Specification Grade Sustainability

September 13, 2010 / no comments

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Recently a lighting company came into our office to show us their new LED fixture. I prepared myself for the usual spiel: tight quality binning, a high-performance heat sink, ELV dimming option. However, this particular fixture had been designed in a way that we haven’t seen from many other companies: the entire fixture, an LED cove/grazer product, was actually designed along sustainable manufacturing principles. Its connected load is more energy-efficient than that of its fluorescent counterparts (finally), but more impressively, the materials used to construct it had been thought through in a way few other products seem to manage.

The housing was not anodized aluminum, the standard seen in LED fixtures required for heat dissipation, but a zinc-based alloy that is less energy-intensive to make, and requires none of the toxic anodizing processes. The fixture is highly segmented for adaptability, and all components may easily be removed if failure occurs, allowing for easy replacement of parts. I was shocked.

Two years ago, before I left Lam Partners to pursue a Masters of Architecture at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture, white LEDs were standard in steplights and other specialty fixtures, but only just catching on in mainstream lighting design, with a few linear fixtures, floods and downlights. Those fixtures were not terribly competitive at the time.

Since returning to the firm for the summer, at least once a week a manufacturer has come to promote their new LED products. As one lighting manufacturer’s representative correctly noted, I’ve stepped into the future. The once over-priced and under-performing LEDs now stand beside traditional sources, and in many cases outperform them; costs are dropping while efficiencies continue to rise.

The LED revolution is obviously the greatest thing since sliced bread, the introduction of fluorescence, or of incandescence before that. But just as growing pains occurred at those phase-changes, this revolution too has seen a dark side. In this new world, the slightly ignorant marketer walks into our conference room spouting how their fixture is ‘sustainable’ simply because it uses LEDs, or maybe includes some recycled decorative glass. It seems fair to say that many manufacturers misuse the term ‘sustainable’ as a marketing ploy, with mixed knowledge of what is needed to create truly sustainable products.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised when this particular company actually walked the walk. They’ve produced a product that begins to address some unspoken facts of the lighting industry: lighting fixtures require vast quantities of energy to produce, ship, and install, and poorly designed fixtures equal waste.

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The discourse on life-cycle costing was made popular by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book “Cradle to Cradle,” and for some manufacturers of architectural materials, it transformed the way in which their product is conceived, produced, bought, and utilized. Moreover, the general adoption of LEED standards has greatly influenced the purchasing power of clients, who, through their architects, now regularly seek architectural products that account for embodied energy in some way, such as sustainably harvested wood or recycled or re-purposed metals.

However, LEED does not currently allow MEP equipment to count toward credits for material usage, with the understanding that the material quantities are considered negligible, they are not permanent to the architecture, and ultimately their ability to efficiently use energy trumps any material concerns. This seems like a missed opportunity, as the material in MEP equipment is hardly insignificant, and in many cases could comprise recycled or re-purposed materials.

While operational energy accounts for the amount of energy consumed (power x time) by the product during use, embodied energy represents energy required to produce and transport the fixture, and how that energy becomes ‘trapped’ when the product enters the waste stream. A brick, for instance, has a relatively low embodied energy, requiring only the energy to collect the clay, fire it, and transport it, and then may be used multiple times before it crumbles and must be reformed (of course never once requiring connected load). The light fixture by comparison must be fabricated from an array of energy-intensive materials, like aluminum, steel, glass, plastics, and mined phosphorous (reserves of which, according to Wikipedia, we’re on track to deplete sometime in the next 100 to 300 years). These materials must then be assembled, requiring additional energy-consuming processes.

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The current debate over LED lamps and fixtures exemplifies the necessity to think more constructively about lamp/fixture embodied energies and life-cycle costs. This is a two-part issue. First, LEDs are finding homes as retrofits: replacement lamps for old fixtures, and complete fixture replacements (as have also been seen with compact fluorescent or metal halide retrofits). If the fixture must be completely removed, the old product is often sent to the landfill, and in large-scale retrofits, this may be quite a sizable quantity of wasted metals.

Secondly, in the rush to get products out to market (for both retrofit and new construction), many manufacturers have created LED products with no option to replace failed components in the field, notably LED boards and drivers. Manufacturers tend to argue that, in order to achieve the desired output and long life, LED boards must be permanently attached to their heat-sinks, usually with some sort of thermal glue. This then gets extended to additional aspects of the fixture, including housings or reflectors. Apparently, to most manufacturers, in some glorious undetermined future utopia we won’t even have to worry about waste disposal… LEDs will last until our civilizations have long since perished, so it’s not even worth bothering with end-of-life issues. Unfortunately this leaves the end user with only one option when the fixture does, some time in the next 20 years (a brief blip in the realistic lifespan of a building), fail: completely remove the dead fixture and replace it with a new one. No governing body exists that demands that old MEP or lighting equipment be recycled or re-used in any way, so the manufacturer is off the hook.

