Guest Editorial: Tensions Increase Between Lighting Designers and Control Manufacturers

by | Sep 6, 2022 | News

The below article is an opinion piece by guest writer Thomas Paterson

Lutron, the dominant control system provider in the residential market, has recently changed its residential business model in ways that are impacting the residential lighting design world.  Its change of model has sent shockwaves through the residential lighting design community – as well as rep agencies and dealers.  The change of model has created winners and losers – perhaps more of the former than the latter, but the ultimate client?  Any benefits that acrue to the client are hard for me to find.

Over the past six or seven years, Lutron began pushing my practice to adopt its residential use of digital dimming.  The emphasis was not through engagement with DALI or open protocols, but with its own proprietary “Walled Garden” of EcoSystem digital drivers.  The drivers permit a single power and data loop to group numerous luminaires together on a single home run, relocating the dimming capability from centralized racks and into the drivers.  This creates both massive increases in flexibility (each luminaire can potentially act as a separate zone or control group), and reduced wiring and hardware costs (though the drivers add their own premium).

The economy generated is desirable in the majority of projects of any significant size, but uptake was initially slow.  Two things slowed the acceptance.  The first was due to resistance or disinterest from electricians who were not confident of their skills in wiring and commissioning the technology, or saw it as a threat to their workload, and the second was conservatism from designers.  My own office took several years watching the product in the market to before starting to use it, out of simple conservatism.  And as Sean O’Connor, a lighting designer, says “the specification cycle is slow – although we’ve only finished a few projects with EcoSystem, we had over a hundred in the pipeline”.

The development of EcoSystem had several advantages for Lutron.  By extending their scope to include drivers, this added substantially to the revenue on projects – with larger control groups, the sale of drivers to OEMs could match or exceed the commercial value of the control system itself.  They took a bite of the luminaire market’s profit, much as they had with their electronic control gears in fluorescent luminaires.   Second, by “owning” the luminaires in a project, all future partial refurbishments would necessarily require a Lutron involvement – whether a replacement of the control system to talk to the existing installed Lutron drivers, or of replacement Lutron drivers to match the existing wiring and controls infrastructure.  Unless an entire system of luminaires and controls was gutted, Lutron was guaranteed a stake.  This was always a concern for us when specifying such a “Walled Garden” system.

Of course, while it served Lutron’s commercial interests, it also reduced the building owner’s scope to choose future upgrades from the open market.

This “walled garden” strategy presumably secures Lutron’s revenue into the future, with any EcoSystem project generating assured future maintenance revenue.  Only a full replacement of lighting and controls could displace them from a building.  We never heard much market pushback in the US.  By comparison, Europe has been an earlier adopter of open protocols such as DALI, KNX and DMX for lighting controls, as well as proprietary but broadly accessible protocols such as Casambi.

In parallel to pushing EcoSystem, Lutron was resistant to the integration of these open protocols, even such dated ones as 0-10V dimming (requiring more, not less wiring, though with savings on the control module device, in principle).  When we wanted to use these protocols, we found that they limited the viability of 0-10V by dimming them in a two-stage process, with Electronic Low Voltage dimming feeding a GRX-TVI interface, which in theory provided both relay and dimming signal.  This two-stage dimming process led to low resolution dimming, low end drop-out, surges on startup and flicker.  And meant that one had to purchase TWO control devices, not one, to enable more wiring, not less.  0-10V dimming is, in other control environments, a perfectly effective – if dated – solution has became both over-priced and under-performing in the Lutron garden.

This was the environment that drove Lutron specifiers to use EcoSystem if they wanted Lutron’s stability, available service and ubiquity.

Then came Ketra.

Lutron acquired Ketra in 2018 and continued manufacturing downlights now under a combined Ketra/Lutron brand.  These used their proprietary dimming protocol.  Their own range of luminaires are essentially the standard typology of premium pinhole configuration used in everything from Halo to Number 8, USAI, Element and Lucifer, with enhanced color mixing technology.  The luminaires are solid performers, as much as any model of that type, however, just as lighting designers preference one brand over another for their particular capabilities, the Ketra advantages were only applicable to certain contexts, not very common in our projects.  Perhaps they don’t have the right trim finishes, the needed optic, the right trim aesthetic.

