The Art of Lighting Design

Installing and wiring lights always has been a routine part of electrical contracting work. But lighting projects today—especially on high-end commercial and institutional projects—have changed radically over the past several years, bringing new challenges and new opportunities for contractors to install new, state-of-the-art lighting systems.

Of course, lights have long been used for much more than illuminating the interiors of structures. The creative use of lighting makes buildings more functional and attractive and can give them a distinct look and personality.

However, many believe recent advances in lighting technologies make lighting an art, transforming it into an extension of architecture. The International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) defines the “language of light” as architecture’s fourth dimension, that enhances space and establishes mood and atmosphere, when sensitively integrated in a structure’s design.

Clearly, many products go beyond installing basic fixtures and screwing in lamps. Projects today often specify new components in designs that require complex control systems to operate them. There are other differences, too. Contractors are finding that more people are involved in making lighting decisions.

For example, professional lighting designers play an important role on many high-profile projects. Lighting design is not a new discipline, but as owners and architects seek guidance and bring lighting designers into projects more often, designers begin to play an active role.

“In the past, lighting specifications were developed by electrical engineers, architects, interior designers, sales reps, personnel at lighting showrooms, etc.,” said Lauri Tredinnick, LC, IALD, a senior designer with Pivotal Lighting Design, Madison, Wis. “Detailed lighting specifications for many projects are now being provided by professional lighting designers who are appearing more often as a part of the design team.”

According to Tredinnick, lighting designers are brought into projects by owners and architects who have learned that a well-planned and documented lighting design can provide dividends that far outweigh a design firm’s service fees.

“Lighting designers bring an understanding of new advances in lighting technology, the technique and artistry to model spaces with light, and the knowledge of many related topics, including the numerous lighting ordinances and codes that have been established,” she said. “When the lighting designer is included in the early phases of the design process, an accurate lighting budget reflecting the expectations of the owner and architect can be established.”

Lighting design firms often specialize in specific types of projects. For example, Pivotal, part of Affiliated Engineers Inc., is experienced in designing lighting for large, complex research and university buildings, as well as public spaces and historic preservation projects.

While lighting designers are often associated with commercial projects, some design lighting for high-end residences. Many contractors are unaccustomed to having a lighting designer involved in a project.

“In the past, most communication regarding the installation of lighting systems was directed to the electrical engineer on the project,” said Tredinnick. “As lighting designers become more involved on projects, those questions should be rerouted to directly to us. Now designers should be able to expect that the electrical contractor will contact us with any questions they may have regarding the system design.”

Tredinnick recognizes that this is easier to suggest than to accomplish because designers are not usually directly involved in bidding and construction. With dedication by contractor and designer to begin a line of communication early, there are sure to be fewer issues as the project progresses, she said.

Historically, the electrical contractor’s responsibility included selecting the lamps, fixtures, ballasts and controls that met specifications of new construction and renovation projects. With new projects, someone else may take that role.

“Because of this early involvement as a part of the design team, the lighting is integrated into the architecture at not only a visual level, but also a performance level,” Tredinnick said. “As energy codes become more stringent, luminaires must be selected, located, and controlled as a part of a fine-tuned lighting system.

“Fixture selections that are made to create a totally designed environment are not easily replaced or exchanged. Because of this careful selection process, we look to the electrical contractor to understand and respect these efforts as they procure and install the elements specified and bring the design to life.”

Historically, the electrical contractor’s responsibility also -included providing a package of lamps, fixtures, ballasts and -controls that meet the bid document specifications for new construction and renovation projects. Many times, when budgets -become tight, the contractor may make alternate selections to the original specifications.

“Sometimes this is done with the help of the design team, often it is done by electrical contractors working with distributors and sales representatives who see luminaires as objects that can be easily exchanged and replaced and do not understand the effects that these changes will have on the design,” said Tredinnick. “Because we are now dealing with lighting systems, luminaire selections can no longer be randomly modified.”

Programming controls of a new lighting system is very time intensive and can test the patience of all involved.

“The contractor can contribute up front to this painstaking process by carefully terminating all loads as they have been designated on the drawings,” said Tredinnick. “If there are any modifications to the design during installation, careful documentation of these changes is crucial. Although lighting designers do not actively participate in the actual installation of the luminaires or lighting control system, we are often involved in the programming.

“To arrive at a job site ready to do programming and find that each dimmer or switch does not control the group of lights intended will quickly hamper our efforts. Simple documentation and communication with the designer will provide a solid base from which to begin the programming efforts and put the finishing touches on a successful project.”

Ultimately, a contractor’s understanding of a system’s design, the function of its components and operation of its controls can be an important element in a project’s success.

Lighting control systems that provide many layers of control including occupancy sensing, daylight harvesting and manual dimming have a large impact on the electrical contractor during both bidding and construction.

“There are advances in wiring techniques that can drastically reduce wiring time in new construction and therefore reduce installation costs,” Tredinnick said. “Because each manufacturer is different, the electrical contractor must do some research prior to bidding.”

Although new technology makes these systems easier to install, the more difficult tasks begin as control systems are integrated into building management systems and system programming takes place.

“We need the contractor to take the initiative to understand the intent of the design so that they are not simply installing a kit of parts but are working with us toward a common goal,” Tredinnick said. “We find that the project reaches its highest potential if the contractor takes the time to build a rapport with installers of other systems, so that they can interface and operate appropriately. Although the contractor’s expertise is valuable, being willing to work toward a common goal with the other members of the design and construction team is most important.” EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or


About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Griffin, Oklahoma City, is a construction journalist specializing in the electrical, telecommunications and underground utility construction industries. Contact him at .

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