print logo
© 2019
International Interior Design Association

Chicago, IL
Toll Free: 888 799 4432
International: +01 312 467 1950

The Power to SAVE

By Lisa Kahn

Sustainable lighting — watt by watt — can save in more ways than one. A well-designed green space can reduce building operating costs by thousands of dollars, as well as offer a handful of health and productivity perks. And with the increasing threat of global warming, there’s no better time to depart from the energy-draining, environmentally unfriendly practices that still dominate much of today’s building and lighting practices.

“We’ve grown up in an industry that tends to overlight space,” says Elaine Aye, IIDA, Principal at Green Building Services Inc., a green building consultancy firm in Portland, Ore. “The new question is, how can we rethink design to save money and the environment?”

The clear answer is green design. In fact, it can pay for itself in as little as three years and has an annual return of 25 percent to 40 percent, according to the latest LEED study of 33 California buildings built over the last 10 years. The study found that the average cost premium for green is 1.8 percent, and a total of five buildings had no cost increase at all.  With numbers like that, who can afford not to go green?

Getting The Green Light

Lighting, what Aye calls “low-hanging fruit,” is an ideal entry-point into green interiors because it can be incorporated without high first costs and produces a fast, visible payback.

LED City

This February, the city of Raleigh, N.C., announced the “LED City” initiative to test, deploy and promote the technology throughout some of its public facilities. Raleigh already has switched its municipal garage to LED lighting, which has not only improved the quality of lighting, but also reduced energy usage on the floors equipped with LED by 40 percent as compared to the standard lighting systems.

Each year, the city spends approximately $8.9 million on energy. Raleigh officials predict that the LED initiative could save the city as much as $1.1 million each year — not including the potential maintenance and replacement savings — by converting to LED fixtures.

“What the LED City initiative means is not necessarily that we will be spending more, but spending more wisely on emerging technology that will save a lot in the long run,” says Dan Howe, Raleigh’s Deputy City Manager.

Daylighting — using sunlight to illuminate buildings rather than relying on fluorescent lights — slashes lighting and cooling costs by angling windows. “Orienting buildings or windows toward or away from the sun to reduce heating, air-conditioning and lighting costs might not cost any more,” says Marc Resnick, Ph.D., Director of the Institute for Technology Innovation at Florida International University in Miami.

Further, better lighting and improved temperature controls not only decrease energy costs, but also increase productivity in the workplace and improve learning and test scores in schools. “It’s all about the people, which make up 85 percent of a business’ operating costs,” Aye says. “If you design to their well-being, they’re going to be more productive.”

Another simple energy-saving lighting technique is swapping energy-consuming incandescent and halogen lights for fluorescents or the latest LED technology. The lifecycle savings of switching from an incandescent to an Energy Star-qualified compact fluorescent light bulb amounts to a savings of about $57 dollars.

And the savings achieved from LED lighting are even greater. “The quality and quantity and the lifecycle of an LED is typically much better than any lighting solution on the market,” says Ron Lusk, CEO and Chairman of the Lighting Science Group Corp., a Dallas, Texas-based LED lighting designer and retailer. Additionally, LED lights don’t change color when dimmed, nor do they generate UV rays that alter fabric colors or damage artwork.

Although an LED equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent can cost up to $100, it ultimately pays for itself in two years in energy and maintenance costs, Lusk says. “You either pay for it upfront [by investing in an LED], or you pay for it in the long term by having higher energy bills, cooling bills and continually [burnt] out light bulbs,” he says.

When sustainable techniques are incorporated from the beginning, costs can compare to standard building practices, or even be more competitive. “Sustainable design takes a commitment from the entire team of designers, including electrical and mechanical engineers designing more-efficient lighting and mechanical control systems,” says Wendy Weiskopf, IIDA, Senior Associate at design firm RNL Design in Denver.

“It’s important for the client and those building the space to join us from the beginning as well. It can’t be an afterthought.”

