Light is energy. That makes light a strategic environmental resource. While lighting professionals see themselves as primarily visual environment advisers, they are increasingly acting as energy investment advisers who help architects and owners understand the energy, environmental, and cost implications of their lighting decisions. The expectation for lighting to just make buildings “look good” is giving way to a new expectation for lighting to make buildings work better. And the new definition of “good” buildings encompasses sustainability.

Good and sustainable design is simply thoughtful, collaborative, and environmentally responsible design. The objective is a delightful and durable structure that will be productively utilized for decades, if not centuries. Good buildings need good lighting, which naturally means energy and resource efficiency as well as visual appeal. The green building approach values resource conservation, but it is really about optimizing performance. It also signifies an owner's commitment to environmental responsibility, an attitude that is rapidly becoming mainstream and the construction norm.

It is cliché to note that the building design and construction industry is greening irrepressibly. However, some industries are leading, while others are only now reacting to the explosive interest and investment in green building. The real challenge for the lighting design and manufacturing industry is to become market drivers and not market followers. It is not surprising that the success of both the green building industry and the lighting design profession have followed a similar and steady upward trajectory in terms of market influence and successful practitioners. Lighting professionals thrive as collaborative advisers and problem-solvers, and the profession can leverage that influence as advocates for sustainability, opening new markets for our goods and services.

Lighting is a complicated—perhaps over complicated—industry in which lighting insiders define “quality” as the interplay of aesthetics, architectural integrity, visual acuity, and technology. But environmental advocates and consumers outside the lighting profession are actually driving the hot-button lighting issues of the day, such as: converting screw-based lamps from incandescent to compact fluorescent to save energy and indirectly reduce power plant emissions; eliminating mercury in lamps; preventing light pollution and light trespass by restricting skyward outdoor lighting; meeting increasingly stringent energy codes; and achieving Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credits.

Lighting can seem like an arcane and frustratingly complicated industry. The delicate procurement chain of designer-to-agent-to-manufacturer-to-distributor-to-contractor-to-owner makes it difficult to ensure that a lighting system that is finely integrated and optimized with the architectural and mechanical systems will survive intact from design to installation. But the growing market for energy and environmental design creates an opportunity to reframe the appreciation of light as an essential component of good and responsible buildings.

So the lighting profession and industry is at an interesting junction. Either we run the risk of marginalizing ourselves from the real concerns of our constituents, or we can become energy and environmental advisers, expert in the benefits of good lighting. Our own sustainability as a profession will lie in our ability to define, articulate, and deliver quality design that meets the needs of the visual environment, while at the same time preserving the natural environment.

Redefining the Value of Light Light is an essential element of the built environment. So the question is, how can we as a profession extend the perception of green design and technology to include our goods and services? How can we reframe the perception of quality lighting design and equipment so that we are the real market drivers for low-energy, environmentally preferable visual environments? How does the lighting portion of a project become “value-added” not “value-engineered”?

A sustainable lighting future is not all that far out of reach. Here is a vision of what it could entail:

  • Lighting designers understand and embrace the architectural, engineering, and construction realities of project cost, schedule, and codes. Although these realities may sometimes constrain our design options, we cooperatively work within these limitations or we provide expert leadership to improve these codes.
  • Architects and lighting designers understand and integrate daylighting into their basic design approach. Daylight may be “free” energy, but only if it is properly controlled. This includes evaluating its illuminance potential, glare control, and thermal impact, since the first obligation of a sustainable building is to have a well-performing envelope.
  • Architects understand the basics of lighting design, so they understand how to value and use our professional lighting services and products. They appreciate lighting specification integrity as much as architectural design and finish material integrity.
  • Engineers actively promote integrated mechanical and electrical system design and modeling techniques to ensure that all systems are properly sized and applied.
  • Lighting manufacturers compete for our business with streamlined procurement, production, and delivery methods to take the mystery out of lighting system acquisition.
  • Owners happily invest in adequate design, engineering, and modeling time to support integrated “right-sized” buildings and systems.
  • Construction managers are part of the collaborative design process and resist their “value engineering” impulses. When costs exceed budgets, then they provide line-item estimates for luminaires, controls, and installation costs so that the design team can make informed decisions about how to edit the design while maintaining its integrity.
  • Utopian as this list may seem, the green building movement is overhauling how we all go about the business of design and construction. As the lighting industry becomes stronger and more coherent with regard to sustainable design, it will create opportunities for research, product development, and new practice methods. This will increase the urgency for our professional associations and organizations to correspond with energy and environmental organizations that drive the building codes and standards process.

    Gratifyingly, this is already happening through various committees, task forces, and individuals working diligently with state, national, and international energy code organizations, the International Dark-Sky Association, and the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) to improve the understanding of lighting quality and value. We may not always agree with the rules (lighting designers are rule-averse by nature), but we can influence them.

    In the same way lighting manufacturers go through waves of business consolidations and partnerships, we will see emerging, green-minded lighting designers follow new career paths working directly with architectural, engineering, and environmental consulting firms. We will also have to acknowledge the situation common outside the U.S.—very good designers working for manufacturers and sales agencies. If quality lighting design and technology become recognized as a green attribute, our entire industry will become even more economically viable and perceived as “value-added” not just a commodity or decoration.