The Problem With Downlights in Commercial Offices

  May 26, 2015

You know when you've walked into a poorly lit office space. Usually, it's too bright, with everything equally bathed in a stark light that's coming down from the ceiling. Putting all lighting in the ceiling can be a poor design strategy, from a lighting quality perspective, even though it is fairly common.

"People use downlighting way too much," says Nancy Clanton, president, Clanton & Associates. "They'll put up cans or really bright recessed lights inappropriately. When you have a downlight, you're lighting the floor and that's the least important area to light."

Additionally, exclusively using dowlighting brings back the problem of glare, especially when coupled with today's technology like tablets. "In conference rooms, they'll have a bunch of downlights and they're awful," says Clanton. "If you're ever in a conference room, you can't see your computer screen, you can't get away from the glare."

There is a particular appeal to classic dowlighting, from the facility manager's perspective. It's straightforward, especially in spec office space. You put up a grid, you put in your troffers, and you're done. This process efficiency has merit, but facility managers should ask themselves whether the strategy serves their needs, and the needs of the facility occupants in the long-term.

Instead of blasting a ton of light from the ceiling down to the worksurface, the experts say to break the lighting system out into several layers. This adds controllability, which will help the lighting better support the way the space is being used and can contribute to energy savings.

Lighting manufacturers have developed an arsenal of innovations in downlighting, which was on display at the recent Lightfair in New York City. Luminaires with on-board occupancy sensors, daylight sensors, even CO2 sensors are available. Units are available with smoothly glowing lenses, giving off a softly uniform light, which in some cases is even tunable to find the right white light for a space.

At the very least, if for some reason all the lighting has to go in the ceiling, put in adjustable lighting so it can be aimed to the wall, says Clanton. That will brighten the space without making it look stark, she says. Some luminaires combine uplighting with dowlighting, and some have tiltable panels to give the wallwash function when needed.

All to say, lighting serves more functions than make a space not dark. The tools are ready and the thinking has shifted to include quality. It falls to facility managers to make it move from design to reality.

For more on achieving quality lighting in commercial spaces, go here.


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