One manufacturer suggested, as an option until they “figure out their policy on refurbishing dead fixtures”, that the specifier add the phone number of an ‘approved’ recycler into the notes column of the fixture specification, for the end user to contact at failure. This option certainly plays into the notion of American capitalism, but it is ultimately laziness on the part of the manufacturer. I would much rather put a note into the fixture schedule recommending that the end user contact the manufacturer or local representative to buy a replacement, at a discount in return for the dead fixture (assuming the fixture dies after the warranty period).

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The manufacturer should be thrilled at this concept. They potentially regain a host of usable parts, which should be refurbishable, and moreover, they retain the business of the customer. This is already happening in the computer industry, as an alternative to shipping dead electronics to third-world countries where workers strip equipment under highly hazardous conditions.

For example, I currently have a three-year-old Macbook Pro. Still works, but running slow, and I’ll need to upgrade soon for school. Recently I went onto Apple’s website, and found that I could get a quote for my old laptop based on the model and working quality of specific parts (even if it was dead for some reason, I’d still get money back). By offering a trade-in for my old laptop that can be put toward the purchase of a new computer, Apple is not only able to recapture the energy they spent creating the old one (which can be refurbished and resold, or stripped for individual components), but they also retain my business for the new product.

Granted, Apple’s ubiquitous presence in local retail far exceeds that of any fixture manufacturer, so an alternative might involve local lighting representatives to build up quantities before shipping, which suggests that buying local MEP equipment also matters. Regardless, few if any lighting manufacturers have thus far marketed their products in this way.

The push to create highly energy-efficient, long-lasting LED replacements for inefficient technologies does allow for minimization of waste. But countless inefficient light fixtures are currently being pulled from ceilings in an effort to reduce energy consumption, arriving either in landfills (to be mined by future generations) or at recycling plants that must perform energy-intensive procedures to recapture materials. I would like to see future companies retrofitting old light fixtures with new light source technologies in the factory setting, and selling them alongside ‘new’ products. I look forward to the day when a high-visibility architectural project has only refurbished light fixtures installed. It may be my project.

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Post-Script

As I implore manufacturers and lighting designers to consider life cycle as well as aesthetics and connected-load performance, the following are recommendations I would like to see incorporated into the ethos of the lighting industry:

To the Manufacturers:

In order to meet current LEED criteria pertaining to lighting, lighting must be incorporated into a design by an experienced design professional who is able to balance connected load energy usage and reduce light pollution across a complete layout of fixtures. In no way can an individual fixture really “help meet LEED” on its own terms. Blanket statements like these reveal the manufacturer as using jargon and marketing instead of truly attempting to make sustainable products.

Regardless of current LEED criteria, every material choice within a lighting product requires energy for production and disposal, beyond just connected load. These choices will begin to matter more to consumers in coming years. Prove that your fixtures were created sustainably, shipped sustainably, and can easily adapt to changes in technology or component failure for the lifetime of the architecture.

Components that may fail must be replaceable without requiring costly and wasteful entire fixture assemblies. When a fixture truly reaches the end of its useful life, provide robust programs that allow end users to return fixtures beyond warranty periods for rebates on replacements. Refurbishing the components of dead fixtures equal potential savings by keeping highly usable materials out of the landfill.

If in fact your products do go the distance, market these specifications! Is the fixture made of 100% recycled aluminum? Put that on the spec sheet! Can the plastics be disassembled and recycled? Clearly stamp those materials with the well-known ‘recyclable’ symbol with material type (in a location that will not affect light performance).

And finally, or course all manufacturers should commit to ‘greening’ operations and products – but do not roll out one product as your ‘sustainable fixture’ without also providing a plan to overhaul the rest of your product line and manufacturing operations. It’s hypocritical.

To the Designers:

Why not specify refurbished lighting products? Must the back-of-house troffers be made of pristine aluminum? Actively look for ways to minimize not only watts, but material-heavy fixtures, with preference given to the lighter, refurbished, or recycled products. Minimize the use of fixtures made from materials with energy-intensive or toxic manufacturing processes.

How can the architecture itself serve as a lighting system? Thoughful design can allow for replacement of the minimum quantity of material when technology changes, and allows renewable materials to do some of the lighting work, such as in valances or coves.

Finally, demand more from your product manufacturers. Lighting may be a relatively small piece of the puzzle, but it’s the piece over which you have control. Make the most of it. Specify high-performance sustainability.

Photo Credits: Dan Weissman / Lam Partners Inc