Technology Is Driving Change and Trends in Architectural Lighting

May 12, 2020

In this episode of I Hear Design, Acuity Brands’ VP of Architectural Ambient Lighting, Tim O’Brien, and Donna Sumner, Director of Product Marketing, talk about trends in architectural lighting and the role that technology is playing in the process.

In this episode of I Hear Design, Acuity Brands’ VP of Architectural Ambient Lighting, Tim O’Brien, and Donna Sumner, Director of Product Marketing, talk about trends in architectural lighting and the role that technology is playing in the process. Listen now.

*This podcast was created in partnership with Acuity Brands.

[Start transcript]

Robert Nieminen: Hello, everyone, and welcome to a special edition of the I Hear Design podcast. This is Robert Nieminen, Chief Content Director for interiors+sources. Today’s episode is brought to you by Acuity Brands Lighting.

So, I once read somewhere that good lighting doesn’t just happen—it’s designed. And I think I can attest to that statement. Well-designed architectural lighting in commercial environments is so important to support not only aesthetics, but also occupant comfort, and a number of other functional considerations as well. And architectural lighting has advanced tremendously over the years, and there are some interesting trends happening right now that I think you’ll appreciate hearing about in today’s podcast.

To help take us into a deeper dive into this topic, I have two special guests with me, today. Tim O’Brien is the VP of Architectural Ambient Lighting, and Donna Sumner, Director of Product Marketing for Acuity Brands. Donna and Tim, thanks for joining me.

Donna Sumner: Oh, you’re welcome.

Tim O’Brien: Well, thank you very much, Robert. Great to be here.

Robert: Yeah, absolutely. We love having you guys on. For our listeners out there who may not be very familiar with Acuity Brands, can you tell them just a little bit about the company, and what you guys do for the personal design market?

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Acuity Brands is about a $3.5-3.6 billion company that makes everything from building control systems, the lighting control systems, HVAC control systems, but the biggest portion of the business is really manufacturing luminaires. We’re the largest luminaire manufacturer in North America. And we make everything from residential down lighting to emergency and exit luminaires to industrial luminaires, outdoor and roadway, and then what Donna and I are really involved with is specification-grade, architectural, interior and exterior commercial luminaires.

Robert: Right, well, perfect. That’s exactly what we want to talk about today. So, why don’t we move into our topic of discussions.

As I’ve mentioned in the intro there, there’s been some pretty interesting trends happening right now in architectural lighting. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about that?

Donna: Yeah, sure. I think, it’d be no surprise to your listeners to talk about what we talk about internally as a megatrend, which is the open office environment. Open office and exposed ceiling have now converged into many of the spaces that we see today. And with that, has brought many challenges that designers are looking for the luminaire to solve. So, what you see here in the last couple years is the integration of things like onto luminaires for those spaces to try and help mitigate the loss of ceiling in terms of acoustical quality.

Where are those spaces too, what you have when you remove an acoustical ceiling is now you create a cavity that is large and grand, which is a desired effect, but the challenges with that is many times there’s lots of nooks and crannies, shadowing and darkness. So, within the luminaire, the trend is to try and balance the darkness of that ceiling with a bright illumination in those spaces.

So you start to hear and see things and discussions around things like WELL Standard, which is a collection of guidelines for illuminates recommendations in these occupied states to help mitigate problems like glare and flicker that some of these nutrients have created.

On another side of that, controls has also become increasingly important in those spaces and energy codes continue to push us to expand how controls are integrated into luminaires and into the space.

Title 24 in California has always led the way in this in terms of energy conservation, and how to save energy within spaces with multiple zones of control to harvest day lighting, for example, to make sure in times of occupancy, you have light, but when there’s no one there, you’re saving energy.

Things continue to be trends and things that push us as manufacturers to innovate within our product lines.

Photo: The Renna Indirect Flat Patterns Suspended Linear fixture from Peerless Lighting is available in Static White and in three linear run sizes: 2 feet, 4 feet and 8 feet. Three end plate options—square, sculpted and rounded—are available. Complete the look with a choice of three finishes, black, silver and white, with custom finishes also offered. Courtesy of Acuity Brands

Robert: Sure. Tim, did you want to add anything?

Tim: I think what Donna said is definitely spot on. And the other thing we see is, since we’ve transitioned, I mean, everything we sell today is really based on in an LED source. And so, if you go back 10 or 15 years in the design space, you were limited by the source. You could only do so many things with a fluorescent tube. And now that we have LEDs—illumination, right? How we want to light the space, how the designer wants to light the space.

In any kind of design space today, they have tremendous amount of freedom. And they’re using that and taking advantage of it. So, we see much more complex systems being designed in a space today, much more complex than we did 10 or 15 years ago.

Robert: Right. How are these trends impacting what they do then on a day-to-day basis?

Donna: Right. It would be tone deaf for us not to talk about the increasing concerns in the expectations of the lighting system, that lighting that support human health and well-being. I mean, we’re seeing a time in our country today where those concerns are much more highlighted than they were last year this time.

