Paying Attention: Lighting Trends

It’s a little like the chicken and the egg when you ask who sets lighting trends. Is it the manufacturer or the lighting designer? In truth, it’s likely both. Keeping up on how each pushes the needle can help electrical contractors maintain or enhance value with customers.

“Don’t buck trends; embrace them,” said Dave Pfund, president of tambient, a division of The Lighting Quotient, an architectural lighting manufacturer in West Haven, Conn. “I think both parties set them. The lighting designer does a good job in managing the conversation for advancements, which make sense, serving as a barometer as to what’s good and what’s acceptable. Measured pushback as to what’s going to fly in color uniformity is one example. Conversely, manufacturers of lighting fixtures and LED systems are going to move the industry forward by making more things possible in that arena. Manufacturers are working on technologies that better handle LED light and optics that better manage the shape.”

James Youngston, a principal of Atlanta-based Gabler-Youngston Architectural Lighting Design, also sees both lighting designers and manufacturers setting trends. He cites “Lighting Crosstalk” as a great example of trendsetting in action. The program is held each year at the International Association of Lighting Designers’ (IALD) annual conference.

“Manufacturers each get a table,” Youngston said. “Lighting designers get 10 minutes to sit and give feedback regarding that manufacturer’s possible product and design. It’s a great opportunity for both parties to evolve lighting products to be as useful as possible.”

Certainly today’s lighting landscape continues on a path of systems integration and lighting control. Systems that incorporate occupancy sensors, motion, daylight harvesting and wireless architecture are becoming more common. Mitchell Kohn of Mitchell B. Kohn Lighting Design, Highland Park, Ill., sees trends driven by energy codes and manufacturers.

“I’ve chaired IES [Illuminating Engineering Society] committees responsible for lighting practices for the office environment that resulted in standards I also helped write,” Kohn said. “More practical versus aesthetic has been the theme. The drive for sustainability and cost saving are connected, and you see it everywhere. Some products developed to achieve such goals work; others fall short.”

Kohn cited a common shortfall where lighting fixtures designed for energy savings and broad distribution of light work but only selectively. Some are best in closed office spaces but less effective when illuminating open offices where the fixture brightness can create glare issues. Refinements are often incremental.

Trends from trends

“Because control systems are now part of codes and standards, it’s now a matter of where controls make sense,” Pfund said. “For example, daylighting control can be a lighting strategy in certain types of buildings, occupancy response in another.”

Geography and a locality’s regulations play a role, too. 

“California requires more robust and deep control requirements,” Pfund said. “Hawaii and the Northeast overall also push the sustainability envelope. Know your market so you can recommend the right systems and lighting that deeply lower costs and meet more aggressive mandates.”

Energy codes and standards certainly influence refinements and help drive new applications within trends. 

“In an effort to reduce office equipment energy consumption after-hours, up to 50 percent of convenience power receptacles in offices must be equipped with automatic shutoff controls,” Pfund said. 

With his company’s products, that includes power receptacles in modular office workstations. 

“Electrical contractors that install and connect convenience outlets and make wiring connections to modular furniture systems will need to know how to comply,” he said.

Pfund shared solutions including bringing both switched and unswitched power circuits to the furniture systems, installing inline wireless control relays on selected circuits where the furniture power connections are made and “linking” the relays to room occupancy sensors. Task and task-ambient lighting is gaining favor, too. As a result, Pfund expects ECs to encounter more portable and furniture-mounted office lighting systems.

A rise in wireless and photo-sensing fixtures

Photo-sensing fixtures are something all three men are seeing and, in the case of Pfund, helping develop. These “smart” luminaires can be linked to room sensors and to each other using simple “learn” and “teach” push buttons. The technology provides owners with ongoing flexibility in determining how lighting should respond to daylight and occupancy conditions without the cost and complexity of wired control networks. 

According to Pfund, whole space and whole building control systems also are adding wireless capabilities. He feels ECs that learn how wireless devices link together and how associated control subsystems can be tied into central building control systems will have a competitive edge.

