Jason Ratliff

An accelerated pace of work and a steep learning curve have become common practice for contemporary lighting designers. These demands are only partly the result of new technology, say longtime observers of the lighting and architectural fields. The aftershocks of the Great Recession that resulted from the 2007–08 mortgage and financial crises involved more than a halt to the construction boom of the mid-2000s. In the lighting industry, the lingering recession and slow recovery have also generated a series of transformations in the talent pool, the distribution of responsibility, and the distinctive lines of communication.

The architecture profession endured a massive increase in unemployment after 2008. If architects serve as coal-mine canaries for the broader design and construction sectors, or even the economy as a whole, then their gradually improving work climate has encouraging implications. The American Institute of Architects’ Architecture Billings Index, which uses a score of 50 as a steady state of billings—anything lower is contraction, anything higher is expansion—indicates that there has been a return to growth in construction activity and demand for design services since 2012. Last year was the first year since 2007 in which the monthly billings’ score was above 50 more often than below. This year, so far, has fared even better, with only one month, April, coming in under 50.

The 2012 Compensation & Workforce Study published by the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) tells another part of the story. From 2008 to 2010, revenue declined in nearly 70 percent of the companies sampled. (The median net drop was 10.4 percent.) The 2012 figures bounced back, though not as high as 2008 levels, with a particularly sharp increase in gross revenue per full-time employee (measured as either staff in general or lighting designers in specific). Firms responded to the decline with variations on a theme of doing more with less: reducing staff, leaving vacated positions unfilled, cutting compensation, performing tasks in-house that would previously have been outsourced, and either gradually broadening their revenue base beyond architectural lighting design or shifting the project sector mix.

These figures and patterns, the IALD report’s authors stipulate, call for cautious interpretation, because the sample size was relatively small (182 respondents, not all of whom completed all of the survey questions), a lower number than in the 2006, 2008, and 2010 reports. Nevertheless, these statistics bolster commentators’ anecdotal impressions that the configuration of the workforce is changing as the overall economic climate improves.

Tom Warton, principal and president of Vode Lighting in Sonoma, Calif., says he’s hearing from colleagues that they are experiencing an upturn in business. Vode’s sales figures back up the reported buzz. “Our quotes at this time of this year,” he says, “are double what they were last year. We’re seeing a lot of traction in new LED products, but we think it’s mostly coming out of the recession and seeing more activity.”

Derek Porter, who is both principal designer of New York–based Derek Porter Studio and director of the Master of Fine Arts Lighting Design program in the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons The New School for Design, corroborates the sense of acceleration from the academic and mentoring perspective. “Today,” he says, “virtually all of our students have jobs lined up before they graduate.”

As work increases, firms are not simply picking up where they left off. Combined with three important developments—the rapid advance of LEDs and other technology, the rise of sustainable design from a niche market to often being incorporated in codes, and the burgeoning international construction market—the reanimation of the design and construction industries is taking place under changed conditions. There has been a perfect storm of rapid changes, veteran lighting professionals comment, that have resulted in disruptions that are beneficial to some careers, detrimental to others, and conducive to exaggerated expectations on the part of many clients. When work was scarce and architects were taking jobs at cost (or even below) just to stay active, owners and institutions took advantage and developed unreasonable expectations about budgets and schedules. Now that work volume is returning, those expectations remain in place, and not just for architects.

“It’s what all of my colleagues are talking about right now,” reports Paul Zaferiou, a principal at Lam Partners in Cambridge, Mass. “We go to the first meeting, and it’s like the train has left the station moving 30 miles per hour, and we have to run down the tracks to grab onto the caboose.”

The gutting of the middle
During the dry years, says Zaferiou, cutbacks were unevenly distributed across different levels of seniority. In firms of any size, he says, “you have principals at the top who are stakeholders and you have a lot of young people at the bottom who are coming up. Then you have this wonderful middle body of people who have been there for 10, 12, 15 years, who are the real backbone of these firms. They have the institutional knowledge. They’ve been through a lot of jobs. They’ve seen the construction. They know the pitfalls. They have great communication skills. [But] those are the people, in most cases, that had to be let go.”

Zaferiou is not alone in this observation. “Prior to the recession,” Porter says, “the economy [was] running at 1,000 miles per hour. … If you were searching for somebody who had more senior-level experience and could oversee operations for a team of individuals and take on management of larger, more complex projects that an entry-level person could not do, then those people were hard to find, because they were usually pretty well-rooted within the companies.” When projects became scarce, however, management often saw these specialists’ salaries as expendable.

