A FEW YEARS AGO, WHEN BUILDERS AND lighting vendors tried to talk lighting, prospective home buyers often assumed it had something to do with smart homes and the Internet, and the conversation stopped. Many buyers preferred to add on a backyard swimming pool rather than learn about technology that more often than not was expensive and hard to use.
Today, the popularity of home makeover TV shows, the increased use of new products in new homes, and the number of exciting and easier-to-use products have increased awareness about the benefits of lighting. The result is a more sophisticated consumer who's not only asking about frills such as mood lighting to softly illuminate a home theater but also about enhancements for the kitchen and security-based features.
“We're doing five types of lights in the kitchen alone today,” says Bill Smithers, an owner of University Homes, which builds custom homes and planned communities in Purcellville, Va. “There are task lights over a countertop, under-counter lighting, general lights for walkways, and pendant lights for breakfast bars. Five years ago, we would have just put up a chandelier,” he says.
Lighting boils down to two basic concepts: livability and practicality. Certainly lighting can enhance the new-home experience with mood lights that can set a scene for a dinner party, but, when tied into a security system, lighting can also save lives in the event of a fire or other emergency.
We talked to leading industry experts to help builders gain a stronger understanding of lighting. The tips outlined in this story are based on interviews with the following companies: Heneveld Dynamic Consulting, LiteTouch, Lutron Electronics, Smarthome, University Homes, and Vantage Controls. So whether you want to focus on mood, safety, or both, these five tips will improve your lighting program:
1. Explain the benefits of lighting control to the home buyer. Get home buyers to think of lighting control as a category inside their homes. One good approach is to offer a low-end package of wall dimmers as standard and then present easy-to-follow upgrades in the same way a fast-food restaurant would offer the No. 1 or No. 6 meal on its menu. Talk to customers about the three general types of lighting: safety, security, and scene—and stress the benefits of each.
Safety lighting can be set at predetermined times for each day. For example, at dusk, a photocell can turn on outside lighting, landscape lights, and a light in the kitchen so the owner doesn't come home to a dark house. For security lighting, a single panic button can activate numerous lights both inside and outside the house. In the event of a fire or other emergency, outside lights can be set to blink so the police or fire department know which area of the house to focus on when they arrive. Scene lighting can be functional, having all the lights turn off at once when someone leaves the house, for instance, but its main purpose is to accommodate the homeowner's lifestyle.
2. Learn the different types of lighting available. Builders should know about three kinds of basic lighting systems: wall-box dimmers, single-room systems, and whole-home systems. Wall-box dimmers are entry-level and require the installation of a single circuit in a dining room, for example. Wall-box dimmers are not considered lighting systems and are not connected to one another. A single-room system, as the name implies, supplies lighting for one room, perhaps a home theater or a kitchen. The system requires multiple switches for a single point in the house. Whole-home systems are fully integrated, low-voltage lighting control systems that orchestrate a home's lighting via a processor in the basement or a wiring closet.
The three main types of whole-home arrangements are low-voltage hard-wired systems, power-line carrier systems, and radio frequency (RF) systems. In hard-wired systems, control stations are placed throughout the home and can be programmed to control any device at any time. Since most of the infrastructure for a hard-wired system is installed before the drywall goes up, hard-wired systems are best installed during construction. Hard-wired systems let builders offer more features such as vacation mode and other customized settings, but they are the most expensive. Power-line systems use standard electrical wiring by transmitting a signal over AC wiring. Power-line control can be easily retrofitted or installed at the time of construction. The advantage of power-line is that it's inexpensive and can be easily installed by electricians. RF systems rely on the same wiring configuration as power-line systems but utilize RF signals for communications. Essentially, they use the power line for current and RF for communications. Pricing for RF systems is slightly more expensive than power-lines.
3.Contact the experts. If you have a low-voltage installer that you like, it makes sense to stick with that company, especially if it has proven itself over the years. If you don't know a good integrator, product vendors, besides being an increasingly good source of product and training information, can plug you in with reputable integrators where you do business. Many have had builder programs for several years. Some of the big names in residential lighting are Leviton, Smarthome, LiteTouch, Lutron, and Vantage, the latter three also being major whole-home players.
If you want to approach lighting from the security perspective, other good choices include Honeywell's ADEMCO, GE Security, and Home Automation Inc. A good source of general lighting information is the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (www.lrc.rpi.edu). Builders also can seek out lighting designers, either as consultants to confer with behind the scenes or as another service to offer home buyers. Fees vary, but most lighting designers start at about $1,000 per consultation or a dollar per square foot. Ask your vendors and integrators for referrals.
4. Get your integrator to document the job. One of the real red flags that may indicate a poor integrator is lack of documentation of a new community's low-voltage plan. The best integrators show builders where every low-voltage drop is in a new home and document the information in a way that lets electricians know where the dimmers and wall panels go. Builders should find out which systems the integrator has installed, whether the integrator has programmers on staff, and whether the company keeps backup copies of its plans.
5.Evaluate costs and benefits. Builders should think in terms of two cents per square foot or roughly $50 for a package of three wall-box dimmers. A single-room system for a room or home theater starts at $300. Whole-house systems start at $1,000 and can run up to $10,000. They can cost as much as $50,000 in a custom home with a full home theater and scene and security lighting. Builders can make margins in excess of 30 percent, depending on the market and how they structure pricing. Custom jobs tend to work off an allowance after the customer has been to a showroom so the builder can factor in a reasonable profit from the start.
Production builders tend to sell lighting upgrades as add-ons, so the markup is higher, but as options are added, it puts more strain on the overall production process, so the builder has to factor in the overhead needed to deliver on the options. The trick, as always, is to understand what your consumers want and to know what level of lighting makes sense for them.