Local Business Profile: Lighting Design Lab

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By Jennifer Power

I've always been curious about what goes on inside the Lighting Design Lab, a building I pass every day on my way to and from work. The design professionals who work there have an ambitious mission: transforming the Northwest commercial lighting market by promoting quality design and energy efficient technologies. In short, they're working on ways that we can get better, more effective and more attractive lighting, with fewer watts.

New lighting technologies have been on the market for a while: some would even argue that the spiral CFL light bulb has become the unofficial icon of the green lifestyle movement. But there is much more to designing lighting systems for offices, restaurants and other buildings – and even for outdoor uses – than simply swapping your old bulb for a new one. The Lab team works with clients to figure out the most energy-efficient and best-performing mix of technologies that will work for their space. They also provide helpful resources like classes, a library and consultation services for both commercial and residential clients. Sponsorship from every electric utility in the Pacific Northwest makes the Lab's work possible.

When I heard that the Lab was planning to relocate its headquarters from Capitol Hill to SoDo, I was motivated to stop by, because the opportunity to learn something from my neighbors was about to get a whole lot less convenient. I spoke with Jeff Robbins, lighting specialist, to find out more about the lab's history and goals.

Jennifer Power: How did the Lighting Design Lab get started?

Jeff Robbins: Here we were sitting at the end of the 1980s and an enormous amount of new technology has come on the market due to the fuel shortage of the 1970s. Because Europe was dealing with higher power prices than the U.S, they were the ones coming up with a lot of the [energy-efficient] products. In Japan, they realized they were wholly dependant on imports of foreign oil, so they mandated that they would double their product per unit of fuel output in five years. They did it in four.

The U.S. response? Nothing. The domestic producers of electronic products and lighting equipment thought the fuel crisis was just a blip. The government reacted in a knee-jerk way that kept critics and the public quiet but wasn’t terribly effective. Once everyone in the U.S. lighting industry and the associated professions realized that there was all this energy efficient technology coming in from abroad, the question was how to get this information to the energy-using public.

In 1988 a group of utility people, at the top of which was the Bonneville Power Administration [based in Portland, Ore.], had concluded that we were running out of ways to create power and to distribute it to a larger group of people than the system was designed to handle. More and more people were moving to the Pacific Northwest, voters were reticent to approve more nuclear plants, and there were calls to take down hydroelectric dams or at least reduce their size. The economic analysis was that is was cheaper to save a watt than to produce one.

JP: And this is why the Lighting Design Lab was born?

JR: The idea was to create a place where all the latest energy saving lighting strategies and technologies were on display. It was seen at the time as a kind of pilot project; it led to similar facilities in Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Diego, just to name a few.

The LDL was centered in the Pacific Northwest because people here were paying half the national average for energy already. If you could sell energy efficiency here, it could be sold anywhere.

JP: Why does the Lighting Design Lab focus on commercial lighting solutions? What about the residential market?

JR: The LDL focuses on commercial lighting because there are a whole lot of potential savings waiting to be realized. If one night we went to sleep and fairies came and changed out all the lighting to the most energy efficient appliances, the conservation would be so great that we’d never have to build another dam. That’s how great the potential is.

The residential market just doesn’t use very much energy in comparison – we can make the greatest difference more quickly with the commercial market. Blessedly, the residential market responded by asking “What can we do?” The response was very gratifying.

JP: Has the Lighting Design Lab’s focus changed over time?

JR: If it has, it’s been this: we’re spending as much time emphasizing effectiveness as we are emphasizing energy efficiency. We can’t ever forget the idea that we’re serving vision – there are real people doing real tasks in these conditions. If you ignore that, you ignore the whole purpose of lighting. The most expensive component of any building that you’re paying for is the people. Boosting productivity just a little bit will save more money than the extra bit of power ever would cost you.

What you’ll hear from us more is, “Use as little as you can, but make sure that it’s effectively done.” If your solution doesn’t solve the lighting task, what good could it possibly be?

JP: What is the most innovative and solutions-oriented aspect of the Lighting Design Lab?

JR: We’re primarily an educational facility. We’re making people smarter about what they’re doing. We’re accomplishing education in both traditional ways, through classes, and also in and non-traditional ways, through fielding inquiries and getting the word out.

We’re also in a position to serve internationally: our expertise as lighting specialists gives our staff the opportunity to serve on national committees. Michael Lane, our project manager, is a voting member of the 90.1 Committee of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), an organization that will be helping to establish energy codes nationally. Through Michael’s efforts, we’re helping to shape how much energy you can devote to your lighting systems. Michael and the Committee are establishing national codes and standards for the lighting industry and for those using lighting.

Jennifer Power has been a happy resident of Seattle since 2002 and hopes she never has to leave. She writes about her life in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood at Life on the Hill and Other Stories.

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