Designing with Light

Technology - Lighting

Designing with Light

lighting expert Stephen Margulies explores the world of design

By Stephen Margulies

Designing with Light

The lighting industry is experiencing a revolution. And an evolution. New LED light sources are almost exclusively used in new construction and often implemented in renovations. Halogen lamps are almost extinct — and almost illegal! — and fluorescent light sources are a thing of the past. Metal halide and highpressure sodium lamps are also approaching dinosaur status.

These new LED light sources offer energy savings, low maintenance and miniaturization. Variable color, tunable white, CRI, CCT, R7 and R9, circadian rhythm and spectral response are just some of the terms that have entered the lexicon.

Forward phase, reverse phase, 0 to 10v, DMX, Dali, Quantum, wired and wireless, Bluetooth Mesh, and ZigBee communications are also some of the complex issues related to controlling these powerful and beautiful lighting tools we now deploy.

Unfortunately, being an expert at all of this is hard to keep up with. Remember when we got our first PCs? Every 12 months a new product came out that was twice as fast and half the cost. That is what we are experiencing in the lighting universe. You need to maintain a high level of knowledge in order to retain your position as a premiere service provider.

Designing with Light

market conditions

For design-build teams, or individual firms specializing in technology design, the market is large enough to support an initial investment into learning this art form to make lighting design a profitable part of your business.


There are approximately 1,000,000 building permits for single-family homes issued a month. There are approximately 200,000 building permits issued for multi-dwelling units (MDUs) a month. If we are to assume that only five percent of these permits will use some type of advanced light fixtures and controls – at an average equipment cost of $20,000 a home – this market is approximately $14B annually. This does not include the renovation market. I could be off by a factor of two in either direction, but either way, this seems to be a large opportunity to provide a service to nearly 60,000 residences per month. These values have fluctuated over the past decade, but not by much, and unless the bottom falls out of the economy this should remain consistent moving forward.

past/present/future of lighting design


Lighting design and control for residences were primarily done by the general contractor or builder. They would ask the purchaser if they wanted the 20 “high-hat” package or the advanced 50 “high hat” package. These “high hats” were 6” or 7” diameter downlights with PAR or R lamps. An upgrade in later years migrated to low voltage mr-16 downlights, which were smaller and shallower, and created their own output and dimming challenges. Other options included:

“Do you want a chandelier in your entrance foyer and dining room?”

“Do you want to hang three pendant fixtures over your kitchen island?”

“Do you want switches or dimmers?”

And that was about it for most single-family homes.

MDU residences got a J-BOX over their dining room and kitchen island, switched receptacles in living rooms and bedrooms, and more permanent fixtures in their kitchens and baths.

On the high end of the market the lighting design was prepared by an architect or interior designer. Sometimes there was even a Lighting Consultant brought onto the project.

A Lighting Consultant is an individual who only specializes in one thing — how to support the specific environment using light as a medium. Lighting shapes architecture and creates space. There is good lighting and bad lighting. Having a romantic dinner in a well-lit restaurant where I do not need a flashlight to read the menu and the ambiance just feels right is good. Sitting in a room where you need sunglasses and a baseball hat to shield the glare is bad.


Designing lighting for homeowners today is a bit different than the traditional approaches in the not-too-distant past. Mostly because of the advent of LED light sources. There are also new energy codes that are very specific about equipment energy standards, air flow through light fixtures, and design attitudes. There is more decorative lighting, smart lighting control, and home automation. Not to mention controls’ compatibility with light sources, wired and wireless control systems, and presets or individual room and/or zone control.

On most residential projects I work on, I feel like a shrink trying to understand the client’s tolerance for technology and how they use their residences. I was recently in a client’s house and the husband was changing wholehouse scenes from the living room. This was impacting the lighting in the kitchen (where his wife was) and she started yelling at him to stop changing the lights in the kitchen.

I was there to prevent a divorce and try to fix the problem! As it turned out, their smart system was commissioned without really understanding the needs of the resident and so a new strategy was easily recommissioned — avoiding a war of the roses.





Listening to the client and understanding their way of life in their home and each of their preferences will lead to a more successful lighting control system. Most of the time our clients do not know what they need, so a basic explanation of alternatives is useful - just try to not get too technical.

A lot of what steers the control functionality is influenced by the complexity of the lighting design. The more unique zones of lights that require control, the more the need for “preset scene control”.

My personal threshold is three groups of lights on three unique dimmers. Anything over this causes confusion regarding what is being controlled. A living area with an open dining room can have eight zones of lights once you add up all decorative fixtures, downlights, artwork lighting and controlled floor and table lamps. The other part of the question is what is being controlled and what is the essence of the particular lighting design for each space? It is always best that the person designing the lighting is the same person who is designing the controls. This way the full benefit from inception to execution is realized by the design team and enjoyed by the homeowners.

