The story of Lutron Electronics begins with founder and chief innovator, Joel Spira, looking for a way to dim the lights in the New York City apartment he shared with his wife Ruth. His inspiration may have come from nearby as dimmed lights were mostly found in Broadway theaters, where reducing lumens signaled the show was about to begin. That was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Spira successfully replaced an old technology (large, clunky rheostats) with something smaller and newer, a type of transistor called a thyristor.
Spira’s thyristor transistors ultimately transformed homes, restaurants, shops, schools, and most other indoor settings. In addition to enabling a new kind of elegance and functionality, the devices reduced energy use—way before a time when conservation became cool.
With this game-changing product, the Spiras founded Lutron Electronics, which today is a key player in the lighting controls industry. From its Coopersburg, Pennsylvania headquarters, northwest of Philadelphia, the company manages offices in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. The privately-held firm has expanded to 11,000 products that include controls, sensors, whole building systems, shading items, fluorescent ballasts, and LED drivers, as well as the technical support services to go with them.
But true to the original inspiration of the Spiras, most of those products accomplish two important objectives: the human benefits of lighting control and energy efficiency. The company estimates that its installed products in the US alone shave off electricity usage by 10 billion kWh, worth up to $1 billion in utility cost savings to customers. Of note, a lot of what constitutes lighting controls today is more than just dialing artificial light up and down. With a greater emphasis on human comfort and workplace productivity, the control of natural daylight—sunshine—plays a very important role in the company’s product line. Here we look at the interplay of natural and artificial light, and how tools for managing both can be applied to structures old and new. This is about a company that fosters a culture of innovation, meeting the changing 21st century needs for occupant wellbeing, energy cost control, and environmental responsibility. So much is possible with evolving technologies.
In other words, it’s a brighter day for homes, shops, and workplaces. But only as bright as we want it to be.
LIGHT JUST RIGHT FOR LMN ARCHITECTS
The office of LMN Architects, in the distinctly International Style Norton Building in downtown Seattle, take in a 360-degree view of some of the world’s most scenic urban vistas. To the west is Elliott Bay leading to the Pacific Ocean and to the east are the Cascade mountain ranges.
Architects and building owners everywhere like to boast about the views from their buildings. It’s part of the attraction of being in tall buildings; very often, the higher the floor, the higher the rent for that very reason. And yet, prior to a renovation of LMN’s 14,400-square-foot office on the fourth and fifth floors of this 17-story circa-1959 structure, a lot of those spectacular views were blocked. By window shades.
“Very standard vertical blinds were in place before the renovation,” says Wendy Pautz, a partner in the firm and an architect known for her sophisticated knowledge of technical resolution and an ability to integrate that with conceptual design. The floor-to-ceiling windows, quite common in post-War construction, afforded much light, sometimes too much light, and sometimes-wanted, sometimes-unwanted solar gain. “They were manually operated, closed as needed, and often not opened later in the day.”
Designers and others, after all, work at screens where glare is unwelcome. So when the sun shone the most—generally welcome in Seattle’s rainy climate—the LMN staff weren’t able to take in Mount Rainier or their view of Elliot Bay beyond those window blinds.
The firm surveyed employees prior to the renovation and found that, indeed, better access to views and daylight were a high priority. Architects are aware that natural daylight is a known contributing factor to a sense of wellbeing and to productivity. Further, simply having something to look at farther away helps reduce computer eyestrain. At the right time, in the right place, and in the right amounts, light is useful and important.
LMN ended up employing a system in the renovation that meets these needs and then some (more on that below). But the firm first engaged its own research and development group, LMN Tech Studio, in light studies to explore alternative solutions. Their objective was to discover what would be optimal.
“Tech Studio brings together computer scientists and architects to develop new design technology tools and improve implementation of existing tools. The studio supports specific projects and conducts independent research,” says Pautz. “A key aspect of what they were working on early in the process was energy and daylight modeling. Green can be intuitive, but using our own technologies, we can do a relative, early analysis of our ideas.”
The LMN Tech Studio uses building performance simulation, parametric modeling, digital fabrication, and human-computer interaction to serve the needs of clients, and, in this case themselves. What they found was their first idea didn’t work as well as they wished. The goal was to make the most of those awesome views while making better use of daylighting, optimize lighting quality throughout the office, and reduce energy consumption.
The first solution that they explored in detail was a “light shelf,” louvered panels that could tilt up and down according to the positioning of the sun and, they hoped, allow optimal useful daylight illumination, or UDI, into the workspaces without energy-wasting solar gain. A digital test was followed by a physical mockup of the light shelf, assembled by the Tech Studio. It was activated by a light sensor, to block sun as needed. The test showed the system had a positive effect at removing glare and providing desired levels of shade at the perimeter of the floor.
