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Shedding Light on the Role of a Lighting Designer on Integration Projects

In the world of residential lighting design, a skilled lighting designer plays a pivotal role. We orchestrate a carefully thought-out process that spans from the initial design concept to the final commissioning. 

As the lighting industry and associated technology has changed, the relationship between the lighting designer and technology integrator has become murky — and occasionally tenuous. Lighting designers’ level of technical knowledge, engineering, and code compliance has been forced to increase. 

Those firms that are still living in the design-only, “don’t bother me with the specifics,” force the integrator to essentially pick up the pieces where the lighting designer left off — often with no road map at all. This is due in large part to the way that lighting control and new lighting fixtures are being introduced, and the lack of education and the oversimplification of lighting design. 

When a lighting designer is on board, many questions arise for the integrator regarding the former’s role: What is the lighting designer responsible for? What is the technology integrator responsible for? What does the lighting design process look like? Where do we take up the responsibility? 

I hope to provide integrators with my insights into the lighting design selection, installation, and commissioning process as well as the benefits of working with a lighting designer.

The Future of Digital Lighting & Control

As a custom integrator, lighting is in demand. Effective communication, education and showcasing the value proposition of LED light fixtures in conjunction with integrative control systems are the keys to overcoming challenges and closing sales in this specialized market.

Join us as we discuss the future of digital lighting and control with David Warfel from Light Can Help You and Patrick Laidlaw and Mark Moody from AiSPIRE.
Register Now! 

First, a bit about myself. I began Tirschwell & Co. in 1999. My company is known for very high-end residential work. What makes my company unique is that our process doesn’t actually start with light at all. We want to understand the entire experience from the entire design team and the client. While not every lighting designer will have the same process, there will be similarities and best practices that every lighting designer strives to execute in their role.

A Lighting Designer’s Role Starts with Client Intake

The heart of any remarkable lighting design lies in the process. At Tirschwell, with our residential projects, it begins with a deep understanding of the client’s needs and lifestyle.

We don’t just look at the fixtures; we aim to create experiences. To arrive at that, there are several key questions we ask our clients, such as: 

How are spaces going to be used? 

What are the types of places that resonate with materials, light, touch, smell, taste? 

What does their environment look like when they wake up in the morning? 

Do they wake up before dawn or at 11 o’clock? 

Do they want to come in and turn on all the lights, or do they only want a whisper of light? Are there special considerations not easily identified? 

How do other materials — paint and other finishes — complement the owner’s expectations? 

Do they immediately head to the gym or ease into their day? 

By understanding clients’ daily lifestyles and routines, a lighting designer can cater around it. Their answers form the foundation of the lighting design, from fixture to control.

Photo/Matthew Tirschwell

We translate this information into hierarchies of light. We first establish what we want to see. How we achieve that comes later. 

After we establish and craft the visual experience, we begin to work back into selecting the actual fixtures, but the next step isn’t only fixture selection; it’s identifying the control system and protocols. We start thinking about controls very early on. That’s because lighting control — the user interface — makes the experience tangible for clients. 

A carefully planned keypad also helps to smooth out any issues in the commissioning stage. We develop protocols, systems, and procedures to provide a holistic approach to the entire project. By identifying the type of user interface, the client’s expectations, and the capabilities available, we communicate salient information to other designers, the electrical contractor, and the technology integrator.

Down the line this identifies how much wall space is needed — and where — for lighting control panels, remote drivers, etc. It’s too late in the process to learn, for example, that there are three elevations of shades and blackouts with doors, and the client really wants to control every shade independently but there’s only a single keypad. 

Worse is when keypad space is cut out of a marble slab, only to determine later only one keypad is needed. By working through the interface and even doing the engravings early, there’s a clear understanding of what we need that user interface to do and what programming directives to give the integrator. 

We will enter the keypad engravings directly into the control manufacturer’s software, but often, our AV partners have already created a file that we borrow. This allows us to mockup engraving examples and layouts and locate them in each space to visually understand location and wayfinding. 

Device Compatibility Can Be an Obstacle

One challenge that both lighting designers and integrators collectively face in their roles is device compatibility. Often, inter-compatibility is mistaken to mean interoperability. 

To better understand this, let’s look at what is involved when we specify a typical strip light. That strip light comes from one manufacturer, its driver comes from another manufacturer or is OEM to that manufacturer with its own programming requirements and capabilities, then the interface for the control protocol, and lastly, the lighting control manufacturer and programming. 

That’s three to four different components that all have to work together. Throw in wire distance and gauge, various driver dimming curves, location of equipment, and electronic interference along the way, and even in the best of projects you still have opportunities for failure. 

On paper, each should play well in the sandbox, but what we’ve found is that lights don’t always perform at the level that we need for our clientele, which can show up in a number of ways. The most common is flicker when lights are dimmed down, or they don’t dim down far enough. 