With that pivotal segment of the workforce trimmed, younger professionals not long out of school began rising faster within organizations. Their technical knowledge, Zaferiou and others observe, is sharp, a good fit for a field undergoing the technological revolution of LEDs, solid-state controls, and building information modeling software. The digital-native generation has precocious aptitude for the use of complex new analytic tools. But familiarity with working procedures often takes longer to develop, as does a mature design sensibility.

“I think that more is expected of them. There’s a certain amount of, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know,’ as a new person coming into a job,” says Scott Hershman, executive vice president of design and product development at the newly established lighting manufacturer LF Illumination [Note: The company was launched under the name LightForms, but then changed to LF Illumination after this article was originally published.] based in Chatsworth, Calif., and co-chair of the Lighting Industry Resource Council (LIRC). (The LIRC was established in 1996 as an affiliate of the IALD and is open to lighting equipment and component manufacturers.)

“You have emerging designers who are completely facile with Revit and using state-of-the-art software,” Hershman says, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean they know what to do with it in terms of design. It’s a tool; they’re very good at using the tool. They don’t necessarily have the experience to know what to do with the tool.”

The unique complexity of lighting’s supply chain and specification procedures, Hershman adds, where designers are “asking for something that’s going to be purchased by another party, installed by a third party, and supplied by a fourth party,” means that someone who has only been on the job a short time may be unaware of “all the other people that are involved in a process [who] can assist you—or derail the project.”

Whiz kids in the shark tanks
“These are students that have a maturity about them,” Porter says. “They’re organized, and they’re articulate … able to take on a lot very quickly.” One of his former students, some five years after graduation, is a rising star in the lighting group at Arup’s New York office while still in her 20s. Another, he recalls, only two years removed from school, casually mentioned that he was headed to China for a client meeting on a major urban development. “I’m thinking, ‘You’re going to China to meet with a client? On a project of that scale? And what kind of experience do you have?’ ” Porter says. “On one level I think it’s nuts; on another level I think it’s quite extraordinary.”

Still, as less-experienced personnel assume more responsibility, important aspects of institutional memory have sometimes vanished with laid-off mid-level personnel, such as how to bring in projects on time and on budget and how to balance beautiful and functional design with control of specifications in an atmosphere where short-term value engineering can nibble away at

the essential aspects of a project. Relations with both architects and clients, Zaferiou observes, increasingly include a component of technical education, an area where the “middle” excelled.

“On many projects we help the architect design the daylighting component for the building, because architects are not really trained in that aspect,” Zaferiou says. “Most architects think more daylight is better, and in fact it’s often the opposite. Most architects often over-glaze.” The case for investment in upgraded daylighting involves both lighting metrics and estimates of effects on human well-being. “You can look at kilowatt-hours and how much energy you’re saving, and if you invest $100,000 to improve the daylighting system, the payback in architectural dollars is really hard to justify. But [if] you increase productivity by 1 percent in a big office environment, you will pay for any significant architectural upgrades and lighting upgrades 10 times faster. … The labor force is your biggest capital investment.” Attrition among professionals with the experience and authority to make these long-range, nuanced arguments can erode a firm’s ability to add value to a project, or to persuade clients about the value their expertise will add.

“We’re not only designing and documenting a lighting design, but we have to re-educate a whole client base on why we’re doing this, why we’re using LEDs in this case over fluorescent, or why fluorescent is the most appropriate for this job,” Zaferiou says. “It’s a huge education, but we’ve always prided ourselves in educating our clients.”

Lam Partners, which has a diverse portfolio of commercial, cultural, civic, academic, scientific, and medical projects, managed to weather the post-2008 storm without losing staff. Zaferiou attributes this enviable situation partly to the philosophy established by founder William Lam, a hands-on, full-service approach that relies heavily on the firm’s team chemistry and offers ample in-house incentives for professional development. The trade-offs for keeping everyone on board were difficult austerity measures: reduced hours and benefits, a period of four-day weeks, and, thanks to an uncommonly farsighted landlord, a renegotiated lease lowering their rent. “In order to be competitive,” Zaferiou adds, “we’ve had to take jobs at ridiculously low fees, and so you have to learn to scale the scope of services, which is the hardest challenge for us, because we love to do the soup-to-nuts thing.”