I often ask technology specialists who have been engaged to design whole house automation — including lighting controls — how they know what to do for the homeowner without fully understanding the lighting design intent. The best-in-class technology designers immerse themselves in the homeowner experience and spend time with the family to understand their needs and expectations. Those that skip this process typically have marginal results, at best.

The lighting equipment we use today is extremely different then what we have historically used. LEDs are smaller, more efficient, and come in a variety of color temperatures and color rendering properties. These light sources require a device called a “driver” which is basically a power supply that delivers the voltage and current that the LEDs require to operate. Some equipment has the drivers integrated into the fixture design and some require remote mounting, which requires careful planning for ventilation and access. These drivers cannot be buried in walls and ceilings without planned access. There are also distance limitations for how far these drivers can be located from the LED light source itself.

These drivers and light sources are particularly sensitive to dimming. There are many protocols for dimming, as well as limitations. Incandescent lamps were simple to dim and could easily be dimmed to off or zero intensity in a smooth flicker-free manner. O to 10 volt dimming, which is normally included in most drivers, requires additional low voltage wiring from the dimmer to the driver. These often have limitations at the lower-end of the dimming curve. This technology is often limited to 10 percent intensity which for many applications may not be low enough.

Phase dimming is useful because these dimmers get wired the same way as traditional dimmers. But these only work on very specific drivers and there are forward phase, reverse phase and universal phase driver/dimming combinations — getting it right is often a challenge and lower-end dimming is also challenged at times. Lights flickering when dimmed is a sign of incorrect compatibility!

Lutron is one of the best lighting manufacturers and their premium drivers are perfectly matched with dimmers and allow for dimming down to .1 percent. These dimmers and drivers require special wiring, but if you want the best quality dimming and control you should be using these types of systems.

We will discuss these alternatives in greater detail in future articles.


There are new technologies that we are starting to apply in both commercial and residential applications. There is a theory that if you can vary the color of the light to track the sun more closely, this phenomenon can impact a built-in body clock that each of us has and promote health and wellness. This is called circadian rhythm and there is considerable research on this subject. The science is pretty clear for healthcare and office environments. It is not clear yet on residential environments if this truly has an impact on one’s health and well-being. Our firm is nonetheless deploying this technology, as it strongly impacts the aesthetics of a residential environment. We program the lights to follow a “natural” type lighting transition that varies the color of the light to match more closely the color change of the daylight. We have found the cooler light in the morning looks and feels great and warmer light in the evening sets the right mood in any given residential environment.

There is a theory that if you can vary the color of the light to track the sun more closely, this phenomenon can impact a built-in body clock that each of us has and promote health and wellness.

We have also found use for this technology in lighting art. We can dial in a specific recipe for each piece of art that brings out the best vitality in each piece. We have found colors in our clients’ artwork they have never seen before until we had the ability to tune the light source for the art. We are working on a residence now where we want the general lighting to follow the natural light color of the sun, but to hold the specifically tuned artwork lighting to each of their optimum color patterns. These products are made by Ketra and USAI and have really changed the game.

Unfortunately, with this new-found power comes complexity. Figuring out what is best for the homeowners has just become exponentially more complicated for designers, integrators and contractors. What does Mrs. Smith do when she walks into her dining room? Do you give her access to all of the control capabilities? What does the button do when I press it? Does it access a scene, a show, a raise or lower command? Hit the button once, what happens? Hit the button twice, what happens? How do we vary the color?

Once you have done one of these large projects you will begin to understand how the lighting universe has just changed as we know it. In the future, we should see these complexities go away. But for the time being, if you are involved in one of these projects be prepared to spend more time then you could have ever imagined!

lighting industry responsibilities

As in any industry that is experiencing a revolutionary change, there is always a race to see who will develop new solutions. The downside is that proprietary solutions mean there is a lack of industry-wide standards. So lighting design firms need to be educated and trained by the manufacturers in order to avoid confusion in the marketplace and system failures. The manufacturers need to understand the power of what they have created and develop useful “practices” for practitioners like us to follow. (We call our first two clients who took the leap pioneer #1 and pioneer #2. We will explain in more detail the adventures of these pioneers in future articles. Lots of lessons learned!)

how we move forward

The residential technology designer takes on many responsibilities. They have to be an expert in many fields to do their job and deliver a superior product and experience for the homeowner. The lighting industry is going into “warp” drive and to stay on top of light sources and controls in this new era will be very challenging. Our first recommendation would be for the technology designer to align themselves with lighting consultants and partner with them as they learn the intricacies of these new and emerging lighting products. This collaboration will offer an expert approach to what is becoming a very complicated scenario. The second recommendation is to pay careful attention to the manufacturers who are developing these technologies. Hopefully they will take the lead in educating the practitioners.



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