Shining a Light on SDAF Board Member Maddy MacElwee

As treasurer of the San Diego Architectural Foundation (SDAF), Maddy MacElwee enjoys doing her part to further the foundation’s mission. She’s served on the SDAF Board of Directors since 2016, after being nominated by SDAF President Margit Whitlock. Working on the sales and construction side of the design industry inspired MacElwee to find an outlet for her creative side, and she was happy to find it through the foundation.

“SDAF helps me use the other side of my brain,” MacElwee says. “I love the relationships I’ve been able to build with my fellow board members. The foundation has immersed me in the San Diego design community, and I really enjoy having the opportunity to spread the word about SDAF and its mission.”

Lighting Up a Promising Career

MacElwee’s life story is nothing if not a lesson in resilience. She’s rebounded from hard times more than once, and tenacity propels her forward. Having grown up poor in Chula Vista (her family led puppet shows at the Balboa Park Puppet Theater), MacElwee was blessed not with ample opportunities, but with an internal drive that served her well.

A project at Summit Point that TLE played a hand in

In 1990, MacElwee was 23, a single mother without a college education. Nonetheless, she landed her first office job working for a lighting representative in Seattle. A few years later, she moved back to San Diego and began a slow, steady climb through the ranks of reputable lighting companies. By 2016, she had founded The Lighting Element (TLE) and become an independent rep for Philips lighting and many other reputable lighting brands.

As a business, TLE represents lighting manufacturers, making recommendations for lighting products used in various building projects. Acclaimed projects TLE has worked on include the San Diego Convention Center and the Immaculata Church at the University of San Diego, which won a national IES award for lighting design by Ron Neal Lighting Design.

“Lighting can really make a huge impact on a building or a room,” MacElwee says. “You can spend all the money in the world on the building and the finishes, but if it’s not well lit, you won’t visually appreciate its beauty. The best lighting designs are ones where you notice the impact of the architecture. Unless the luminaires are showpiece decorative items, you should notice the effect of the lighting, not the fixtures themselves.”

Today TLE has 11 employees, including MacElwee, the CEO, and her husband Scott, the company’s vice president. TLE’s values are inherent in MacElwee herself. They’re things like “Be a champion,” “Be people smart,” “Dare to be different,” and “Be humble.

Maddy and her husband, Scott, at a Padres game

“I think humility is the most important of all our corporate values, because you never know what it’s like to be in somebody’s shoes,” MacElwee says. “Most conflict comes from misunderstanding somebody else’s perspective.”

‘Creating an Atmosphere’ for the End User

MacElwee comes across as sweet — and she is. She has a gift for motivating people, believing that success is a marathon, not a sprint. But in the construction industry, you have to have thick skin. MacElwee, who had her first child at 17, has her share of that, too.

“Lighting should create an atmosphere that the end user is looking for,” MacElwee says, “whether it’s drama, function or subtlety.” She likes the fact that light is similar to life. “There’s a big component of light that’s necessary to live,” she says. “I like to think that what we do at TLE matters, that it’s helping to move the needle for people in some way.”

No matter what happens, MacElwee strives to stay positive, and it’s served her well. “I wake up every day moving forward,” she says. “If you work really hard and keep your word, you can really go far. I believe our biggest obstacle in life is our own self-doubt. If you can overcome that, you can do anything.”

Learn more about the 2020 SDAF Board of Directors and their achievements.

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San Diego Architectural Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to education and promotion of outstanding architecture, planning and urban design throughout the San Diego region.

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