Jul 13, 2021

Six disruptive trends in architectural lighting for the next decade

Welcome to the Luminous ’20sBy Brad Koerner

The past decade saw incredible transformation in architectural lighting. With the turn of a new decade, the industry finds itself once again facing a disruptive wave of innovation, yet this time building upon mature LED and digital communications technologies. Let’s look at how six disruptive trends will change how we conceive of architectural lighting.


Embedded lighting and digital signage become fundamental elements of contemporary buildings.

LED technology now allows us to integrate lighting directly into a wall or ceiling surface, with little energy consumption, heat or maintenance. This fusion of light + material, of embedding lighting elements directly into architectural surfaces, opens fresh new approaches to creating eye-catching spatial experiences.

Play of Brilliants: Fusing the best properties of luminosity, optical effects, material richness and graphic design, embedded lighting opens tremendous creative opportunities. Luminous surfaces will change the way people perceive, occupy and enjoy architectural spaces, particularly in hospitality, retail and public applications.

Embedded Lighting Systems: Custom integration of embedded lighting has been difficult to specify and costly to install on construction projects, limiting broader adoption. While designers explore the creative possibilities of embedded patterns and surfaces of light, manufacturers need to develop flexible and customized product systems that accommodate an enormous range of creative styles, along with digital technologies to speed the design, visualization and fabrication processes.

Animation: People are mesmerized by the beauty of light in motion; we are hard-wired in our brains to seek visual stimulation to refresh ourselves. As architecture becomes fully digitally controllable, with every point of light addressable as a type of pixel, custom tailored dynamic animations ranging from the subtle flicker of a candle to sparkling effects to vivid ripples of movement will become common.

Digital Signage: Beyond using luminous surfaces for general illumination, digital signage systems will be included in architectural spaces with tighter integration of design concept. Digital signage is already becoming pervasive in architectural environments with widespread adoption in out-of-home marketing, wayfinding, menu systems and retail branding.

Across the next decade, design professionals need to become savvy on integrating both luminous surfaces and digital signage into comprehensive environmental experiences. Compositions can be created using digital lighting/pixels/screens of various proportions, scales and resolution with mixed visual acuity. Designers will develop sophisticated strategies to break the scale and proportions commonly associated with “screens” and to layer luminous surfaces to create rich spatial and visually healthy experiences.

Content is King: Architectural designers must become motion graphic artists. No longer can architectural lighting be considered the magnificent play of volumes brought together in light, since the volumes themselves now emit light. When every point of light in a building is effectively a digital pixel, designers need to create continuous fluid visual experiences. The concept of editing “timelines” at different scales becomes a critical skill, ranging from short-term personal experiences, to daily cyclic patterns, to seasonal cyclic patterns.

Healthy Interior Lighting: “Healthy” interior lighting will be largely implemented through luminous surfaces. Why? Because the old fixture paradigms from the 1960s are ill equipped to provide not only the scientific quantities of the right light at the right time, but they are woefully unable to create great psychological experiences for inhabitants spending long hours in enclosed spaces.

The layering of luminosity, at far greater contrast levels than designers are accustomed to in interior environments, plus the inclusion of highly dynamic scene changes tailored for maximum biological and psychological response, will be critical concepts that architects, interior designers and lighting designers will need to embrace and explore throughout all the other aspects of their designs.

Impact on Design: The inclusion of luminous surfaces begs for a comprehensive design vision to create a unified experience for the occupants of a space. This will drive architects, interior and lighting designers to embrace a raft of new digital tools, such as using live-rendered photo-realistic game engines, VR experiences, video editing and motion graphics throughout their design development process.

Designers will need to visualize, simulate and craft not only simple luminous surfaces, but dynamic surfaces that interconnect the digital world with the occupants of the space.


Architecture will become a portal to the virtual world.

We are entering a future where architectural design and its associated technology systems are more than ever focused on experience management as the primary end goal of many projects. Architectural technology systems, such as digital lighting, digital signage and IoT based communications systems, are driving a digital transformation of physical space. Outdated preset scene control systems must transform into comprehensive experience management systems. What we presently call lighting controls will be subsumed into two primary styles of technical solutions: (1) Media-Driven Branded Experiences and (2) Data-Driven Environmental Optimization. Such a transformation will have profound influences on how brick-and-mortar spaces are conceived and designed.

Media-Driven Branded Experiences: The intention of many built environments (e.g., retail, hospitality, corporate lobbies) is first and foremost to create a branded experience. And it is impossible in our modern age to conceive of branded experiences without a strong digital presence in content and interactivity. Architectural spaces are becoming portals to the virtual world. While traditional architectural lighting controls are wholly unsuited for distributing, playing and managing modern digital media, the digital signage world has filled the gap with cloud-connected, low-cost systems expressly for distributing and playing media files on a range of equipment.