So, understanding how lighting can address the health and well-being of occupants within that space, again, it’s nothing new. It’s something that Peerless has done and thought about for a long time in terms of glare and mitigation of glare, which can create headaches and other things for the occupants.

But evidence-based design in terms of things like circadian lighting is now coming to the forefront as more and more research starts to come forward and the industry as a whole starts to coalesce around approach.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. I think Donna and I both share the opinion that we’ve seen this tremendous transition in lighting and luminaire design in the last 10 years, how we think about a luminaire. But likely, that’s just the beginning.

The people like LRC and up in Troy, New York, Rensselaer, and people out of UC Davis and there’s studies going on all over the country about what circadian does, what it means, what is proper lighting? How is it better for us? And so, we’re really kind of... what LEDs have allowed us to do is really transition to digital infrastructure. Right?

So, it was very common in years past to just... were based off an analogue system. That’s what lighting was, right? It was an analog system. LEDs have allowed us to go to a digital infrastructure. So, we’re designing luminaires today where that infrastructure goes all the way through luminaire.

And that gives you such freedom—what you want to do, how you want to control the luminaire—what you want to do with it. The luminaire becomes almost the backbone or a vehicle to do many different things. And as we learn, and to Donna’s point, we need evidence, I think the world—we’ve just begun to change in the world of light.

Robert: Yeah. And I’m glad you brought that up as far as the digital infrastructure there. So, I wanted to ask also, what are the benefits of switching to digital lighting technology versus analog? And are there some challenges into getting that implemented?

Tim: Yeah. So, there are tremendous challenges. I mean, just through our history, we’ve thought in analog terms. And we’ve thought about the luminaire itself is providing light, right?

Well, once we transitioned to a digital infrastructure, now it’s just a matter of what sensors, what software, what we want to do with that luminaire. We’re designing fixtures, luminaires today that if you want to 3K color temperature or 5K color temperature, you want a tunable system, the basic infrastructure, the material that you make it out of doesn’t change. All you’re doing is setting a value in firmware. Right?

So, now color tuning becomes... its inherent, it’s an eight in the design itself. And then you layer on different things, different sensors. So, it gives capabilities that can really help somebody think about the space and what it wants to be. But we could easily within that digital infrastructure, in our capabilities, set up alerts and alarms so that if two people are closer than six foot together, we can detect that. Or if you’re gathering and there’s eight people gathering in a conference room, we know that eight people are in the conference room.

So, the capabilities, once you go digital, from the network, to the luminaire itself, to the sensors that are integral to that luminaire, you can do so much. That’s what I think is exciting about where we are today is. We’ve changed the LEDs. That’s made a big impact in our world and how we think of design and space and energy consumption. But what lies ahead is orders of magnitude more impactful than that.

[Related: Using Lighting and BMS to Advance Your Business]

Robert: Yeah, definitely. Donna, do you want to weigh in on that as far as the benefits of switching to digital?

Donna: Yeah, I mean, one of one of the great benefits is now the product, the digital technology enables the product to become much more modular than it ever was, right? Because everything happens in firmware, how you put that product together into runs, or patterns and configurations at the job site doesn’t really matter because each one can be whatever it wants to be because you tell it to be.

What this does is it enables the widest desire to do what they love to do to be creative and not worry so much about the level of complexity they’re designing into the job. Because that digital infrastructure within the luminaire removes a ton of complexity. I don’t have to worry about where my emergency is on that run. I can tell it where it is after the fact.

If the contractor installed that section that I want to be controlled by occupancy in the middle of the run instead of in the front of the room where I wanted, it worked in the field. So, having digital integration fully through the luminaire really is freeing and will save a lot of time on construction, administration and other tasks.

Another key point that I think is often missed is that when you go digital, everything now is at the circuit board level. And the main points of failure, many of them have been removed because there’s increased... most of the points that go with a luminaire historically have been at the driver with a heat source and the power transfer within the driver itself, because it’s very hot. When you have a digital bus and you’re powering it through, that heat is removed from the system, eliminating things that cause failure.

So, it just makes a more robust, solid, dependable systems that just make your job easier in my opinion.

Robert: Yeah, definitely. And you mentioned that these systems can help designers be creative. So, how can luminaires help them create a sense of space and exercise creativity?

Donna: Oh, great question. So, like we talked about with open ceilings and open space design, which we see a lot today, you just have a big volume of space. And designers want to be creative, and they want to take that occupant on a journey through the space, right? They don’t want to just dump them off in a big open area and say, ‘All right, well, you figure out where to go.’ Designing in visual cues as part of their job—wayfinding, even creating surprises along the way.