LED City

LED lights are even beneficial to wildlife, because they don’t contain mercury or produce environmentally unfriendly emissions. Each year, thousands of sea turtle hatchlings mistakenly travel inland toward bright lights instead of toward the sea. Up to 80 percent of those die because of light pollution, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

In response, the FWC is working with manufacturers and beachfront property owners to implement outdoor lighting fixtures that do not interfere with the turtles’ nesting behavior. Last year, it certified the Lighting Science Group Corp.’s LED R30 Amber Flood Light as meeting the wildlife-friendly lighting criteria.

That was the case when Toyota Motor Corp. built its Silver LEED-certified Washington, D.C., office in 2005. The building was constructed with glass-front offices, allowing light to be shared between private offices and corridors, and increasing visual connection between teams, says the project’s lead designer, Jill Goebel, IIDA, Gensler, Arlington, Va. Natural and fiber-optic lighting dramatically reduce watts per square foot.

But the designers didn’t simply stop at lighting. Green design was considered every step of the way, Goebel says, beginning with selecting a centralized location near a major subway station to reduce transportation costs. The design team also donated or recycled at least 50 percent of the demolished space, preventing more than 85 cubic yards of viable building materials from going to a landfill.

Additionally, the building used all pollutant-free furniture and materials manufactured or extracted within a 500-mile radius of the D.C. area to reduce emissions and provide economic benefits for local economies. On top of that, the site’s separately metered suite enables Toyota to track energy reduction savings.

Beyond First Costs

Unfortunately, perceptions of higher costs and a lack of definitive data remain obstacles not only for green lighting design, but sustainable design in general. And with a number of certification and commissioning fees, on top of first costs for green products, it’s no wonder that clients are concerned about the price tag.

For starters, projects seeking certification through the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED Rating Systems require an initial $600 building registration fee for non-USGBC members. In addition, review and certification fees can run from $15,000 to $30,000, depending on square footage. On top of that, soft costs such as commissioning fees to verify correct installation and operation of systems can run from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent of total construction costs, says Paula Vaughan, Co-chairwoman for Sustainable Design at international architectural firm Perkins+Will, Atlanta.

But in spite of initial costs for green materials and processes, studies show that investing in energy-efficient lighting controls and materials offsets higher initial costs, Vaughan says. Recognizing total lifecycle costs instead of simply considering first costs is key.

“Five years ago, if you wanted to make a green decision on a purely moral [and] ethical basis, there was a significant economic downside, but today, I don’t think there’s a cost of being green,” says Steve Simonson, CEO of, a Seattle-based flooring retailer specializing in sustainable materials.

The cost benefits are clear and simple. “If you use less energy and water, you pay less,” Resnick says. “There are also the indirect benefits: cleaner air and lower health costs for workers and residents.”

A Monumental Impact

As sustainable design keeps proving its worth and as people become more familiar with the green processes, first costs will continue to decrease. “Green design doesn’t have to add to the cost if people get a little bit of practice,” Resnick says. “Then, it becomes second nature. [Payback becomes] almost instantaneous.”

But put the number crunching aside for a moment. “We shouldn’t be designing sustainable projects just because it’s going to benefit us and the clients financially,” Weiskopf says. “We should design with the environment in mind because it’s the right thing to do.”

While qualifying for “green” mortgages, tax rebates and zoning allowances may give the wallet a break, the bigger impact is priceless. “When we give our kids braces for their teeth, it is not because straight teeth will allow them to earn more in their future careers; it is because we love them and it is our parental responsibility,” Resnick says. “The same thing applies to the environment: We are the custodians of the Earth, and we have to protect the Earth from ourselves.”

Green design truly has the power to change the world. “If there is any chance that we can harm the world, cause extinction of species and ruin the quality of life for our children, we should do whatever it takes to prevent that,” Resnick says. “It is our responsibility to the world, regardless of the cost.”