Not quite seeing the light: top five lighting mistakes on college campuses

Right now is a particularly exciting time in the lighting industry—one that is about as revolutionary as when Dorothy stepped outside her door to the Land of Oz into brilliant Technicolor.


Intuitively, most people understand that good lighting is an essential component of space design. Bright task or flood lighting helps us stay focused; mood lighting helps us relax.

It gets quite a bit more complicated when designing lighting schemes for different purposes. Schools have a multitude of factors to consider. Classrooms and libraries need to meet different criteria than do athletic facilities or laboratories. Just consider the 1,328-page Lighting Handbook by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Right now is a particularly exciting time in the lighting industry. Energy-efficient bulbs and fixtures are only part of the story. The other part is advances in controls, or building automation systems, where we have transitioned from having on/off switches to having a system that includes motion sensors, dimmers, timers, and customizable components working in tandem. It’s about as revolutionary as when Dorothy stepped outside her door to the Land of Oz into brilliant Technicolor.

Having designed more than 75 million square feet of lighting schemes for colleges, universities, and prep schools, I have run into several recurring stumbling blocks that feel like we’re still shooting motion pictures in monochrome. Here are five common mistakes.


1. Underlit spaces


This will come as a surprise to virtually no one who has ever spent time in an aging building. An underlit space, or insufficient lighting to work, is an extremely common problem. When you’re straining to focus on tasks in front of you, your eyes and brain are working much harder than they need to be, sapping your productivity. Or, if you’re an elite college athlete, an underlit facility is about as useful as going to bat with a broomstick.

In fact, studies have shown that poorly lit, windowless classrooms can contribute to a sensation of jet lag—exactly the wrong condition to be in if you’re hoping to learn something.

Often, buildings were designed with adequate light levels (albeit from fluorescents). But light levels have been decreased from past, well-intentioned energy retrofits and deteriorating fixture performance over time. With the radical leap forward that LED technology represents, there is an opportunity to revisit lighting needs, design retrofits of upgrades to meet those needs, and still capture impressive savings.

The greatest disservice a school could do for its students is provide inadequate lighting for its spaces. Luckily, there are great solutions for this, and they are increasingly more affordable—and becoming extremely energy-efficient as well.


2. Overlit spaces


Just as underlit spaces can be problematic for all the reasons I mentioned above, overlit spaces can be uncomfortable to live, work, and play in as well. If you’ve ever tried to drive in bright sunlight and melting snow, certain times of day are downright dangerous from the glare. That same sensation, while on a different scale, contributes to similar experiences in classroom, office, or athletic spaces as well. It’s just too bright.

Furthermore, while bright lights can amplify positive emotional responses, they can also have the opposite effect. One study explored the relationship between light and the perception of heat, which turns on the emotional system and intensifies a person’s initial emotional reaction—positive or negative—to any stimulus. This can result in a whole spectrum of problems, from increased sensitivity toward noise to suicidal tendencies.

Again, 21st-century technology has yielded some breakthrough solutions for both overlit and underlit space problems, which brings me to the third most common mistake I see.


3. Bypassing or misunderstanding controls


For marginal and temporary savings, many schools opt to replace old light bulbs with newer ones. They may even invest in LEDs which have a much higher output of light per input of energy. But those savings do not consider the long-term benefits of installing controls or integrating with existing building automation systems, which yield multiple benefits.

For starters, controls—with dimmable LEDs—give building managers the ability to manage light outputs easily without having to replace bulbs. Dimmable LEDs on control systems can be set to 70% or 30% or 100%, depending on the requirements of the space or the preferences of the users. This means learning environments can be optimized, laboratories are up to the highest professional standards, and hockey arenas are bright enough for you to find the puck.

Controls are also particularly useful for helping multiple features of a space interact with each other. In a classroom, for example, the touch of a single button could simultaneously lower shades, turn on a projector, dim the lights, and activate a PowerPoint presentation. That’s exciting, but what’s even more exciting is when you start to see lower electricity bills because your system is smart enough to put that entire setup to sleep—and other items that aren’t in use—especially over the long haul.

When you consider that, on average, 31% of college and university energy use is on lighting, it makes both financial and environmental sense to find a way to manage those costs.

It’s good to have a building automation system in place. But it doesn’t make sense if that control system has components that don’t work well together.

Case in point: in many college and university settings, specifically auditoriums and sports facilities, advanced lighting controls have been installed for the past 20 years. These systems allow for detailed control of all lighting in the space, from dimming to switching on and off specific fixtures to fit the needed task.

The difficulty in retrofitting these spaces is when we try to use existing controls. Many systems installed today have specific requirements for them to work correctly with the existing control system, which typically come in the form of vendor components.  If this requirement is overlooked, there could be significant complications, which could include the lighting not turning on or not turning off. In these high-visibility spaces—a lecture hall, for example—problems like this can contribute to serious issues and lose the confidence of key stakeholders within the university system.


4. Misunderstanding the space


Many facility managers are challenged with frequent changes in how spaces are configured for use. One common mistake is to retrofit to an old lighting design where the fixture placement, quantity, and light level requirements may be different.

For example, think about the way a typical library (the kind with actual books) is laid out. There are rows of shelves filled with books and resources. If that library was originally a classroom, the light fixtures might be arranged against the grain of the shelving units. Some of the rows of books would be well lit, but others would be dark.  This means that now only some of those books are lit well enough to read the binders, and would cause occupants to struggle to find the reference they are looking for.

By redesigning the layout of the lighting in the space it is possible to maintain the right-lighting for the space, and meet the requirements of the specific occupants’ needs.  This approach goes a long way toward avoiding some of the conundrums of overlit or underlit spaces.


5. One-for-one replacement


Lastly, but maybe most significantly, the most common mistake I see campuses make is simply swapping out a fluorescent tube for an LED tube in an old fixture. This is a cheap way to retrofit lighting for a space, and you get what you pay for. Most fixtures are not designed to work with these types of tubes, and because of this, problems of underlighting, overlighting, and shadows will be increased and reduce the quality of lighting in the space.

In most campus lighting design projects, my goal is uniform distribution of light. What has helped in achieving this goal more than anything is volumetric fixtures, also known as diffuse light or full distribution lighting. Parabolic louvers used to be the norm; these grid-shaped light fixtures force the distribution of light straight down. This makes for a grim, shadowy space. Volumetric fixtures, on the other hand, distribute light evenly, illuminating the whole room.

For 21st-century campuses to maximize the potential of their students’ achievement, produce cutting-edge research, and boast winning athletic teams, good lighting is at the very core. And here we return to our Wizard of Oz analogy. If campuses can illuminate their classrooms, dormitories, libraries, athletic facilities, and laboratories in glorious Technicolor, why wait?


—With 18 years in the electrical industry, Kevin Loiselle is a lighting specialist with GreenerU who has worked as a field electrician, salesman, and project manager in electrical distribution. He is Lighting Certified (LC) by the National Council on Qualifications for the Lighting Professions. You can reach him at GreenerU by calling 781-209-5670 or emailing

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