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Lighting the Home: Lighting Control

06-06-2011

A Few Words on Lighting Controls for the Home

One of things that's surprised me over the past few years is the number of times that a new client has said to me: 'I don't have to have one of those control systems, do I?' Clearly, the lighting control business hasn't done itself many favours in pushing the absolutely, inevitably, unquestionably, essential nature of their product.

It should be simple enough: an elegant plate on the wall with some sexy little push-buttons that do whatever you want ....... ah, I think I see the problem. Its my experience that most clients don't actually know what they want when it comes to the reality of lighting control. There's a vague mention of 'ambience' and 'scene-setting' - phrases that have come from either the latest TV house make-over programme or a lighting designer's coffee table design reference. Here are a few home truths about what you NEED, and maybe something about what you actually WANT.

Let's start at the very beginning - a very good place to start ......

In the beginning was the light switch and lights were ON or OFF. it was that simple. Table lamps and standard lamps were used on an as-need-basis or just-found-hist-down-the-market basis, and were simply plugged into the ringmain. LIghting 'design' and 'control' was instinctive and empathic - and worked very well. Please remember this simple state of nature, because it's very important.

Dimming has been around since the 1970's, but was generally limited to replacing the single light switch by the door. It made the central light or the wall lights that bit more useful, and reduced the light-dark contrast that was created by that lonely standard lamp in the corner.
But it took another step in the developmental chain before dimming became really useful.

Multi-gang dimmers meant rooms being re-wired so that the central light and the wall-lights could be controlled separately, but from the same place. If you were really posh, you might even have had a dedicated circuit to plug-in the table lamps. Don't be surprised if I say that much of my current lighting designs still use this hand-on control technique ... you stand at the door and tweak the lighting until you get what you want. You're in control, absolutely.

But there was more to come and it called for more than simply swapping rotary dimmers for push-button controls. Lighting control systems that offer pre-set programming offer fantastic flexibility on how a room is lit, but for it to work really well, you need much more lighting. The technical term is LAYERING, and what it comes down to is that you have three-four-five-maybe six 'layers' of lighting. What's being aimed for is a theatrical design concept where rooms can be presented in different 'acts'. A great idea - a lot more light.

Perversely, what the client most often loses with this style of lighting control is CONTROL itself. These systems are computer-based and need to be programmed, usually by a systems professional, and I've only ever met one client who wanted to be trained by the system manufacturers so that he could have what he felt was the appropriate level of control over the lighting for his own home. Most clients stand back and let the complicated process of imputting control instructions to those who know how to do it - and who then go home. Oh yes - and who then charge a substantial amount of money to come back and tweak things once you've decided that things aren't quite as they need to be.

Some of my good friends are lighting control designers and engineers and I admire their work immensely. Others I'm not so happy about; I think they're the ones peddling the smoke and mirrors that lead to inappropriate lighting control and confused, then angry, then depairing clients.

All I'm saying is - don't ignore this issue. Talk to your lighting designer about the options and always trim towards the simple - not the fashionably exotic.
And get it sorted EARLY in the design process - please.

RIBA CPD in 2015

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