Data-Driven Environmental Optimization: For environments that are not primarily branded experiences (e.g., commercial offices, institutional facilities, industrial sites, etc.), environmental optimization based on live data becomes the imperative. Stagnant, pre-configured scenes are simply not precise enough to satisfy modern demands for climate control, energy efficiency and creating functionally efficient spaces for the occupants. Networks of IoT-connected sensors generating massive live-data streams can provide live input to our environments. We need systems that take these live data streams and logically translate them across a range of environmental parameters.

Impact on Design: Spaces need to be conceived from the very initial sketches as live, responsive environments, not lumps of steel, concrete and glass bathed in stagnant light. Architects and interior designers need to understand the powerful potential of these new systems for branded experience control or optimized environmental control and start conceiving of new programmatic goals that fully exploit their potential.

And once data-driven lighting becomes the norm, designers will look more closely at the personal scale of interactions within a space.


The right light, at the right time, at the right place.

The concept of interactive lighting—where dynamic lighting or A/V gear responds to a user’s touch, proximity or other activity—has held the promise of creating highly personal and dynamic architectural experiences for several decades, but adoption has been mostly limited to singular art installations.

Why Implement Interactive Lighting? To date, interactive lighting has been so limited as to be of limited usefulness. What modalities of interaction will actually enrich an architectural space? There are at least three possibilities:

Meaningful Interactions with Light

These three interactions can then be mapped across applications, such as hospitality, retail, office, healthcare, education, public spaces, etc. Within each application, multiple physical interactions can be explored to deliver the three primary modalities, including:

Interacting with Dynamic Lighting

Impact on Design: Designers must move beyond document-based design and specification workflows. Architectural designers will increasingly adopt the tools, techniques and language of UX design professionals. Storyboarding must be routinely included to sketch out key dynamic scenarios in spaces.

As design progresses, live-rendered, fully functional virtual models integrated into BIM workflows will be required to visualize, simulate and develop the functionality of the final space programming.


Live simulations in BIM will reduce on-site commissioning costs.

Digital technologies in the built environment drive very real end-customer value. Yet unknown risk factors, exotic consultants and expensive systems integrators push budgets sky-high for these systems. And for sure, construction sites are the absolute most expensive place imaginable to attempt complex digital R&D projects. So how do we overcome this mess?

Project teams must focus on using cloud-based simulation and commissioning tools to remove a 10x factor of the costs associated with commissioning traditional lighting or media systems.

Architectural design and workflows already use highly detailed BIM models that live in the cloud. Lighting systems are now fundamentally connected to the cloud. It is obvious that at some point, virtual project models will directly control digital lighting and signage systems.

Digital Twin Simulation: To achieve cloud-based commissioning, designers, construction teams and manufacturers must fully embrace a BIM-based design process. Lighting companies must develop sophisticated BIM plug-ins that allow specifiers to set up proper virtual models of the total lighting system (fixtures + controls + functionality), eliminating the need to translate the design intent of the lighting control system via traditional paper documentation and field commissioning.

Digital Twin Commissioning: If your digital twin/BIM model lives in the cloud and your whole lighting system is cloud-connected, simply connect the lighting system to the cloud and voilà—the virtual model can instantly control the real lighting hardware. The final programming will be transferred via the BIM/cloud model directly to the hardware on-site, reducing on-site commissioning and if done correctly, ensuring the designer’s vision is not broken during construction setup.

Impact on Design: Implicit in this future is the fact that commissioning largely transfers from systems integrators to design consultants. Overall, the process is more efficient, but this still represents a large transfer of project budgets from the construction site to the design team. Designers need to properly understand this new revenue opportunity and find ways to convince clients of the value.

Furthermore, the completeness and accuracy of digital-twin model becomes a valuable asset in itself that can be utilized for novel future revenue streams, such as concepts embodied in the circular economy movement.


New value streams will be realized by cleaning up our act.

The circular economy is a movement to stop the industrialized world’s lethal habit of take-make-waste and instead to create profitable flows of products, parts and materials in endless loops. To achieve this vision, it takes coordinated effort to rethink product design, business models and market processes. So how will the lighting industry embrace such a future?

The Return of Common Sense: Here’s an essential but most difficult question to challenge any lighting manufacturer: If in 10 years you received your products back to your loading docks, would they be considered financial assets or liabilities?

The current and environmentally destructive trend in the lighting industry for producing disposable fixtures simply cannot be sustained. Customers cannot bear the long-term maintenance headaches of such short-term, wretched product management, nor can the environment. Commonsense product design and industry-wide hardware standards programs like the Zhaga Consortium remain critical to enabling the repair and reuse of durable fixtures long into the future. And guess what? Repairing and maintaining commercial devices is also known as a revenue stream. Something that penny-wise and pound-foolish lighting product managers might want to consider.

