The phenomenon of electroluminescence–the heart of light emitting diodes, or LEDs–was discovered in 1907. And while research in the 1950s focused on how diode structures can be short-distance communications devices, it still took decades for the actual illumination benefits to be explored and appreciated.
But of course LEDs are the transformative element of a whole new world of lighting today. The technology is rapidly changing homes, workplaces, spaces for learning, healthcare environments, retail settings, hotels, bars, restaurants, and even sports stadiums and how they look on high-definition TV. Navigant Research, which analyzes global clean technology markets, projects that by 2021, 63 percent of lamps sold to retrofit projects worldwide will be LED-based. “The long lifespans of LED lamps will change how lighting designers and installers think about the integration of light within built spaces,” reports the firm.
The widespread excitement over LEDs key benefit, energy efficiency, is well placed and continues to be the driver of its adoption. But companies such as ConTech Lighting of Northbrook, Illinois are finding that the aesthetics of lighting technology are revolutionary in their own sphere.
It’s a world of rapid evolution. ConTech’s Northwest sales manager J. Michael Sirochman says the broad design versatility of the technology gives him plenty to discuss with customers—aesthetics, energy efficiency, and even reduced maintenance costs due to longer-life LED bulbs.
But while it’s commonly believed that environmentalism and economics drove LED development, it’s a bit more complicated than that. “LED advances are a result of continued solid state lighting developments in mobile phones, PCs and TVs,” says Michael Lehman, vice president of Product Development, Marketing and Design for ConTech. He adds that building energy codes, which demand greater efficiencies, added incentive to make use of those technological advances in lighting.
This then led to a “paradigm shift away from traditional technology as a result of the size and capabilities of LEDs,” says Lehman. “The small size allows manufacturers and designers to imagine new ways of applying lighting.” He notes that diminutive fixtures in particular add a new level of design flexibility—space as little as 1/8-inch wide can accommodate an LED light. It’s also about the light itself: “LEDs allow for any color of white light desired, from 2200K to 7000K, and very high color quality.” The “K” refers to Kelvin, where a higher K value yields a migration from yellowish to white to blue as it climbs, a range that is otherwise limited in incandescent lighting.
Indeed, lighting designers, interior designers, architects, and others are catching on to this new versatility in design. While more complicated for designers than incandescent and fluorescent lighting, LED complexity broadens the range of choices.
Count that as a good thing. Seeing what’s in those choices makes it hard to imagine going backward.
Contract designers value them for task and cove lighting, downlighting, and very often to replace compact fluorescent bulbs wherever they may currently be in use. Lighting designer Jackie Hui (LC, CLEP, MIES, LEED Green Associate), the director of lighting design at Stanford Hotels Corporation, is effusive about what he has been able to incorporate into the company’s properties already.
“LEDs allow minimalist design on much smaller light fixture enclosures, as well as better integration with architecture and interior design,” Hui says. In other words, you more likely notice the lit area and much less of the light source above or below it. He and others speak of the drama this can create, in intimate places such as powder rooms and very public spots such as hotel lobbies, restaurants, and bars.
He adds that warm-dim technology now mimics incandescent dimming performance, a barrier to adoption just a few years ago. But he cautions that inexperienced lighting designers might not properly manage dimming ranges, particularly at the low-end threshold. Or, while dimming technology allows for smooth gradients there are occasions where a stepped system might be more appropriate economically—assuming the designer uses LED-compatible dimmers.
Another challenge within the design community with regard to LEDs (and the predecessor sustainability-oriented lighting technology, CFLs) is the consistent quality of color temperature of cast light. “This is critical to good design,” says Hui. He says that color-temperature shifts of those lights are difficult to prevent.
But despite the challenges, he’s managed to devise those aforementioned dramatic effects using the technology. He is also able to digitally adjust the color to a very specific hue. “Color is a very powerful tool when used properly,” he says. He describes a LED color lighting system integrated into an architectural detail, a textured surface wall, where the light “grazes” irregularly raised surfaces in a play of hued shadows and light. He says it’s also possible to accommodate a corporate event with the company’s logo color, or to match the specific pigment used in a wedding.
At a recently renovated Hilton Hotel in Woodland Hills, California, owned and operated by Stanford Hotels Corporation, Hui was responsible for specifying ConTech Lighting LED products in the lobby, bar, and guestrooms. He chose 2”-diameter aperture LED recessed downlights and LED linear lights. Aside from product quality factors, he selected both for aesthetics, lighting performance, and ease of installation and maintenance (the low-maintenance and long-life features are an additional cost savings to hotel operations).
Hui is quick to point out that not all LEDs are created equal. “I am careful about choosing LED products to use on my projects as the technology is rapidly advancing and quality varies greatly between manufacturers,” he says. His criteria for LEDs also includes lumen output, beam angle, glare control, efficacy, accessories, heat management within the light fixture, color rendering, color shift, the dimming technology used, and its compatibility with the lighting control systems.
He has to be picky because the pressure in the hospitality industry to make the lighting system perform has a profound influence on the guest experience. He describes the “extreme pressure” felt everywhere to reduce energy usage, but that alone as a singular criterion can backfire. “When the economy turned bad in 2007, energy retrofit companies approached us to offer strategies to lower energy use and operating costs,” he says. “A big drawback was how it impacted [adversely] the lighting design intent.” Furthermore Hui notes that California legislation in the form of Title-24–energy efficiency standards administered by the California Energy Commission, along with standards established by ASHRAE 90.1, IESNA Lighting Guidelines, and LEED certifications enforce stringent guidelines to reduce lighting energy consumption. This pushes today’s lighting designers to be creative in meeting energy codes without sacrificing aesthetices.
As those standards are raised—along with expectations of end-users—the actual costs may drop, according to Navigant Research. “Advanced lighting controls will also proliferate as the cost premium shrinks for LED drivers that include dimming, wireless communications, and color tuning,” they report.
Which makes one wonder: What else was discovered but shelved a century ago?
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