Developing successful lighting solutions

Successful lighting projects take many shapes, but there are core traits that make them shine regardless of the building type or scale.


This article has been peer-reviewed.Learning objectives:

  • Understand the basic traits of a successful lighting design.
  • Review a case study of a building’s successful lighting design, taking several factors into consideration.
  • Learn about the codes and standards that offer guidance to the lighting designer.

What makes a lighting design successful? The answer may vary slightly from project to project, but the basic traits are the same—and every successful project requires a client with clear lighting goals who asks the right questions.

Figure 1: Zurich's mission is rooted in clear communication of their people-centric approach - from visual promotion of their branding message to defining what design factors they value to drive success in the creation of their new headquarters. Courtesy: With more than 140 years of experience in the insurance industry, Zurich North America believes smart investing begins with placing value on their people. The design of its new, 750,000-sq-ft headquarters located in Schaumburg, Ill., embodies this notion, providing an entire campus of amenities and people-centric working environments all geared toward optimizing their employees’ experience, satisfaction, and productivity. The project’s program offers a bit of everything—open and private office spaces, a luxurious dining café, state-of-the-art fitness facilities, a full-service auditorium, and a variety of knowledge hubs and gathering zones—each with unique character and purpose.

From the start, lighting was identified as a design element that would be integral to the realization of Zurich’s employee-focused goals as they constructed the building. To support the success of Zurich’s people and their mission, the lighting design team defined the word “success” in lighting terms and set out to deliver functional, visually comfortable, efficient, affordable, and maintainable lighting solutions that visually enhance their environments. There are many traits to successful lighting design, many of which can be achieved by asking the right questions:

Functionality and lighting design

Functionality is perhaps the obvious starting point for measuring the success of a lighting design. Lighting serves a purpose, and successful lighting needs to do its job. However, jobs can be complex and multifaceted, and there’s often a right and a wrong way to get a job done. To start off on the right path, ask the following questions:

Does the lighting serve the people who use it?

To create purpose behind the lighting being designed, a lighting designer needs to understand the needs and preferences of the people the lighting will benefit as well as the concerns of those who will install and maintain the equipment. Considering the human aspect of lighting throughout the life of a lighting design is critical to ensuring a successful overall outcome.

Are the right lighting tools being used for the job?

Figure 2: The dining and servery lighting is layered to support the various visual tasks occurring in the space while highlighting the architecture and guilding vision from station to station. Courtesy: Christopher Barrett, CannonDesignFunctional lighting is more than just lights that turn on or off. A well-designed system accounts for the myriad people using the space and the tasks they perform, and ensures the lighting conditions are best suited to those tasks. Key questions to ask include: Which surfaces are important to light, to what level, and from where? How important is color rendering? What about luminaire quality? Is ample daylight available to perform some (or all) of the lighting tasks? How much flexibility is needed for each user? What controls are needed to make the space’s lighting intuitive?

Once the functional parameters are understood, appropriate design criteria, like illuminance targets, lighting quality metrics, and control schemes, can be established to set up the design for success. Products with qualities that meet these criteria (gleaned from manufacturer data sheets, the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) files used for calculations, etc.) can then be selected and included in the design.

Is the lighting design code-compliant?

It may sound rudimentary, but the basic lighting requirements outlined in applicable code manuals that prescribe light levels for safety (such as NFPA 70: National Electric Code, NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, International Building Code, and any local jurisdictional adoptions) and standards that dictate energy conservation and control requirements (such as ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings and the International Energy Conservation Code) represent the baseline for lighting systems in terms of occupant safety and energy performance.

These codes should always be taken into consideration as fundamental components of a functional lighting design. References, such as the U.S. Department of Energy, are useful to understand which codes are in effect for a given project. As these codes continue to be shaped by technology—and to increase energy efficiency, stronger prescriptive requirements, such as daylight harvesting, multilevel/dimmable lighting, and automatic shutoff during non-occupied hours, force lighting designers to be intimately familiar with the code requirements applicable to each project. While not required by code, if the project is targeting U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification or other sustainable certifications, there may be other prescribed energy efficiency requirements to incorporate into the design.

Has everything been properly coordinated, installed, and commissioned?

Lighting technology is complicated, and as we move into a more digital world, the opportunities—and the complexity of designs—continue to increase. As the functionality of lighting and control systems expand, there are more elements to understand and manage, which sometimes require education on behalf of users, facility maintenance teams, and sometimes even the installer.

As designers in the architectural, engineering, and construction (AEC) world, it’s likely we’ve all heard stories about complex lighting or control systems that do nothing but cause headaches because either they weren’t commissioned correctly or the responsible groups weren’t properly trained. Diligence on behalf of the designer as a project completes construction and is turned over to the client—in the form of providing sequence-of-operations intent and other commissioning information, issuing punch lists, and assisting with coordination of user training—is an essential element in ensuring the envisioned design achieves its functional goals.

For example, Zurich’s headquarters had such a wide variety of space types and people who would use them, it was important to consider each space individually in terms of function and the task that would need to be accommodated. For instance, the dining and service area have food-preparation zones with strict safety guidelines dictating illuminance levels and prohibiting equipment using lamps or lenses that can shatter and make their way into food.

As a result, the luminaires and their characteristics had much different selection criteria than the lighting intended to entice employees shopping for their lunches on the other side of the counter. For these customers, who are most concerned with how well-displayed and appetizing the food appears, the lighting needed to consider visual-quality markers like the color rendering of the food, contrast levels to make the merchandise pop, and visual cues to help organize and navigate the space.

Figure 3: The fitness areas are lit using lively, playful approaches to increase the atmosphere of activity and motion. Courtesy: Christopher Barrett, CannonDesignVisual comfort

Visual comfort is closely related to functionality and can make or break a successful lighting design. Things can look just fine on paper, but the occupants’ comfort is an important factor to consider. The link between light and health is an expanding area of study, but it’s already well-known that too much unshielded light (direct glare), lighting that doesn’t take geometries of reflective surfaces into account (indirect glare/veiling reflections), and high-contrast ratios in the field of view can cause extreme visual discomfort, which can in turn lead to all sorts of headaches—both for those living in those conditions and for those trying to fix them retroactively. A few good questions to consider:

Do the specified products address visual comfort?

Quality luminaires take visual comfort into account, and more attention has been focused on this issue with the rapid rise of LED technology. “Flicker” and stroboscopic effects perceived with poor-quality luminaires are not just visually annoying, they can trigger seizures or interfere with laser-scanning devices operating at a similar frequency. The efficiency of compact LEDs, compared with high-intensity discharge, incandescent, and fluorescent lamps, allows for smaller form factors for many luminaires while producing the high lumen outputs of their legacy sources. However, select products with caution. While a lensed 6-in. recessed slot using a T8 fluorescent source (around 400 delivered lumens per foot at the lens) would usually be considered acceptable in terms of visual comfort, standard options for LED recessed slots range up to and beyond 1,000 delivered lumens/foot in apertures as small as an inch—a combination that can feel blindingly bright. Regardless of the technology, without careful consideration of product quality, appropriate shielding, and visual geometry of people to the source, it’s easy to make a “glaring” mistake.

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