Not every firm was in a similar position. Conversations with colleagues at industry conferences provide a snapshot of his peers. “The ones that are really busy and thriving,” Zaferiou says, “are the ones that have gotten away from the old pyramidal scheme of having the principals at the top, a group of people in the middle, and a big base. Maybe it’s an evolution from the ‘gutting of the middle’ situation, but what they’ve done is they’ve expanded the middle. … They’ve taken the young people in the firm and they’ve really thrown them tremendous challenges.”

Brett Andersen, principal at New York–based Focus Lighting, has worked in the field for 17 years and identifies with the expanding component of the profession. “My contemporaries are the folks that have worked their way up through firms, and for some of them, they’re now out on their own and starting their own firms,” he says. “The newer generation of lighting professionals has … a sense of comfort with the fast-paced change of technology. I think the core experience and what makes a lighting designer successful hasn’t changed a whole lot—that’s pretty consistent between generations. But the newer ones have had to be comfortable with this constant seeking for new information and new technology.”

First the hype, then the reality
The recession may have leveled the playing field between senior and junior designers, but advances in digital technology, sustainable design, and global markets have raised the stakes for those at every level. After an early phase that Zaferiou and his colleagues refer to as “the myths and marvels of LEDs,” the LED market has somewhat stabilized in terms of product specifications. Nevertheless, with advances in modules and heat sinks occurring roughly every six months, there remain too many new products of which architects and lighting designers can keep abreast. The energy-performance calculations necessary for LEED certification and increasingly stringent codes make lighting designers’ expertise even more essential. New construction in China, India, and the Middle East is also expanding demand for both design services and contractors.

An attenuation of professional experience and a breakneck pace can be a troubling combination. “The construction schedules are so rushed,” Zaferiou says, “you barely have time to review the submittals to make sure that the fixtures you’re getting are correct. There’s a tremendous opportunity for mistakes to happen or people to get sloppy.”

Lighting design is a much smaller field than architecture, Porter notes, and if “the architecture industry was humming at a good speed” before the collapse, “let’s say 80 percent capacity, [then] the lighting industry was probably running at 120 percent capacity just to keep up with the architectural need. … If we look at where we are today, if the architecture world’s at 50 percent capacity … then the lighting profession is probably running at 80 or 90 percent capacity.” If the demand for services continues to rise and many downsized senior colleagues do not return, the rising generation will need to be at the top of its game.

“The risk comes when all of the lighting designers are viewed by an architect or an owner as being equal,” Andersen observes. “A small startup firm just can’t have the same collective experience as firms that have been around the block for a couple decades, and without that wealth of knowledge to draw on, to back up the many critical recommendations a lighting designer has to make, it’s a huge risk to the client: a financial risk, a liability risk, and a risk to the overall success of a design and of a project.” He advises clients to look beyond “pretty pictures” and do their homework to evaluate a firm, talking with owners and architects from previous projects about their performance in design collaboration, project management, and budgeting.

Younger lighting designers in new positions of responsibility are injecting energy into the IALD community, aided by the three-year-old Emerging Lighting Design Professionals Initiative, notes LightForms’ Hershman. Through this IALD and LIRC effort, which supports professional development of lighting designers in their first five years of practice, both Hershman and Vode Lighting’s Warton have contact with young designers. And, since IALD membership is required, the program is bringing fresh blood into the association. It’s a win–win arrangement for the organization and for the “emergers” who need to leaven their academic, theoretical, and technical strengths with the practical experience that older mentors can share. The Illuminating Engineering Society is also mindful of its need to reach out to younger constituents and has initiated its own outreach program with a day-long workshop as a precursor to its annual conference.

Today’s market is “a wild ride,” Zaferiou says, making every day an adventure for those prepared to work harder than ever. He advises younger lighting designers who are assuming new business responsibilities to innovate in ways that save energy, save money, and prevent problems—and to anticipate the forces that clash with the reasons they may have had for entering the profession. “Don’t compromise your principles just because the owner or the contractor wants to cut corners,” he says. “The contractor gets to the owner and says, ‘You know, we can save you $50,000 if you use these cheaper fixtures.’ At some point you have to draw the line and say, ‘What you’re asking me to do is below what I think [are] acceptable standards.’ It’s really hard to do that when you’re younger, and you’re hungry, and you want to get that job. But you have to be able to fight for quality the best you can.”

Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published.