But the light shelf fell short of expectation in other respects. It fully blocked views in the sunniest periods, and the movement of those shelves, responding to sunlight/cloudy variability, was distracting. Undaunted, Pautz and the Tech Studio team took what they learned and leaned on Lutron Electronics to offer an alternative solution.
Part of the solution was already in place. “Daylight modeling helped us determine that moving workstations inward from windows by six feet would reduce the impact of solar glare at the building perimeter,” says Pautz. With that much established, a multi-component Lutron solution was developed to meet LMN’s objectives. They configured Hyperion Solar-Adaptive shades on the east, south, and west windows; a Radio Window Sensor, which triggers the shades to drop or rise depending on sunshine levels; and the Quantum Vue Facility Management Software, which adjusts artificial lighting in response to daylight and which enables monitoring, control, and optimization of the system as needed. While the system is designed to be completely automated, it can be temporarily overridden by any office occupant as needed.
Importantly for this location, the shade fabric is a screen that allows occupants to still see through to the outside. The architects also treat different areas differently, giving some areas more light (e.g., open worktables where teams build architectural models) while areas such as circulation space receive less light.
Two years on from completion of the renovation, the firm has reduced its use of electricity for lighting by 56%. Additionally, an employee survey found that workers were pleased with the system overall. “This contributes to employee productivity,” says Pautz, adding, “in some ways the whole system is completely invisible. When you feel the sun, the shades drop. You’re more in sync with solar cycles.”
LMN does a great deal of work in designing sustainable spaces. Their approach to their office renovation is the same as their approach to their building projects. This includes four LEED Platinum projects, including the Vancouver Convention Centre West and Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, and many more with green certifications.
Does the Lutron suite of lighting products offer opportunities for tenants of the thousands of International Style buildings around the globe? “Not just International Style,” says Pautz. “Any building with a lot of glazing can benefit. In any workplace environment, there is a need for connectivity to daylight.”
LIGHTING THE WAY: EXPERIMENTATION LEADS TO EXCELLENCE
Just as LMN Architects allowed their in-house Tech Studio to experiment with different ideas before finding a workable solution, so too is the nature of things at Lutron. Ed Blair, general manager of Lutron’s window system business, says they want people to know that failure can be a key part of the learning process.
“We set up a work environment with a business model that allows us to go down roads with dead ends,” Blair says. “There is implicit waste in the creation process. But I view early failure as tuition to a greater education.”
Blair credits company founder Joel Spira, who passed away in April 2015, for establishing that kind of ethos. Spira repeatedly said he was driven to save energy and help people. Blair says that this is not a company trying to simply maximize profitability. “That can be stifling to innovation,” he says.
So is this a companywide, structured process? “It’s less about that and more a mindset,” Blair says. Developing products that fit the increasingly complex needs of offices—healthy daylighting, not too much glare, and artificial lighting controlled to maximum efficiency and productivity—depends on a lot of integration and collaboration. Inside the company, he says that means that engineering, marketing, and sales people meet to discuss needs and ways to meet them. “Sourcing secondary information is good, but where it comes to integration of data points, it’s better to touch and taste it yourself to keep connected to the marketplace.”
But the company also looks outside for inspiration, for good reason. Lighting is connected to just about everything—building energy systems, building codes, as well as occupant health and productivity. Lutron maintains alliance relationships with other companies such as Honeywell, Siemens, andTrane. Several research universities and institutions also work with the company, including Purdue University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Pennsylvania State University, Carnegie Mellon Institute, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. From a trade association standpoint, the alphabet soup of organizations (ASHR AE, IES, NEMA and others) that write and influence building codes and otherwise set standards for product performance and safety are integrated into Lutron’s product development process. Also, just staying close to customers and their needs, including those of architects, keeps the company forward thinking and rooted in the real business of improving buildings.
That includes staying on top of developments in the broad area of smart grids. “These are many different things,” Blair notes, commenting on how much of the goal is to respond in real time to fluctuating energy prices and availability. “Energy aggregators are evolving. The challenge of the grid is it is not a steady-state entity. We plan to be at the forefront of smart grid technology as best we can because lighting changes can be as close to instant as possible.”
