Illuminating a New Field: Electrical Contractors as Lighting Designers

By Ed Lawrence | Jun 15, 2005
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Ask a handful of electrical contractors how they feel about becoming active in the lighting design field and you are sure to receive a plethora of conflicting responses. While there is little consensus in the field, contractors making the move into the market are cashing big checks, while the others are still pulling wire and screwing in light bulbs.

Alan Pumphrey, a lighting designer in Silver Spring, Md., has become so successful in the lighting end of the business that, in some cases, electrical contractors are unknowingly working for him.

“We occasionally run into situations in high-end residential projects where the electrical contractor simply does the basic wiring without taking a proactive approach to promoting alternative lighting and dimming systems,” said Pumphrey. “So, they'll do the low-margin work and we install the more sophisticated systems.”

Sophistication equals high profits. Pumphrey's firm worked in the service end of the business for seven years before becoming acquainted with interior decorators who introduced him to the concept. He has since built a network of interior designers who began introducing architects and potential clients. The rest is history.

But, there was a lot to learn. Pumphrey was assisted by Lightolier and Lutron and because they were looking for contractors who would promote their new products, it became a win-win situation for all participants.

“A key is being able to communicate to clients the benefits of a good lighting system, as compared to simply promoting more expensive fixtures,” said Pumphrey. “We attempt to communicate to clients that the additional expenditure will improve their environment dramatically.”

Mechanically, his designs strive to fill a volume of space horizontally and vertically with recessed lights, surface mounted fixtures and sconces, rather than simply installing overhead lighting. From the outset, Pumphrey took a very aggressive approach with general contractors.

“I refused to work with them unless I could meet with the clients and architect to make recommendations regarding improved lighting systems,” he said. “I did not want to be the firm about which our clients said 'I wish he'd told us about new products when our house was built.'”

Because of this approach, Pumphrey lost a few contractors along the way but found replacements. What could have been a kamikaze approach to building the business has produced a 15 to 20 percent growth rate.

Maryland lighting designer Gordon Hinkle's experience mirrored Pumphrey's.

“I started the business as a lighting design and installation company working on high-end residential projects. It took five years, but now we work with architects, general contractors and interior decorators who hire us to do design and install projects,” said Hinkle. “They know that our designs will match the home's furniture, fabrics, wall coverings and paint schemes.”

At the manufacturing level, Lightolier's Lytecaster, Fall River, Mass., product manager Ken Kawa and general manager Bob Wedekind work with architects, electrical contractors and the owners of high-end residences to coordinate the affect of lighting systems in specific areas.

“The challenge is coordinating accent lighting and wall illumination with lamp types and reflectors,” Wedekind said. “The electrical contractors we work with have a high interest in bringing more value to the table, rather than acting as installers.”

To encourage ECs to move into the market, Lightolier offers a 24-part course on lighting fundamentals free of charge.

On the commercial side of the aisle, Jared Johnson, vice president of sales at EnerTech Systems Inc., Anaheim, Calif., said his firm came into existence with a focus on designing and installing energy-efficient lighting systems and controls that also produced post-sale service and maintenance contracts. Interestingly, the firm now is gravitating toward conventional electrical installations, a byproduct of completing lighting projects.

“We have historically been top-heavy on the technician side of the business, with few employees on the marketing side, because so much of our business is repeat business and referrals, but we are becoming more aggressive,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, the process begins with an energy audit of a facility, including lighting, signage and occupancy sensors. A comparison of existing lamp life, output and energy usage to new fixtures, including an estimate of the financial break-even point, follows. Once the audit is complete, he matches client needs by drawing on a database of 7,000 fixtures and accessories.

“The challenge lies in motivating a business owner who is satisfied with his current system to take action that will pay off over the long term, compared to spending money on something that may produce an immediate return,” Johnson said. “If an electrical contractor is considering entering the market, the first step is to become capable of completing the audit. Everything else comes later, and a credible audit will assure a smoothly run project.”

The neophyte contractor must become knowledgeable in lamp and ballast technology, reflectors, timers and sensors, at the least. Because all ballasts are not created equal, failure to be acquainted with the difference can produce embarrassing and costly mistakes for the contractor.

Dan Salina, lighting contractor and lighting systems designer at Nelson Electric Inc., Seattle, works as a proactive member of the entire design team on commercial projects and multimillion dollar mansions.

When it comes to group sessions between the electrical contractor, architect and mechanical contractor, the first rule is to check your ego at the door, Salina said. Critical ingredients in the process are good relationships, good communication and trust.

He sees electrical contractors as having two educational options if entering the lighting design field: training through an experienced specialist and manufacturer training. The Illuminating Engineers Society (IESNA) and lighting design laboratories also host educational seminars.

Tom Barany, owner of TBS Lighting, Baltimore, has different advice for contractors.

“An easy way for an electrical contractor to put a toe in this water is to become proactive in the marketing of new lamps to replace those that were installed five years ago,” said Barany. “A neophyte can partner with an IES member in developing plans until reaching a high level or competence, or, continue the partnership arrangement.”

While contractors would have much to learn when transitioning into the lighting design field, the rewards are great, Salinas said. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at [email protected].


About The Author

Ed Lawrence is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at [email protected].





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