how building automation work. To this tune we team up with other system experts in order to ensure that our lighting components can be integrated into and are compatible with their respective systems. There is no doubt that when it comes to aspects such as daylight and blind control we are moving far beyond simply developing a good solution in the area of “lighting”. Nonetheless whatever we do, it is always related to light. To this extent as regards our own systems we are obliged to devise concepts that cater specifically to themes within lighting. However we do of course have to understand the context we find ourselves in and make certain that what we are doing is compatible with current trends.

What is your vision for the future of the Zumtobel Group?

Sommerer We have already come a long way in this respect. Nonetheless one of the challenges we now face are the “new markets”. Europe remains our main market. However, we have definitely identified a demand for the type of lighting solutions we offer in other markets such as the United States and Asia, not to mention emerging markets such as Africa and South America – although these areas are not of the greatest relevance for us at present, they will certainly gain importance for our business in the future. Light has now become a global phenomenon and we must therefore treat it as such. Although we must always take into consideration the fact that the lighting industry is a regional business subject to regional and national regulations. This is something we should never lose sight of. Our vision (and this does not apply to the “Zumtobel” brand alone but to “Thorn” and “Tridonic” too) is being able to continue this recipe for success in the new markets, constantly adapting our approach in line with the newest technological advances.

Every two years, you present the “Zumtobel Group Award for Sustainability and Humanity in the Built Environment”. In the broadest possible sense, light is always in some way linked to the idea of “enlightenment”, of security and transparency. What to do you consider to be the social responsibility of a manufacturer of lighting systems?

Sommerer Take the theme of “light”. Not only can light be used to create a pleasant atmosphere, it also boasts a whole raft of other applications and it always plays a major role when it comes to energy efficiency. We now have facts to prove that the right lighting is highly important for people’s wellbeing and health. Therefore, our ultimate goal is to support our customers in their use of the right lighting for them. In office-based and industrial sectors it is a matter of creating a pleasant and concentrated working environment, whereas in a hospital health and wellbeing take priority. In retail the aim is to sell goods so the focus is on the presentation of these goods. Light is a major factor in all of these areas, making its implementation a key issue – as is how to do so while consuming a sensible amount of energy. It is our responsibility to come up with the best possible solutions for the respective applications, which we always draw from an overall understanding of architecture. For us, the architect is an extremely important associate. And that is what we seek to express with the “Zumtobel Group Award”. We certainly do not consider our contribution to the field to be limited to providing good lighting concepts. We always look at any project as a whole.

Looking at the winners of this year’s award – the hospital project by MASS Design Group in Butaro, Rwanda and the “R-URBAN” gardening project by atelier d’architecture autogérée (AAA) in Paris, France – the theme of “light” doesn’t appear to play a role at all. Does your social responsibility go far beyond fostering sustainability in the form of energy efficiency?

Sommerer The point is to praise a project for its architecture not its light concepts. After all, the motto of the “Zumtobel Group Award” is “for humanity and sustainability in the built environment”. Light can play an important role here but the focus is on the overall project. Even if “light” is instrumental to a project, this is our attempt to understand how architects think, the challenges faced in contemporary architecture and how these can be overcome, enabling us to devise ways to make our own contribution. Perhaps we are able to do something in Rwanda that no one else has come up with yet?

So the entries serve as inspiration for the company itself?

Sommerer They certainly have an effect within the company. Our team knows all about the award and the participating projects. But we have been able to discern that Zumtobel employees identify particularly well with issues relating to architecture and therefore must be taking inspiration from the competition participants and their work.

Which project did you personally like the most?

Sommerer There were many projects that great appealed to me. I actually have something of a penchant for technology and am of the opinion that especially in Europe we can use innovation and technology to make economic management more sustainable. But I am also fascinated by the approaches taken to “sustainability” in other countries and markets, such as the project in Rwanda. I still find it extremely rewarding to see the different aspects within such a project, even though the company’s work is more closely related to “technology”. Different contexts simply require different solutions.

Winner of the “Zumtobel Group Award 2012” in the “Built Environment” category is the “Butaro Hospital“ in Rwanda, photo © Zumtobel
US-based architectural practice “MASS Design Group“ designed the hospital, photo © Zumtobel
The “Butaro Hospital“, Rwanda, photo © Zumtobel
The local population were involved in the building process of the ”Butaro Hospital“ and given suitable training, photo © Zumtobel
In response to a commission from the Ministry of Health in Rwanda, “MASS Design Group” chose a multidisciplinary approach for the hospital, photo © Zumtobel
French “Atelier d’architecture autogérée” wins the “Research & Initiative” category of this years’ „Zumtobel Group Award“, photo © Zumtobel
“R-URBAN“ deals with Colombes, a socially deprived suburb in the Greater Paris area, photo © Zumtobel
The project “R-URBAN“ of ”Atelier d’architecture autogérée“, photo © Zumtobel
The “Zumtobel Group Award 2012” trophy, photo © Zumtobel