One such tool for doing that is Lutron’s IntelliDemand Load Shed, which enables facility managers to reduce lighting output in a system. This reduces energy costs while alleviating demand on utilities; utility customers are incentivized to do this through demand-response programs to help prevent brownouts during peak periods (think hot summer days). Homeowners too can tap into Lutron’s residential smart grid solutions for many of the same reasons. The RadioRA 2 is a wireless light control system that can respond to communications from a utility’s smart meter to intuitively adjust lights, shades, audio-visual devices, and temperature settings (individual rooms and whole houses). With price-responsive controls, either through preset preferences or a manual override, lights, shades, and various appliances can be monitored and controlled remotely—including when utility companies inform the homeowner of dramatic price swings.
Where Blair touts the accepted risks of experimentation and discovery, he recounts the evolution of window shades and artificial lighting relative to the complicated nature of glass, light, and solar heat. “We worked with Purdue University on the hypothesis that automated shades would have a beneficial impact on HVAC loads,” he says. “Note that sunlight casts 1,000 watts of energy per square meter. As it passes through glass, about 40% of that energy hits fabric. But that same glass effectively traps most of the heat inside. So what we learned was that window shades only reduce heat absorption by about 10%. We kept our eyes open to new data in this discovery process, which told us the better benefit of shades is in controlling light.”
That said, shading devices of all kinds have traditionally been and largely remain in the realm of aesthetic decor, not performance tools. But with Lutron’s ongoing research—and interest in the window shade business it acquired 15 years ago—shading materials and operations have advanced considerably. “To us, glass and fabric are a coupled system,” he notes. “The calculations are complicated, but we just launched a performance shading program which is a tool for architects. It takes a location and orientation of a window then runs up to 300 fabrics through a simulation lasting about ten seconds. It returns a palette of products that meet the performance needs.”
Could high-performance glass accomplish the same thing as shades? Blair says self-shading glass exists, but it’s very expensive and slow to respond to changes in light. Which is not to say this company, which holistically considers solar and electric light in the same place, doesn’t consider that a future possibility.
The future is what they think about all the time. “Technology changes every month,” Blair says. “A big challenge is for architects to keep pace with the changes.”
Meanwhile, Lutron’s customer-facing people gently challenge the paradigm of who makes the decisions. “Shades still get bought in Division 12,” he says, referencing the fact that interior designers focused on furnishings aren’t necessarily integrated with building performance needs. As buildings become more technical, he suggests that part of the company’s task is to communicate product performance values across different channels.
Which might involve some failure, at least at first. But the lessons learned will not be wasted.
BETTER MONITORING, BETTER EFFICIENCIES
Brent Protzman, energy and analytics manager for Lutron, thinks anyone looking to make a significant impact on energy could spend less time on new, LEED Platinum buildings and instead focus on what’s already been built. “There are so many old buildings out there that are not going away,” he observes.
Not that bringing 20+ year-old buildings up to 21st century standards is easy, but there is some pretty low hanging fruit out there. The chillers, lighting, and air infiltration technologies of today can yield double-digit reductions in energy and cost, all while improving human comfort.
The advantage of current products and systems comes with electronic monitoring and controls, enabling much waste to be reduced. “Most big old buildings have just one big electric bill,” says Protzman, alluding instead to the breakdown by location and usage type that Lutron monitoring technologies provide to building managers and tenants. This helps them to make rational decisions. “Quantum Vue Facility Management Software gives you actionable information.” In other words, this is smart data.
Spending time with customers and alliance-partners (companies, universities and code organizations), as Ed Blair mentions, is what Protzman does. In a dog-eat-dog world, it might seem risky to share so much information that has to do with innovative products, but Protzman says that isn’t often a problem. “Everything has to be of mutual benefit,” he says. “In the process, we gain relationships. For the customer what matters is the overall operation.”
And with so much knowledge from different perspectives gathered in one place, the seeds of innovation are essentially fertilized. As is awareness of the need: lighting consumes 37% of the $26 billion spent on electricity and refrigeration systems every year in North America (this varies by region, with greater energy use by cooling systems in warmer climates). “Most people are unaware of that,” Protzman says. “When we break down that info most people say they want to do it better. This is why energy monitoring interfaces are so important.”
But in the final analysis, Protzman indicates that a more sophisticated understanding of how light is used, where, and to what effect is what matters as much as energy efficiency.
“The mix of natural and artificial light is fundamental to workplaces,” he says. “It has to be the right quality of light, including right amount and contrast, and it must represent the right visual hierarchy [what is most important in the field of view]. Light is important to visual tasks, finding our way, and highlighting archi- tectural features.”
All of which suggests that what Joel Spira set out to do more than 50 years ago is still happening today, just with better tools and data and an appreciation for light, regardless of its source.