“Whether providing lighting fixtures with wireless embedded in them, or wireless-based control systems, [ECs] can be the person who knows how to link it all together. There remain a couple of different languages or protocols and standards right now,” Pfund said, adding that ECs should become familiar with several platforms and standards. EnOcean is a popular open standard. Lutron, WattStopper and Vantage Controls have developed their own wireless protocols. 

Youngston sees wireless controls becoming more popular, but he is not a first adopter; he follows the customer’s lead. 

The market’s demands for similar outcomes

How lighting trends are applied across markets can differ. Kohn does some lighting design work in the healthcare arena. He definitely has seen two distinct approaches. 

“If a hospital adds a new wing and has the budget, that wing might resemble something out of a Four Seasons hotel, featuring aesthetically pleasing fixtures, lighting controls systems, the works. Another hospital might work with a much more conservative budget,” Kohn said.

Lighting choices can also be different but in less obvious ways. For instance, Kohn shared how corridor lighting has several needs in a hospital setting. 

“In a hospital, patients are often on their back being wheeled down a hallway on a gurney. They are looking at the ceiling lights. The lighting source and fixtures have to be thoughtfully considered, so they don’t add stress to a patient who has little choice but to look up at the light. Yet, that source has to be balanced to effectively light the corridor,” he said.

In retail and hospitality, there is a different set of lighting design needs.

“The feel of light is especially important to hospitality,” Youngston said. “This market, in particular, likes to keep an incandescent feel to their lighting and, I would say, are a late adopter of fluorescent and LED technology. There are similar concerns in healthcare, but that market is especially sensitive to bottom line costs and likes the long life and low maintenance of LEDs. We find controls are popular with hotels, focused largely on ballrooms and meeting rooms, so [there is] some connection there with commercial spaces and its needs for conference rooms.”

When it comes to the office, finding the right combination of ambient and task is one of today’s lighting challenges, according to Pfund. Saving energy, reducing energy costs, and satisfying the lighting needs of a specific workplace are what he calls today’s “push/pull” considerations.

“Because [offices] are trying to do more with less, lighting is a bottom-line consideration. But it is also a matter of making lighting more personal. There’s a challenge in how you make that workspace as pleasant as possible and productive. Letting the worker control some of their light is something you are seeing with more frequency. That’s where the growth in task lighting is playing a role. It’s a powerful thing when workers feel their needs are being met in terms of comfort and lighting,” Pfund said.

LEDs evolve and intrigue

LEDs continues to grab the attention of lighting designers and manufacturers. Youngston and Kohn see a positive trend of fixtures designed around LED characteristics.

“I’ve always had a complaint against manufacturers of LED products who are not using the source light correctly,” Youngston said. “Conforming an LED source to be a downlight, a strip or indirect can be an ineffectual use of this lighting source if not thoughtfully designed. The more successful products design around the LED source capturing what it does best as narrow, single direction lighting. FocalPoint is one manufacturer I like that uses LEDs completely differently. Today, every project we do has LEDs to some degree. The advancements keep coming quickly, and LEDs are getting better.”

Both men also design for residential projects and see LEDs in demand for that market. Like other markets, it requires some customer education.

“I’m looking at my first home specifying all LED,” Kohn said. “It seems everyone wants LEDs, but, as a professional, I must evaluate what is the most appropriate light source. For example, some of these customers have art collections. LEDs may be good for some spot lighting, but there are choices. I sometimes suggest and use a MR16 halogen fixture, which gives me flexibility to fine-tune my lighting design, factoring in beam size, shape and intensity. I ask a client what they want to accomplish with LEDs and then give them the tradeoffs.”

Kohn added that he sees LEDs being especially embraced for residential landscaping as it offers more creativity, choice of color, long life, significant energy savings and low maintenance.

In the end, keeping up on lighting trends helps a firm compete at a higher level. 

“If something moves out of your realm or shifts, try to follow it,” Pfund said. “Controls for plug loads are also new and noteworthy. You don’t want to miss it.”

The design and building industry may not have thought about how to get it done, but you can provide the answer. 

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at

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