The Dark Side of Lighting – A Brief History of Electrical Lighting Costs

February 6, 2012 / no comments

The process of designing and constructing a building today is a complex series of challenges: timing, budgets, codes… Each of us in the building industry has our own specific challenges, but it seems that everyone in the industry complains about lighting fixtures and how they’re purchased. This is nothing new. The lighting business has, many times, put special interests ahead of good design practice for architectural lighting applications. A look at the past exposes a rich history of shenanigans in lighting.


Heavy Light

During the construction of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in the early 1900s, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had some strange and complex methods of purchasing materials and furnishings for the new structure, one of which was buying lighting by the pound. If you’ve ever seen the building, I’m sure you were awed by the finishes and craftsmanship – and especially the chandeliers, light fixtures so large that each one had a door through which a person could enter the fixture itself to re-lamp and maintain it.

But as if size wasn’t enough, the fabricators were loading up the cast bronze and cut glass with lead to further increase the weight of the luminaires. These fixtures became some of the heaviest luminaires in America, which ended up costing the Commonwealth millions of extra dollars. No doubt they are beautifully appropriate for the building, but perhaps they could have been as ornate with half the weight.



An article appearing in the magazine Lighting Fixtures and Lighting back in 1925 illustrates how the skilled electrical trade was trying to convince the residential industry that centrally located, hard-wired light fixtures located in the middle of the ceiling were far better for general illumination than portable table and floor lamps. A portion of the article reads:

…The public, ignorant on lighting… leans toward lamps which, in many instances, are entirely inadequate, besides throwing the decorative scheme out of balance… A living room in a costly residence with thirteen lamps and without ceiling pieces or brackets, produces a frightful combination of colors… Yet someone was to blame for the lighting scheme; was it the architect, owner, or just indifference?

These large central fixtures tended to be expensive and complex ones that only the skilled professionals could handle. Plus, there were much bigger mark-ups for the retailers who sold them. You can see why the electrical industry did not want to lose control of this portion of building construction.


Heat Lamps

After the introduction of the modular fluorescent tube in 1938, many office spaces began relying on electric lighting over daylighting. It was cheaper to construct a building with lower floor-to-ceiling heights and without lightwells, since lighting fixtures and electric energy were relatively inexpensive. In order to make up for the relatively low cost of operating electric lighting, the industry felt it had to sell more of it – more hardware and more power. More power came in the form of higher illuminance levels. There was a time when lighting was actually used to heat buildings in the wintertime!

In the 1940s, Parry Moon, a professor at MIT, cautioned his students to be suspicious of organizations promoting higher and higher illuminance levels. Later, one of those students, Bill Lam, started taking on organizations like the IES, which, at the time, mostly comprised people who sold light fixtures and electric power.



Today we have the ‘lighting package’, a way for a local manufacturer’s sales representative to provide all of the lighting fixtures needed for an architectural project. There’s inherent cost benefit for the owner if a single sales agency can provide all the lighting hardware for an entire project – especially if there are several equivalent products listed in the specifications, which creates competition between the agencies and consequently a ‘sharpening of pencils’ when it comes time to bid the project.

The problem with lighting packages is that no one knows the cost of any one item. It’s exactly that: a package deal. It lends itself to substitutions of products of lesser quality if the specifier is not diligent in his review. It can also lead to something that hurts most specifiers’ ears: ‘value engineering’, a process that usually entails neither engineering nor value for the owner.

Value engineering has become nothing more than cheapening a project, especially when it occurs after a bid. It’s easy to reduce costs by providing something of lesser value, but the problem is that the product is usually much less expensive than the money offered back to the owner. And, since the costs of individual products are typically not provided, the package deal makes virtually impossible any objective comparison of product cost vs. product value. Large lighting fixture packages make it easy to hide profitability at the expense of the owner.

That’s why it’s important to do your homework during the design phase. Establish a reasonable lighting budget based on similar projects. Research the cost of lighting fixtures ahead of time and determine how the products relate to the overall construction budget. Don’t specify Cadillac if all you can afford is Chevy – there’s nothing wrong with Chevy as long as function and expectations are met. Find out how the owner is planning to purchase the lighting. Many large corporations buy lighting from national accounts which have already established the cost of certain lighting hardware. It’s a lot more work during design, but it can save a lot of time and aggravation during bidding and construction.

There’s always going to be an angle to every sale, whether it’s lighting or some other product. Lighting, like many other pieces of the architectural pie, continues to get more complex, with new technologies unfolding on a daily basis. Keeping up with it all is mind-boggling. Use the experts to your advantage. Learn from them and seek advice every step of the way. Keep a bright disposition and don’t be boondoggled by the dark side.

Photo credits: Steve and Ruth Bosman (1), Crenshaw Lighting (2), Todd Huffman (3), RFR Realty (4), (5)