Another challenge is when one linear strip dims down while the rest do not. In projects where a driver is running multiple length sources, it’s not uncommon for the closer, shorter light source to be brighter than the source farther away. 

There are a lot of technology problems that lighting designers and integrators must resolve. For this reason, we test lighting fixtures and controls in the office, with the actual lighting control system we intend to use. We also lean heavily on light fixture and lighting control manufacturers and are very selective about the brands we choose and rely on.

Photo/Matthew Tirschwell

Given the number of protocols — forward phase, reverse phase, PWM, 0-10V, 1-10V, DMX, DALI, Zigbee, Casambi, BubblyNet, Z-Wave — as well as the protocols for the equipment to communicate with each other, partnering with manufacturers that understand the lighting designer’s role and what it is that we need is essential. More importantly, having a direct relationship with a controls manufacturer who understands and appreciates what we achieve for our clients is sacrosanct. 

For example, we have leaned on Vantage more as our preferred lighting control vendor, because the company has brought balance and understanding between the roles of lighting designer and the custom integrator. 

Rather than be restricted to certain fixtures from one manufacturer, Vantage has given lighting designers the freedom to design around fixtures that will meet clients’ needs and lifestyles. Many of the fixtures I use are from companies in Vantage’s LHUMAN Light Fixture Alliance, which are tested to be interoperable with its LHUMAN human-centric lighting solution. 

With client expectations, providing advanced dim to warm or color tuning options is critical. Similar to entertainment lighting fixtures, the company has even gone as far as creating a growing library of fixture profiles that have passed the specs of both the fixture manufacturer and Vantage. 

These profiles take the guesswork out of achieving smooth dimming and the color temperature, so that all the fixtures in a room and over a house are in alignment. The less obvious benefit is that they smooth the communication between designer and integrator.

Inside the Install & Commissioning 

The lighting designer’s role is to factor in all these scenarios so there’s one very clear system that will work with the myriad light fixture manufacturers that we select. Like all things, it sounds much easier than it is to accomplish.

We believe the handoff to the integrator takes place after we have established the lighting plan and keypad locations. Both our specifications and the lighting plan identify the protocol for each light, and how many channels are needed for digital addressing. 

The integrator, who is responsible and often is running the low-voltage wires, takes over as means and methods. They build and locate the backend with panels and interfaces. 

As they take ownership of the system, they determine the correct addresses they want to use for each device. They work with the contractor to determine where the remote drivers will reside so they can pull the wires to that location. We have enough experience in the field to know what it takes to get this done. We rely on our integrator partners, who are the real miracle workers. 

Photo/Matthew Tirschwell

It’s during these phases where collaboration between the lighting designer and other professionals, such as integrators and electricians, is crucial. The clear communication and well-defined responsibilities we outlined early in the design process ensure the project proceeds smoothly. 

Consistency of design and programming offers a cohesive lighting experience. For this reason, lighting designers must provide a comprehensive pre-commissioning and commissioning directive. The pre-commissioning directive provides all the details the technology integrator needs to set up and program the system including the types of protocols, keypad function, LED states, high and low trims, advanced programming requirements, conditionals, schedules, etc. We require that the keypads are installed and engraved prior to commissioning.

The final touch of the lighting design process is commissioning. This is where we finetune and ensure that every element of the system is operating at its peak. 

A lighting designer’s keen eye can pick up discrepancies, such as uneven dimming or inconsistency in the lighting system. For example, if a fixture isn’t dimming the same way as the others the problem could be the gauge of the wire, the reversing of polarity, or that lighting fixtures dim at different rates due to the dimming curve programmed into the driver.

This is where it’s valuable that the technology integrator and lighting designer have a relationship with the vendor partner to assist — not just when problems arise but at the front end by enabling the programming to be adjusted to achieve a more uniform light level. 

This detailed approach ensures that the entire house operates seamlessly, regardless of the room or area. Plus, it has the benefit of saving the integrator numerous hours of labor. Once commissioning is complete, the lighting designer can aim accent and art lighting, and set final light levels. 

Successful Lighting Projects Take a Team Effort

Collaborating with a lighting designer offers several indispensable advantages: 

We bring a unique perspective to the project, ensuring that lighting goes beyond merely functional illumination that could be done by anyone. 

We are meticulous about details, from fixture selection to control protocols to the commissioning, that serves to streamline the integrator’s job. 

We have the experience to pinpoint issues when they appear. 

Our goal is to create a lighting design that is both aesthetically pleasing and technically flawless. 

As our industry continues to evolve, so does the value of the lighting designer’s unique role in delivering a transformative experience for our clients. 

It’s critical as we all take our next step forward, we do so collectively — technology integrators, lighting designers, and lighting fixture and lighting control manufacturers. 

MATTHEW TIRSCHWELL is the founder of Tirschwell & Co., Inc. (https://www.t-ld.com), a 25-year-old architectural lighting design firm that operates out of New York City and Los Angeles offices.

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