Photo: Renna Office; With its innovative technology, the Renna Indirect Direct Suspended Linear fixture from Peerless Lighting simplifies installation with a single power drop for up to 32 feet of luminaires, reducing complications and labor costs when designing an electrical layout. It offers more flexibility, simplified emergency planning, a low total solution cost. Courtesy of Acuity Brands

So, how do you create unique environments within an open field? Historically, the way that you would design that in is all right, well I have big, open ceiling spaces. Right here, this conversational area, maybe it’s my lobby within that space, I want to drop in an acoustical cloud, right? Not really part of the fabric, but I’m gonna drop in an acoustical cloud here, and immediately what happens is you go, ‘Oh, this space is different. Let me figure out what’s happening here.’

We’ve been exploring the idea of what if it’s not an acoustical cloud that gets dropped, but what if a luminaire can be utilized to create that sense of space and provide the light? So now, you’ve eliminated a piece of construction, which is cost, replaced it with a luminaire that enables the occupant to go, ‘This place has been brought down to my scale,’ provides a beautiful amount of light and makes place.

And it can be done with large scale fixtures, or even a beautiful decorative fixture dropped right over the table, right? You know exactly what to do because you see it. You see it and understand the visual hierarchy created. And it can be done with patterns and everything. Things like that.

So, when we design luminaires, we need to think about how they’re used—not only just to provide light, but how they’re used to create those visual moments within an environment. And I think that’s the fun part of my job is thinking about lighting in that way.

Robert: Yeah, definitely. So, can you point to a few examples of lighting solutions that have been deployed that illustrate some of the concepts we’ve been talking about?

Yeah. So, new products from peerless called Renna. Renna is a modular system that definitely leverages the idea of a whole digital platform and all the benefits that you get from that. Renna, at its base can be a very simple, linear luminaire, just simple and clean with good visual comfort and good indirect illumination.

Or Renna can be put together in such a way where it creates a dynamic moment within that space, and it can move in three directions. So, if you think about modular units that are two-, four- and eight-feet long, you can move them along and then go out eight feet—maybe I start vertically on a wall, and I come up that wall with a luminaire. And then I take a 90-degree turn and extend myself out into the three-dimensional space. And then I take a left turn, and then I turned down 45 degrees and move around and curve.

So, if you think about piping, it sort of can do that within that space and create this flow and movement in a three-dimensional sculpture. So, it in and of itself, starts to organize space, create a moment of artistic expression within that space, and really make something very unique for that designers. It came out of their mind. It’s their statement on how that space is organized, and those visual moments are created.

But it was all done with standard luminaires. Nothing custom. No waiting for unique products to come off of the production floor. It was all done with standard components in a system that allows them to use their creativity in putting it together how they like. Much like Tinker Toys or Legos even, right? It’s a singular brick, but I can make untold thousands of things with it. And that’s the type of products that we had been working on. Renna is a great example of that.

Tim: Right. So, it’s tough to add to that. But the emphasis here, just as Donna said is, the designer can sit down, they can create something that’s unique, that’s three dimensional. And because of controlled architecture, because of the way we power luminaire, because of the modularity of it, there’s really nothing custom.

And custom is... whenever you get into a project and you want something that’s custom, that’s complexity that has to be managed all the way... contractor, and it’s very expensive. So, the freedom that the designer has to think through what they want in that space was oftentimes limited by budget, or by the complexity, the install. And now we’re getting to a world where they can just—there’s free expression, right? So, if they can think it, it can be done, and it’s not a hugely complex build.

Robert: Yeah, that’s very cool. So, where can our listeners go to find out more information about some of the products you guys just mentioned?

Tim: So, you just Google Peerless Lighting, take you right to the website of beautiful pages around this idea of modularity and the Renna product that Donna was just talking about.

Mark Lighting is another one. We’ve just introduced a very small form factor product that utilizes the same technology. And then we’re also responsible for Hydrel which makes the best in grade exterior luminaires in the world, Winona Lighting, Healthcare Lighting and Luminaire LED, which is confinement vandal-resistant lighting. So, any one of those will have the pages set up. Just Google them and explore.

Robert: Alright, great. Well, thank you again, Tim and Donna, both for being here. It’s been great talking to you.

Donna: Oh, thank you.

Tim: Thank you, Robert.

Robert: Great. And for our listeners out there, thank you again as well for tuning in. We’ll see you next time, and as always, be well, everyone.

[End transcript]

Meet our guests:

Donna Sumner is Director of Architectural Ambient with Acuity Brands Lighting. She manages product development and marketing of the company’s Mark Architectural Lighting™, Peerless®, Winona®. Luminaire LED™, Healthcare Lighting® and Hydrel® brands.

Donna’s deep industry knowledge and experience in both architectural and lighting design enables her to focus on the breadth of development considerations from customer and application demands to the changing dynamics in the architectural specification market. Her knowledge of design and technology has enabled here to excel at delivering industry-leading innovation in her product portfolios.

Tim O’Brien is Vice President and General Manager of Architectural Lighting with Acuity Brands Lighting. He oversees the company’s portfolio of diversified and leading architectural lighting businesses. Tim’s more than 20 years of industry experience covers the gamut from operations and capital management, engineering and product development to strategic deployment and marketing in various leadership roles.
About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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