More recently, we’ve found Ketra products pushed onto our projects by new means, whether we want to specify them or not.

The first way we experienced was seeing luminaires pushed directly to architects we were collaborating with.  I assume they recognize that architects are often influential to clients, and are more easily sold to than lighting designers.  Architects are motivated to ensure cost effective and cutting edge designs, but without the technical sophistication to question the Lutron/Ketra performance as broadly as a lighting professional.  Numerous architects adopted the use of Ketra, often initially in their own offices at deep discount.

The second push we saw with CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association) dealers / integrators selling Ketra downlights, expanding their markets by supporting the joint sale of Ketra products together with lighting control systems.  Over the past few years, CEDIA has been seeking training for its dealers, so they can cross from smart-home controls to selling lighting as well.  Irrespective of their skills in lighting delivery.  We have had clients call us asking why we’re not using Ketra, because the control guy tells them its better.

CEDIA dealers have been seeking training, ironically from independent lighting designers, in order to take that market segment.  Many architectural lighting designers have been approached to provide training to CEDIA dealers, and a few have accepted, we’ve had discussions among us in the industry about these approaches.  Meanwhile new business models such as Light Can Help You have emerged to service the CEDIA skills shortage, producing high turn-over, solid quality lighting design on a sub-contract basis.  Simultaneously, CEDIA dealers supplying controls to projects led by lighting designers or architects have begun contacting the end clients directly, in an effort to displace the lighting design specification and shift it to Ketra (or other manufacturers) that they now (directly) supply.

The next step we have experienced was the withdrawal of EcoSystem from other luminaire manufacturers.  By now refusing to supply EcoSystem drivers to competing downlight manufacturers, Lutron is able to force our in-flight projects to either shift to Ketra, or to face increased costs in control.  Removal of EcoSystem drivers from a project instead necessitates ELV dimming panels or the equivalent, sold at greater profit than an EcoSystem processor.  The sequela for the project, beyond the control system alone is additional wiring, lost floor area to the additional panels, and other complications. 

This experience that I share is not unique to my practice, but numerous other lighting designers have shared similar experiences with me.

We have asked Lutron for the reasons behind the withdrawal of EcoSystem.  They have commented to us that the market for drivers in other manufacturers’ downlights was too small to justify maintaining that business.  But assertions privately given by Lutron that the P Series driver simply was too small a market to maintain are belied by their ongoing availability outside of the US market.  In fact, the controls protocol remains supported – on their own branded luminaires – more about that later.  Appeals from independent lighting designers to rethink these moves have fallen on deaf ears.

In this context, much trust has been broken.  Between Lutron and some independent residential lighting designers as well as with (OEM manufacturers and) our clients.  If lighting systems must be bid in their entirety to gain the advantages of digital dimming, the ability to purchase element by element is lost, along with its savings.

So what happens next? 

So far, Lutron has restricted the use of digital dimming to Ketra and Finiere  downlights only on their residential systems.  Will Lutron then bring this sales technique to the hospitality and commercial markets?  Conversation with Lutron leadership does not yield a clear answer, but perhaps that, in itself, is the answer.

And how will the market respond?

It is unclear whether these uses of market dominance in controls to push luminaire sales is ethical – in my view, it has certainly been done in bad faith with the trust we had in Lutron.

Whence now?

Accompanying note:
An informal group of independent lighting designers from within IES and IALD will be convening a discussion of the issues discussed here at Enlighten Americas in Palm Springs on 9/29, the Luxury Residential Lighting Control Forum, with several manufacturers presenting their response to present market conditions.  The forum will see dialogues between the manufacturers and lighting designers Sean O’Connor (Sean O’Connor Lighting) and Anne Kustner (AKLD), moderated by Thomas Paterson.  All member lighting designers will be welcome. Refer to the IALD schedule for upcoming announcements.