Intelligence Made Visible: The art and science of lighting design

Published On
Dec 15, 2021

As the market increasingly embraces the fact that better light quality can deliver greater employee satisfaction and higher sales, electrical contractors have become more involved in the process of lighting design for their customers. In addition to creating well-lit spaces that look spectacular and are more productive and inviting for their clients, skills in the art and science of lighting design are also helping contractors differentiate themselves in a highly competitive market.

Following, several lighting industry experts discuss electrical contractors’ growing involvement in lighting design while sharing some of their top tips to help contractors achieve success in that arena.

A great opportunity

“There’s always been a big market for electrical contractors who can do lighting design, especially for larger contractors involved in design-build projects,” said James Benya, a veteran lighting designer and principal of Davis, Calif.-based Benya Burnett Consultancy.

“While it may be easier for many contractors to be given a set of specs from an architect or an engineer stating that ‘This is the lighting system you’ll put in,’ there are real possibilities for those electrical contractors who possess lighting design as a skill set,” he said. “Electrical contractors have become very sophisticated and capable of doing this sort of work, and there’s always an opportunity for them to step into this space and reap the benefits to their reputation if they want to.”

Devis Mulunda, global product manager of Vive Wireless at Lutron Electronics, Coopersburg, Pa., agreed. “I see electrical contractors getting increasingly involved earlier in the design and specification stages when it comes to the functional aspects of lighting and especially lighting control,” Mulunda said. “This trend is driven primarily by the need for building code compliance and secondly by the specification. As building energy and safety code requirements across the country continue to evolve, there’s a movement towards a more lighting-specific sequence of operations. Examples of this include egress rules for space occupants or the percentage of lights that can remain on and at what level. This presents an opportunity for the electrical contractor to use a trusted solution that’s reliable and works to meet these changing demands. Therefore, I do see more contractors taking ‘control’ of their lighting, so to speak.”

“One of an electrical contractor’s big advantages is that they know what the project budget is, so they can make a quality versus cost decision and steer the project accordingly,” Benya said. “From human-centric lighting to lighting controls and more, a contractor who masters these skills and has hands-on controls of the whole design, is business-savvy and who truly understands the art and science of lighting can create an attractive niche and business opportunity for themselves.”

The bottom line?

“There are great opportunities for electrical contractors who are savvy in lighting design, because spaces that are well-lit create additional opportunities for end-users who want to retrofit other spaces,” confirmed Rich Rattray, technical specification manager at Ledvance LLC, Wilmington, Mass.

Top tips for contractors

The experts offered some of their best dos and don’ts for contractors entering the world of lighting design:

  • DON’T overlight: “The biggest mistake anybody makes in lighting design is putting in more lighting than is needed,” Benya said. “It’s about learning to restrain yourself, because more isn’t always better. I often advise practitioners to create the lighting design they want and then do 30% less.”
  • “Carefully consider the placement of lighting fixtures to ensure that lumens are distributed correctly across the space, and factor in the amount of daylight entering the space versus the lighting provided by the fixtures,” Mulunda said. “It’s easy to overlight a space, but controls can help a contractor deliver the appropriate balance of daylight and electric light.”
  • DO consider selectable products: According to Rattray, the use of wattage- and color temperatureselectable products allows contractors the flexibility to set the amount of light output and color temperature that best fit the application. “Another tip is to use downlights that have the LEDs slightly recessed into the ceiling to help reduce glare or render it less noticeable to occupants,” he said.
  • DO consider controls: “From a lighting controls perspective, the more knowledgeable an electrical contractor is about available control solutions, the better prepared they can be to expand their project and profit opportunities while meeting code, budget, and performance requirements,” Mulunda said. “For example, the strategic use of lighting controls may enable a savvy contractor to use fewer products to achieve the design spec while still meeting code, customer performance and cost requirements.”
  • DON’T invest unnecessarily: “Don’t assume that the most expensive lighting system is necessarily the best,” Benya said. “For example, downlights are ubiquitous and can cost anywhere from $25 to $500; you need to evaluate and justify your selection, apply good judgment and pick the product that offers the best value proposition.” Ultimately, he said, “it’s not about what you want, but about what your client needs.” Mulunda similarly underscored the need for contractors to understand their customer’s budget versus desired performance. Partner with a manufacturer that offers options that meet the customer’s performance needs without sacrificing budget,” he said.
  • DO focus on the customer’s needs: “Ask about the customer’s goals for their lighting, how much flexibility they need, and if they anticipate the space changing in the future, as the answers to these questions will help ensure the best lighting or control system for the job,” Mulunda said. “This is especially important now, as a customer may need lighting today that accommodates a socially distanced layout, but that layout may change over time. Often, a flexible, scalable, wireless system provides the best solution for today’s needs, as well as the greatest flexibility to meet future needs.”
  • DO pay attention to codes: Because codes change frequently and many cities have recently updated their electrical and building codes, Mulunda recommended that contractors work with a lighting manufacturer that offers up-to-date code guides and solutions that are designed to meet and exceed the code, regardless of the project location.
  • DO create value: “Lighting design is both an art and a science, and while finances eventually work their way into a project, the process of sound lighting design isn’t financial,” Benya said. “The ultimate challenge for contractors wanting to provide design-build services is to learn what lighting design is all about and then tailor it to their projects and customers; there’s no ‘one size fits all.’

“In addition, some customers don’t see the value in light, so that’s another challenge. Contractors have to be patient and create value in illumination by consistently delivering spaces that have better lighting. It’s an investment that may not pay off immediately and the electrical contractor will have to use their skills and relationships with channel members and general contractors to get to the customer, but when it’s done well, it’s proven to be a great opportunity for them.”

  • DON’T underestimate the value of a good distributor: “One important skill for the electrical contractor is to work with their electrical distributor to carefully select the best products for the application,” Rattray said. This is a tip Benya wholeheartedly supports. “Specialized lighting distributors have become an important part of the process because they sell the lighting products that electrical contractors buy,” Benya said. “Good lighting distributors can play a design role, provide good alternative products/substitutions when necessary, and serve as key partners to contractors who engage in lighting design.”
  • DO avail yourself of resources: Benya said that contractors need the right people around them and the proper investment to become skilled in lighting design, but he confirmed that the necessary resources are out there. Among his best advice, Benya recommends that contractors study the market through the available channels. “Look at award-winning projects and try to determine what about the design and the products used made them award-winning,” he said. “You can learn a lot by investigating what they did; even if your current project can’t afford to incorporate those elements, you’ll have some experience if and when you run into a project like that somewhere down the line. In addition, work with your sales reps to understand all of the products they sell, go to [Illuminating Engineering Society] meetings and get to know lighting designers, and familiarize yourself with the lighting community, sales reps, distributors and showrooms, as many will take plenty of time to explain lighting design to you,” Benya said. “Overall, be open to learning, ask a lot of questions, and when you see something that impresses you, find out how it was done.”

Rattray agreed, and recommended that contractors also avail themselves of helpful manufacturer-driven resources designed to help contractors enhance their lighting design skills.

“For example, within minutes, Ledvance’s online lighting layout tool (www.ledvanceus.com/tools-and-resources/Pages/Lighting-Layout-Tool.aspx) can help contractors easily determine the optimum lighting layout, including the number of fixtures, fixture spacing and light output from the fixtures,” he said.

Mulunda concurred and further advised contractors to make use of manufacturerdriven application code guides (such as Lutron’s commercial application guides, available at www.lutron.com/en-US/Service-Support/Pages/Technical/AppGuides.aspx) to learn about application-specific solutions based on the major electrical codes and project location.

Electrical contractors can find a wide range of on-demand seminars on subjects such as estimating, general business and the National Electrical Code , all of which can help them become better lighting designers.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.