When people come into your showroom and say they want your advice on lighting their home, they are looking to you as an expert,” notes Peter Romaniello, LS, IES, principal of Conceptual Lighting LC, a diverse architectural lighting design firm in Connecticut. 

“No matter who your clients are, rarely do they ask for cutting-edge, color-changing lighting,” he told an audience of American Lighting Association (ALA) members at the fall conference in Vancouver. It is up to the lighting specialist to show the number of creative possibilities available instead of merely addressing only what clients say they want. As a lighting professional, you are aware of the latest products and techniques — much more so than an electrician, contractor, or consumer, he stated.

“What are you providing when a customer comes in for a lighting design? Are you just putting red circles on their plans for where the lighting should go,” Romaniello says. “Anyone can say, ‘I’m going to put three rows of recessed lighting six feet apart.’ That’s not design; there’s no visual interest at all. There would be no character to that space. It kills me that there’s so much emphasis on recessed lighting [when there are so many other options out there].”

Romaniello believes lighting design is a thoughtful process tailored to the client and not a basic formula applied similarly to every project. And since it is so personalized to each space, he emphasized to the ALA audience that they should be adequately paid for that commitment to detail.  “If it’s a busy Saturday with people coming in to buy products, how can you justify sitting down for two to three hours [marking up] recessed lighting,” he quipped. “Are you just going to red line and mark up plans? Is that what you’re getting compensated for as a ‘lighting designer?’” In order to charge an appropriate amount for lighting plans – in the realm of what other design professionals receive – Romaniello suggested the work be comprehensive to be worthy of that cost.

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“Did you know that 8 to 10 percent of all residential projects in
North America have a designated lighting designer? That means 90 percent do not have a lighting professional assigned to them,” Romaniello said, pointing out the vast opportunity available to lighting showrooms.

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He also discussed the unfair reality of the construction business where lighting is given short shrift by other crews on the project. “Kitchen designs aren’t questioned and critiqued by everyone else on the project, but it happens all the time with lighting plans,” Romaniello recounted. “How many times have you gotten a red-lined PDF back from the architect or contractor saying, ‘We don’t need this’ and ‘We don’t need this either.’”

The challenge is in communicating to the other disciplines – as well as the client – the importance and value of good lighting. “A client might look at your plan and say, ‘There’s a lot of lights on here. My contractor said I only need eight,” he remarked. Romaniello’s response? “Oh but my 16 lights will do so much more.” As a lighting expert, show them how.

Have a Process

Romeniello stated that lighting design is an involved process. “You must think, ‘What happens when I put a light here’ regarding the rest of the elements in the room. All of that goes on in your head before you put it down on paper,” he said.

“I’m a huge believer in process. What’s your process? Sometimes we have to be the ‘common sense police’ for our clients,” he warned. A customer might tell us they are having shelves put in, and you might automatically decide to illuminate them only to find out they will be storing their cereal boxes there. That’s when you have to ask for details — wood shelves or glass, adjustable shelves or fixed? The answers to those detailed questions will affect how to properly light that portion of the space.

How a lighting designer thinks is different than other design professionals. “I believe people’s immediate response to a space is through the color of the light,” Romaniello stated, whether the person is aware of the effect or not. “If you walk into a steakhouse illuminated with 5000K, you will [leave],” he said, noting that several successful retail chains are catching on. “The grocery chain Wegman’s has announced that they will be changing the color of the lighting based on what [product] is being illuminated. At Stew Leonard’s stores, the managers know to re-aim the lights when a display changes,” he revealed.

If the lighting is wrong, it will cause people to react to a space negatively, even if they do not realize why they don’t like it. “Your eye will always go to the brightest [spot] in your vision,” Romaniello remarked, adding that’s why glare control for both the color of the light and the color of the baffle is important.

There is no one size fits all. “Just because 2700K is a typical color temperature for interiors doesn’t mean it’s right for every client or for every project,” he commented. There are other factors that come into play, such as how much natural light there is or the geographical region.

Romaniello also pointed to another key difference in lighting plans versus other categories. “The rest of the construction industry evaluates cost per square foot, but in lighting we don’t usually do that,” he stated.

Time for Change

When the topic came up regarding how little of the clients’ budget is allocated to lighting – one audience member cited lighting allowances can be as little as half a percent of the home cost –
Romaniello stated, “Until the contractors change their perception of lighting, this won’t change. People don’t understand why – meaning, the difference in quality when it comes to lighting – so we have to tell them.”

Lighting professionals need to know the details in order to deliver the best design, and they should let the client in on how involved their design process is. “Asking as many questions as you can is important. The first question I ask when seeing plans is, “How high is the ceiling?’ Then I ask about the finish on that ceiling. Is it high gloss? Is there plaster on the walls? With every client we have another opportunity to teach people about lighting,” he affirmed.

Romaniello also finds it important in his information-gathering process to conduct an appointment in the client’s existing home. “Always start with the perimeter of the room and work your way inward,” he advised. “Lighting the floor will never make a space feel open and bright; lighting needs to hit a surface in order to be seen.”

Romaniello, who has a background in theatrical lighting, finds providing contrast to be vital. “It gives visual interest,” he noted. “I also believe lenses are so important. I never specify an MR16 without a lens of some sort, even when using LED.”

To keep a client’s ceiling “clean” and “not swiss cheese,” Romaniello suggested placing recessed lighting on the perimeter of the room. “A lighting plan should have fixtures drawn to scale, and put in the switching,” he advised. “Use a highlighter [on the plan] to show where light needs to be [hitting].”

While conveying lighting knowledge, it’s essential to remember not to overwhelm your clients with jargon. “Talk to clients in easy terms. We don’t talk about lumens or light temperature; talk about the quality of the light and color. You’re explaining technique without being technical,” he said. 