Large apertures and clunky metal boxes are so twentieth century. Super-compact, efficient and highly directional, LED luminaires open up sleek, new, form factors and innovative, architecturally integrated lighting strategies. After a long decade of evolution, LEDs now drive the design of lighting fixtures. But what we’ve gained in broader design possibilities – even under tight energy codes – we may have lost in interoperability.

Track lighting is “old-school”: too much light and too much heat, said John Sofio, president and founder of Built Inc. “In hospitality we’re going from obvious sources exposed, to hidden lighting to make the space more alive. You no longer see the lighting in the wall or ceiling; you’re casting light behind the surface and reflecting it out.”

Even in nightclubs, “we’re able to get more of an organic life to the space by tucking all of this lighting behind material, like upholstered wall panels, slatted walls, beams and columns, under bar tops. Smaller-scale lighting is much more dynamic than before,” Sofio said. “We’re moving away from big moving heads and spotlights, and the space itself becomes an organically lighted entity that builds the energy of the night as the crowd gathers.”

Built Inc. example of hidden lighting making space more alive
To make the space more alive, Built Inc. casts light behind surfaces and reflects it out.

Downlights are also passé. Too “blobby” for restaurants, according to Sofio. “Instead of lighting every surface and dimming the whole room, we’re sculpting the space with light – allowing darkness to live within the light.”

LED’s directionality and glare control are two of the greatest boons to lighting designer Jeff Miller of Jeff Miller & Company, Seattle; “In the right hands, with outdoor especially, we have advantages. You get precision that you couldn’t get before. Public light is important, and now you can have real control on the pedestrian side and the vehicular side. With LED we can eliminate light pollution without having to shut off the lights.”

Miller also points to the advance of personal office lighting in low–power density task-ambient solutions: “Great LED task lamps are only 6 W. They’re smaller in size to not crowd the workspace, with no heat and no ballast…If you’re lighting a workspace, most of the light is where you are. You’re not lighting the space.”

The incredible shrinking LED aperture

Bernard Bauer, principal of integrated Lighting Concepts (Thousand Oaks, CA), appreciates more light from smaller fixtures. He differentiates “effective lumens” – light delivered onto the task or merchandise – from the published actual lumens of the lamp. For example, a T5 fluorescent shelf or cove light is a linear 360 degree emitter; perhaps a third of the lamp lumens are delivered. “For the most part, with an LED the amount of light that gets out of the luminaire onto the surface tends to be a higher percentage than with other typical light sources,” Bauer explained. Highly directional LEDs can deliver as much light from a 4 inch downlight as a 6 or 8 inch CFL; plus five or six different lumen packages compared to one-lamp and two-lamp CFL apertures. Working under California’s strict Title 24 energy code Bauer nearly always needs to add dimming to CFLs, which brings up the cost comparable to LED.

Bauer and Miller agreed that, only with LED can lighting designers have fun anymore. “With 1 W/sqft or less to work with, we cannot afford the power anymore to do cove lighting or decorative slots with conventional light sources,” Miller said. Slots are a popular architectural statement, and “it’s another place where LED shines,” according to Bauer. “With the proper design, I can get most of the light out into the space.”

CDA Resort by Dark Light Design
CDA Resort project by Jill Cody of Dark Light Design shows architecturally integrated LED.

Jill Cody, principal at Dark Light Design, sees both the upside and downside of small LED coves. “We have the flexibility in terms of being able to get the size of the cove down. But then we’re limited because the installer still has to get their hands into it. We can have a tiny little fixture, but if somebody can’t build with it, then it becomes a challenge,” Cody said.

She describes fluorescent coves as much more forgiving in terms of adjusting the size of the cove and interoperability. LED strips can have vastly different luminous patterns (flux, direction and beam angle). “What we’re having to do is mock up every cove that we design in this office right now. At least then we’re sure that we’re getting what we intend out of it. It just means that we have to be really careful about communicating limits to the architects, so that they can get the detail drawn properly.”

LEDs now drive luminaire design

Modular strips; edge-lit/waveguide fixtures and tiny fixtures integrated into lampshades, pavers and T-bar framing… These “How did they do that?” strategies open up new potentials for lighting designers. “Something we never could have thought about before, and sure it’s cool looking. But it also is a real shift change when we think, Where can our lights go?” Cody said.

These exhibitors who appeared at LightShow West 2015 have produced LED luminaires demonstrating new form factors.

“It took a surprisingly long time for manufacturers to get into a cycle of product development that was truly revolving around LEDs and what they can do. As opposed to putting LEDs into familiar form factors,” she said. Luminaire manufacturers have undergone a sea-change, from “metal benders” to electronics manufacturers; a transition that is ongoing.

Lighting designers are making this journey, as well. “We see an evolution of us having to educate our clients, architects, about what it means. Sometimes they see these fixtures, and they can see a lot of the possibilities. But they don’t always understand what the technical challenges are,” said Cody.

Author’s note: For more on effective lumens vs actual lumens, check out Bernie Bauer’s presentation from LightShow West 2015: Navigating Title 24 Without Sinking Your Design (Sailing With The Code Not Against It).

Lois I. Hutchinson

About Lois I. Hutchinson

Lois I. Hutchinson is a freelance writer specializing in lighting and energy issues. She is also the content marketing mastermind behind Inverse Square LLC, a Los Angeles–based consultancy. Contact her via with your comments and any article ideas that concern the lighting community here in the Southwest.

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