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Opinion: Good Lighting Design Lies in Compromise

Custom residential lighting design — the way it is normally done — can be the enemy of a builder’s desire to complete the project on time and on budget. Great lighting requires more planning (adding cost and time), better fixtures (adding cost and time), more of those fixtures (adding cost and time), and more complicated installs (adding cost and time).  

But what about the rest of the home? Do lighting designers just sit around and blame builders for fighting against our efforts? Or do we consider the builder’s needs and redevelop our services to suit?  

Builders make choices with lighting that will decidedly impact the design outcomes. Here are four examples: 

Put a Roof Over Their Heads… or Help Your Clients Live Better Lives.

My first job out of college was essentially as a general contractor building homes, but I moved into lighting long before I became a good builder.  

Now our team works with builders across the country and across a wide spectrum of capabilities, but every one of them can build a house better than any lighting designer I know. That does not seem to stop me and other lighting designers from telling builders how to do their job — which is not exactly a collaborative or productive attitude. 

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But it doesn’t make us always wrong. There is a difference between the way lighting is typically done and the way it should be. Builders are faced with a choice: will they build houses that check the boxes and put a roof up, or will they pursue better lighting that can help their clients live better lives?  

Deliver the Expected… or Help Clients Enjoy Their Homes More.

We are among the lucky few that get to hear from clients amazed by how lighting helps transform their homes into oases from noise and stress. Lighting, when done well, makes a difference in how people use and appreciate their homes. 

Builders that choose better lighting end up building homes for more satisfied clients, which can be good for business… unless the lighting design process pushes them over budget and delays delivery past the due date. Then it might be a toss-up, and who wants to gamble with their business? 

Blend in with the Crowd… or Build Your Reputation.

There may not be enough homebuilders in the United States (or in the world), but that does not mean there is no competition. I see some pretty wonderful websites and beautiful marketing materials used by builders to win over clients, but perhaps the most important marketing tool is the homes themselves.  

I have yet to visit a builder’s website that features photographs of their homes after sunset, when it will most likely be most used by the homeowners. Why? The biggest reason is because the lighting just isn’t very good. It is notoriously difficult to photograph homes at night, and bad lighting makes it all worse.  

Builders interested in enhancing their reputation can use lighting to differentiate themselves. This can be a good case for hiring a lighting designer, but a good reputation is about more than just pretty pictures. Builders are also judged on their business practices and how well they stay on budget and on time.   

Whittle Away Profits… or Protect Your Profitability.

Great lighting costs more money and takes more time. Period. So how can builders offer better results without threatening business? I think the answer lies in compromise. We lighting designers can do incrediblethings with light. But if we only deliver at the highest level, we limit the ability of most builders and homeowners to achieve even a little bit better results. 

A builder who recommends lighting designers, without careful planning, may end up hurting their business. Great lighting won’t be easy or cheap or fast. So what is the alternative? Is there a way for a builder to deliver great lighting and even increase profitability? Sure. But you have to do a little work to get there. 

David Warfel is Chief Evangelist of Light at design firm Light Can Help You (lightcanhelpyou.com). 

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