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Cost over quality: The challenges of educating stakeholders in developing economies

Sustainability By Matt Marshall, Principal, Lighting Design – 25 November 2021

A circular light bulb with a glowing filament in front of a blue wall


Matt Marshall with plants and building in background

Matt Marshall

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While this is a universal problem, faced by specifiers globally, nowhere is it more prevalent than in developing nations. The desire to develop outweighs the desire to implement considered designs that capture the issues that we are striving for in our work. I’m talking about the age-old process of trying to implement our projects with products that fulfil the following criteria:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Sustainable manufacturing practices
  • Durability and lifespan
  • Circular economy

As designers, it is of course our responsibility to consider these criteria, but we also need to think about the energy efficiency of our specification. It can also be a struggle to keep the design itself under control with the commercial direction dictating ‘bigger and brighter’ – particularly on façade lighting design. I recall once standing opposite a mock-up of a façade project where we had tried to use the internal lighting as much as possible , the only comment was that they wanted more.

Assuming that we can get past the above-mentioned issues and reach the specification phase with a design we are happy with, we are then faced with two paths to take:

  • Use the performance specification route - this involves basing our specification being based on the best possible products that will fulfil all the criteria.
  • Use products that satisfy as closely as possible while remaining within the client’s project budget.

Both of these approaches come with their own set of challenges and issues. If we use the performance specification approach, we are often well over budget. If we take the second approach, and are still over budget and further value engineering is needed, we risk being forced to use a sub-standard set of fixtures and equipment that will not perform or meet any of the requirements.

It would seem logical that the best approach is to educate as early as possible. Get the client on board and excited from the outset about the process and the benefits of designing sustainably. This is a nice thought, but lighting designers are often brought on board late in the process when the general direction is already set. It is then often too late to make any significant impact on the client and design team. Using façade lighting as an example, I could list many projects where the design already dictated lighting before the lighting designer was even appointed.

So perhaps the answer lies in the education of our fellow design colleagues working in architecture, interior design and landscape design. Encourage them to bring us on to the project as early as possible. Allow us to have input into their designs to accommodate our ideas. Establish an open dialogue with them to approach us at the concept stage for our guidance and allow us to offer advice.