Paul Traynor - Lighting designers often have their concepts ruined by engineers. How can this be avoided?
Lighting design is beginning to emerge as a profession alongside recognised construction disciplines, such as architecture, interior design and engineering. However, despite the range of specialist skills offered by the lighting professional, about 90% of lighting installation designs and lighting products are still specified by electrical engineers. This is because most electrical engineers include for lighting design in their scope of works and, unsurprisingly, clients are reluctant to pay twice for this service.

For projects that require a lighting specialist's input, a client will often decide to pay for the specialist's ideas and leave the electrical engineer to complete the detail design, thus saving about half of the lighting consultant's fee. This is where the problems begin.

Electrical engineers have a different set of skills and priorities from designers and a successful lighting scheme depends on the understanding of the engineer concerned. How well an engineer has understood the concept is often revealed only after work has begun. A lighting designer can try to ensure that the concept is realised as it was designed, but this takes a great deal of effort for which they are not paid.

However, even if the concept has been fully explained, things can still go horribly wrong. The worst-case scenario for any lighting designer is when the phone rings near project completion and they are called urgently to site to explain why the scheme looks so poor. At this stage, the designer can explain that their duties were to provide a concept only; the installation bears no resemblance to the concept because the electrical engineer or contractor selected alternative fittings and the building has undergone several significant design revisions. Even so, the client may still tend to the opinion that, as the designer came up with the initial concept, it is their fault that the scheme does not work.

One way to ensure that the concept is implemented as originally planned is for the lighting designer to provide additional detail. The designer could mark the position of all the fittings on the drawings and provide schedules of equipment, but without carrying out a full detail design. The designer can use their experience to select the type of light fitting, the optics and the lamp power that are suitable for an installation.

In 99% of schemes, this intuitive approach may produce good results, but this is effectively detailed design, for which the lighting designer is not paid. When these fittings are installed with no further input or design development, and the scheme is a success for the electrical engineer, the lighting designer has effectively sold their ideas very cheaply.

A lighting designer should hold out for full design duties on a project and risk losing the appointment altogether

When the designer exceeds their role and provides additional detail, however, this can work against them. There will always be the rare occasion when the concept is sound but has not been implemented as planned by the electrical engineer. When this is the case, the client may hold the designer accountable for any problems, such as inappropriate lighting levels, because the concept package has been used as if it were detailed design. As such, the client holds the lighting designer responsible for the problems, even though the additional information was provided free of charge and did not actually amount to a detailed design.

The most successful schemes are those on which the lighting designer is engaged to provide detailed design by working closely with the architect or designer to integrate the lighting properly with the architecture.

Conversely, if the lighting designer is only paid to provide a concept, the designer will tend to be much more conservative in their design so as to avoid the potential pitfalls outlined above, and the finished result will look far less impressive and will be far less integrated with the architecture.

Until lighting designers expose more clients to the potential benefits of their services, they are at risk of remaining in a minority and relegated design profession. A lighting designer should hold out for full design duties on a project and risk losing the appointment altogether rather than taking on a project on at concept level and accepting the vitriol if things go wrong.