Builders, Lighting, & A New Way

Lighting designers could help builders…if we can change our ways.

Residential builders are often the most reluctant of the major stakeholders to support custom lighting design, and with very good reason. In a previous post, I meandered through the overlapping territories of lighting and building and thought about how lighting design is often a threat to a builder’s ability to deliver a project on time and on budget- at least the way lighting design is normally done.

So long as we continue with business as usual, we lighting designers will be tolerated at best and unwelcome at worst among successful builders. Their job is not just to deliver a beautiful, functional home for their clients, but also to protect the clients from escalating costs, unnecessary expenses, and costly delays. No builder enjoys telling a client “this is going to cost you a lot more money and take a lot more time than I estimated.”

For many lighting designers, the task has always been about convincing builders that they are wrong. We must convince builders they are doing lighting wrong, they are delivering projects wrongly. They are wrong to resist the efforts of custom lighting design.

We see the world from a very different viewpoint: clients hire us to help them with lighting, we develop an awesome design, it gets built, and clients are thrilled with the results. And, we threaten, if a client chooses not to hire us then they are doomed to an eternity of glare and eyestrain and sleep disruption and (gasp) ugly houses. There is a kernel of truth in this, but it is a myopic view that ignores the builder’s reality. Both stories are true – at the same time we are amazing clients and helping them enjoy their homes every night, we are threatening to derail the project and tarnish the builder’s reputation.

What if we flipped the script? What if we decided that builders were right to resist us, and we were wrong to continue with business as usual? I am suddenly hearing Michael Jackson singing “Man in the Mirror” in my head. If we want to make the world a better place for lighting designers, clients, and builders, perhaps we should take a look at ourselves and then make a change. MJ nailed that one.

Let’s start with the idea that builders are not stick-in-the-mud recalcitrant grumps who resist the efforts of lighting designers simply because they are ignorant or mean. Yes, that may be the first time I have used recalcitrant in a sentence, but I have to drop in big words every once in awhile so I feel smart. Where was I? Ah, yes. Instead, let’s think of builders as successful professionals who skillfully navigate constantly changing styles, building codes, client desires, weather disruptions, supply chain issues, labor shortages, construction techniques, and dozens of subcontractors to deliver- seemingly miraculously- comfortable, well-constructed homes that provide critical shelter to clients for decades to come.

Now that we think of builders in that way, let’s assume that builders, when presented with a truly “better” option, will make the choice to change. We have evidence of this in abundance- we have seen builders change so many aspects of their process in the past few decades from the way foundations are built to the way heat escapes out of a roof. Why not assume they can make the same choice about lighting?

Why not assume that builders will choose the right half of the image above instead of the left, so long as we can deliver better lighting without threatening their livelihood and reputation?

We are a creative species, good at imagining new paradigms and then making them happen. Let’s apply our creativity to this problem and find new solutions.

For example, what if lighting designers partnered with builders? We would have to change the way we work. Instead of convincing homeowners that our lighting is worth the hassle and expense, and then forcing the design on the builders, what if we gave up a little of our freedom and went to the builder first? What if we developed a relationship with a builder that made it easy for them to estimate time and materials and labor for a better design?

I am talking about finding a middle ground, a compromise that allows more homeowners to enjoy better lighting by giving up our relentless pursuit of design excellence no matter the cost to the builder. We are taught that we, the lighting designers, are paid to be the client’s advocate, to argue vociferously for their “welfare,” which often really means our creative and difficult-to-install lighting ideas. We forget that the process matters, too, that a happy builder will also translate to a happier client, just like that extra layer of cove lighting might.

We are piloting programs with a few builders and hope to find more builders willing to come to the table and help us find a new way of working together. It won’t be easy – changing an entire paradigm never is – but the results could benefit us all. Builders can offer a better product to their clients while protecting their business and their reputation. Lighting designers can help more people that would otherwise live under awful lighting. And homeowners would face less sticker shock and pain in the process while enjoying better results in the end.

If you know a builder interested in exploring this concept with us, send them our way. We are ready to make the world a better place, for lighting designers and builders. We are ready to start with the designer in the mirror.

Read the previous post on the topic HERE.

Light Can Help You