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Do you want functional lighting or fantastic lighting? The difference is commissioning

November 15, 2022

By Rachel Fitzgerald and Marcus Myers

Lighting design is an advanced art and science. It needs to look good, provide the right amount of illumination, and meet energy goals.

The collaborative process that occurs between the lighting design team and the interior and architecture teams is a powerful thing. Designs are stronger for their integration. In a perfect world, these designs would always translate from paper (or computer) directly to reality.

But that’s not always the case. In fact, there’s a gap that often exists once a design is in place that can be the difference between the lighting design functioning as envisioned and the lighting design simply functioning. That gap is commissioning.

The lighting systems for the LEED Platinum Denver Water’s Operation Complex project were designed for optimum energy performance and user comfort. Overlaying a digital sequence of controls employing user control and dimming, timeclock automation, occupancy sensing, daylight harvesting, and task tuning.  

Goals of modern lighting design

To understand the problem, it’s instructive to first understand how we think of the design of lighting systems within the context of a project today. Lighting design has become an advanced art and science.

Yes, it’s about aesthetics—does it look good, does it complement the architecture, does it support the overall story, narrative and objectives of the client and the space needs? But functional lighting design is critical. We must consider the desired and necessary levels of illumination, address comfort and glare, and meet the physical needs of the occupants in a space.

The design must also comply with increasingly stringent energy mandates and the client’s own energy goals. So, we also need to plan for what the energy consumption of the lighting systems is going to be. That requires consideration of elements such as the connected load vs. the usage load, based on how the system will be controlled. Occupancy sensors, daylight harvesting, user dimming, timeclock settings, and task tuning (which is dimming to a set maximum threshold) are just some of the tools we use within the design of an operable, efficient system. Nearly all lighting systems we design today need to be changeable and controllable—to a point—to function as planned.

The campus design for the Kiewit Corporation’s regional offices in Lone Tree, Colorado, consists of two buildings. The energy and constructability goals for the second building drove the campus-wide lighting approach. While the first building was built under 2009 IECC, it was designed to meet 2018 IECC code to match the second building.

Design to delivery

That all works beautifully in theory. But then that design must be procured and installed. And a lot can change between what’s specified on paper and what is purchased and installed.

Elements can be value engineered out of a project and replaced. Or, as is more common in our current global supply chain crisis, substitutions may be made because of insurmountable lead-time delays and procurement challenges. The substitutions might be perfectly functional, but we need an accounting for how they perform given all the goals above. And we must look at how they fit within the broader context of the integrated lighting design system.

Then, there’s the installation. We use BIM tools, which are incredibly helpful. But they don’t guarantee the perfect placement of every lighting element in the field. We’ve seen situations where lighting winds up being placed just a short distance from where it was intended. What is the impact of those little—often unavoidable—changes? Does the new solution still work as the designed? And how would you know?

Finally, there’s the reality of how the programming works in the field vs. in the design. The controls we specify are designed for code compliance. As lighting designers, we provide a detailed sequence of operation outlining exactly how the controls are supposed to work and how users should interface with the lighting controls.

Most building certifications like Title 24, LEED, and newer IECC code cycles require in-field verification that the controls and systems are operating per code requirements. Contractors, control system manufacturers representatives, or third-party programmers are often the ones who are interpreting the sequence of operations from the lighting design team. They may verify that a system functions, but how do we make sure the system’s full capabilities work as intended? Who should be verifying this? (You can see where I’m going with this.)

Lighting has advanced rapidly over the past decade. It has become a more impactful, resource-intensive element of the design.

Why lighting commissioning is essential

Commissioning agents are a vital—and yet still underutilized—resource for verifying operational performance of lighting systems. Commissioning agents are third-party experts who are not invested as part of the design or contractor teams. Their job is to work alongside those teams to make sure lighting systems meet the operational requirements. They look at the design, installation, testing, and maintenance of building components, materials, and systems.

When it comes to MEP systems or envelope, commissioning agents typically have the team that designed those systems on hand. When it comes to lighting, however, most of the time the designer is not involved. Typically, the commissioning agent works with the contractor or a systems manufacturer to test the controls and ensure the operational intent as required for code compliance. 

But they can do more. In a project that has specified lighting commissioning, they can investigate the real-life performance of the lighting. Does it meet the intended levels of illumination specified in the design? They can do a full evaluation vetting of the energy use intensity—or the actual energy usage—comparing design objectives from theoretical building energy modeling to real life. Our clients are paying for the power of great lighting—commissioning can help make sure they get it.

LA Metro Willowbrook Rosa Parks Station is a 169,600-square-foot urban multimodal transit hub redevelopment project in Los Angeles, California. It consists of a complex site, including multiple buildings, expansive plaza areas, train platforms, bus stops, and parking. Client goals included prioritizing safety and improving circulation. Lighting is fundamental to the experience of this 24-hour site, creating a sense of place and security

Raising the bar

So how often does lighting commissioning occur on projects right now? The answer varies. Any project targeting LEED, Title 24, or WELL rating system evaluations likely has lighting commissioning built into the process. At Stantec, our lighting design teams are pushing for that level of investigation and integration on all projects.

Lighting has advanced rapidly over the past decade. It has become a more impactful, resource-intensive element of the design, especially in the smart-building systems that are now required by code in most projects. The way lighting functions today provides valuable data on how and when spaces are used and how they’re functioning. These smart systems often represent a significant investment. The added step for commissioners to work alongside the lighting designer is in the owner/client’s best interest. Commissioning helps guarantee that the client’s investment does what it’s supposed to do.

We already have strong integration within our multidisciplinary design approach. It’s time for lighting design and commissioning to work together in the same way on every project, helping one another to better understand what is possible and how to best optimize design for reality. Together, we can solve issues before they become problems. By integrating specialty services, we can mitigate risk, optimize systems, and help our clients get the most from their design.

  • Rachel Fitzgerald

    A senior lighting designer with our team in Denver, Rachel has over 15 years of experience providing exterior and interior lighting designs for hospitality, mixed-use, retail, corporate, civic/government, religious, and recreation facilities.

    Contact Rachel
  • Marcus Myers

    Responsible for commissioning and energy services in US West, Marcus has a core focus on environmental stewardship. Complete building commissioning, energy modeling, controls, and energy and carbon optimization are where his expertise lies.

    Contact Marcus
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