Smart Maintenance Programs: IP-connected lighting systems greatly expand the range of data available. Networked controls and lighting fixtures can broadcast their component serial numbers, feature sets, on-board sensors, run-time counters and even real-time photometric light measurement. Talk about big data: A lighting manufacturer can now remotely check in on their systems anytime, anywhere.

Such data drastically reduces the cost of lighting maintenance. The lighting industry has the opportunity to offer much high levels of customer service at lower costs than ever before…but who in the industry captures this value?

Bio-Friendly Materials: Ultra-high efficacy LEDs, with their low power and negligible thermal demands, open up opportunities for the radical redesign of traditional fixture paradigms and material selections.

There are many lighting applications where basic LED technology outlives the application life, with countless perfectly-good LED lighting fixtures doomed to be scrapped before their actual end-of-life. So why do lighting specifiers continue to choose aerospace-grade materials for basic architectural lighting? Why can’t the bulk of light fixtures simply compost into dirt at end of life?

We will see a growing trend for lighting systems that use innovative bio-based materials to dramatically reduce the embodied energy, reduce toxicity and reduce both production and EOL disassembly costs to create fixtures that tread lightly on our natural resources.

Impact on Design: The lighting industry needs to take responsibility for the future it is sowing today. Designers specify the future. Why do they keep specifying such toxic, energy intensive materials in their products? Why do they accept products that have no hope of even basic maintenance, much less reusability, in the future?

Plus, designers need to think holistically about their projects. Are they proud of the supply chains that support their product selections? Does it do any good to have amazing bio-friendly light fixtures that are drawing their power from a coal-based power plant?


Buildings will increasingly go off-grid.

At their core, almost every device in a modern building uses DC (direct-current) electricity, including LED lighting, sensors, computers, IT networking and even large mechanical services. Yet since our ancient electric utility grids are AC (alternating current), every one of these devices require wasteful power converters. Ever notice how hot those power converters get? That is your electricity, money and planet being squandered as waste heat.

Net-Zero Energy Buildings: Compounding this disconnect between our AC electrical grids and our DC building infrastructures, we are now adding huge quantities of DC-generating solar panels and DC-based battery storage to make our buildings net-zero energy consumers.

Modern net-zero energy buildings will run entirely on internal flows of DC power throughout the majority of the year. They will only need extra power from the grid for small durations of the year, such as during the coldest, darkest part of the winter in Northern climates.

Batteries Sold Separately: With DC-based electrical services, we can reduce power waste substantially, reduce electronic hardware and associated maintenance and e-waste issues, and open the door to advanced energy management in buildings. Advanced DC-based technologies like solid-state switching and solid-state fault interruption promise to channel, manage and measure power with more precision than ever before.

We are at the inflection point of a new revolution: DC-power “nanogrids” are set to replace the AC-infrastructure in commercial buildings, resulting in massive energy savings while reducing hardware and providing advanced digital control of power. Researchers estimate that commercial buildings save 15% of their total power by skipping wasteful DC-AC-DC conversions.

Impact on Design: As we move toward greater numbers of net-zero energy buildings and demand more localized energy resiliency in ever more turbulent times, a most interesting revolution is poised to transform our electrical infrastructure.

DC power systems will increasingly reduce the costs associated with evermore advanced architectural systems. Digital twin simulations of the energy performance of a building, starting at even the earliest schematic design stages, will predict long term energy performance of those systems and directly lead to highly tailored electrical infrastructures.

By the year 2030, what we call architectural lighting will increasingly consist of embedded luminous surfaces, rich with digital content, smartly driven by data streams and responsive to our physical actions and biological needs in a space. Designers will increasingly become experience designers, using scripting, storyboarding and digital-twin simulations to craft live, responsive new experiential concepts for guests, shoppers, patients, employees and so forth.

Despite growing system complexity, project coordination and on-site installation costs will be reduced via digital-twin, cloud-connected commissioning and sophisticated integration of BIM processes. And these projects will use DC-power systems to reduce the consumption and cost of all these digital systems while making our buildings net-zero energy consumers. The physical hardware of lighting systems will be designed to maximize new revenue streams opened by circular economy strategies, while simultaneously reducing our environmental impact.

The luminous ’20s indeed look to be a brilliant decade for innovation in architectural lighting systems.

This article has been adapted from the author’s essay in the IES Visionary Challenge publication, “Beyond 2030: What Do You See?” Click here to download the complete set of essays.


Brad Koerner

Brad Koerner

Brad Koerner is an entrepreneurial project leader with a range of design, marketing and product management experience. Koerner has spent 20-plus years in lighting design and manufacturing, developing award-winning architectural lighting projects as well as new LED lighting... More info »