I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Trish Foster, LC, LEED Green Associate, Director, Education Market Development, Acuity Brands. The topic: K-12 school lighting. I’m happy to share her responses with you here. The interview informed an article I wrote for the December 2017 issue of tED Magazine.

DiLouie: How would you characterize the K-12 education lighting market?

Foster: This is an exciting time for the K-12 lighting market. Data indicates that there continues to be growth in education construction. From a renovation standpoint, this means the older, dated schools, are looking for not only more efficient solutions, but also solutions that can have a positive impact on the learning environment. The education market in general is becoming more “interactive” with tools such as tablets and smart boards. Intuitive lighting controls further expand the teacher’s toolbox. For instance, tunable solutions allow the teacher to easily change the lighting intensity and color temperature to improve student engagement, depending upon factors like classroom activity or time of day. Lighting becomes another teaching tool.

DiLouie: What are the top design trends in K-12 classrooms? How are K-12 classrooms changing?

Foster: Collaborative spaces are the top trend we are seeing. Classroom environments that allow teachers and students to interact with one another and exchange ideas. Classrooms today are not static environments where students sit in uniform rows facing a chalkboard. In fact, I have visited classrooms without any desks at all. Students have alternative seating options such as bean bags and sofas.

Also, teachers continue to be very creative with their lighting. In many classrooms, teachers are using table lamps or ceiling lantern lights to create warmer learning environments. This trend is positive for all lighting professionals because it indicates a need from teachers to alter the learning environment based on the task at hand.

Lastly, schools are wanting apps to control their spaces. They want the AV screen to be controlled by an app, attendance recording to be managed by an app. Even homework and class assignments are communicated and graded digitally. K-12 schools are embarking upon the Internet of Things.

DiLouie: Generally, how are these design trends affecting best practices in K-12 classroom lighting design?

Foster: If spaces and activities are flexible, this means the lighting and controls need to be flexible as well. The lighting must be functional, of course, but with controls that are easy to understand and operate. A teacher must feel confident that when she presses a control panel, the outcome will be what he/she expects.

DiLouie: How influential are initiatives like CHPS, energy codes and LEED in the construction and renovation of schools?

Foster: Energy codes are very influential. For states that have adopted IECC 2015, LED lighting with controls integration is a given. Typically, codes drive the initial interest in lighting controls for a school space.

Initiatives such as CHPS and LEED still have a very important role in school projects, although I am not hearing as many conversations around LEED. Both CHPS and LEED provide outstanding guidelines for creating efficient and sustainable spaces, that have a positive impact on the learning environment and incorporate natural daylight into the space.

DiLouie: Tunable-white lighting is offering ways to support learning by allowing teachers to control both intensity and color temperature throughout the day. How useful are these strategies, and what evidence supports their use? What are typical lighting requirements? What lighting and control solutions are appropriate for satisfying these requirements?

Foster: The ability to tune the color temperature of the light is certainly one of the most significant advances. A class with intensive laboratory-style learning may benefit from a different color temperature than a class focusing more on reading or independent studies. With the advancements of LED technology and the easy-to-use controls platforms, every classroom can now benefit from tunable white lighting.

Research indicates that changing the color temperature based on the activity or task at hand can positively impact mood, behavior, and concentration. In fact, there is a school in Carrollton Texas that installed tunable white lighting in a 5th grade classroom at the start of the 2016 school year. Results from their annual state examination demonstrated an improvement over last year’s scores. The only variable changed with these students was the tunable lighting. You can learn more about this project by clicking here.

One final comment about tunable lighting in classrooms is that the kiddos embrace it. They remind the teacher to change the lighting when an activity changes. They also learn about the impact of lighting on the space. In fact, there is one 5th grader who is afraid his grades will suffer when he moves to the 6th grade classroom because tunable white lighting is not installed there.

DiLouie: What are the most appropriate retrofit options for K-12 classrooms?

Foster: There are many retrofit options available. When a school is considering a “true” retrofit they should look for solutions that are cost effective, easy to install and can be a one for one replacement. Luminaires that match existing form factors, such as 2×4 configurations, and wireless controls can help to keep the retrofit project on schedule and on budget.

DiLouie: How are energy codes affecting design of K-12 classrooms?

Foster: Energy codes are having a significant impact on K-12 classrooms. Classrooms have really been the slowest to adopt LED solutions and, in some cases, controls. Codes are expediting this shift. With any new or renovation classroom project, it is difficult to meet the codes without including these solutions.

DiLouie: What LED benefits are particularly suited to classrooms?

Foster: Of course, LED offers an energy-efficient solution with a long life, which means reduced on-going maintenance cost, but there are other benefits from using LED lighting in the classroom. The most significant benefit is the ease of controllability. Teachers can now easily change the intensity of the light levels based on the task and, with the appropriate driver technology, flicker is virtually eliminated. This allows for comfortable environments that enhance student learning. In the end, LED is a win-win for all stakeholders from administrators… to teachers…to students…to facility managers.

DiLouie: When selecting an appropriate K-12 lighting solution, what should electrical distributors be looking for?

Foster: It is pretty simple. Distributors need to offer the best solution for the specific needs of an application. In the case of classrooms, this means solutions that are cost-effective, have intuitive teacher controls, are easy to install and have a positive impact on students’ mood and concentration. When they offer a solution that meets these four criteria, both the distributor and the school win.

DiLouie: What can distributors do to ensure they are most competitive in the education lighting market?

Foster: Distributors need to think outside of the traditional way of selling products. It is now about the total solution, integrating luminaires and controls. Simple energy savings and payback is still important, but the conversation is now expanding into an emotional connection where student performance and optimizing the learning environment is key.

Also, distributors must expand the reach of the conversation to stakeholders who were maybe not engaged in the past. It’s now a full circle discussion between facility managers, principals, teachers and the distributor.

DiLouie: If you could tell all electrical distributors just one thing about today’s education lighting market, what would it be?

Foster: Everything about the educational environment is changing. New teaching styles, different learning tools and the physical space. Distributors must make lighting and controls a part of the “new conversation” in schools.

DiLouie: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this topic?

Foster: Schools are like a small city. Each space of the school campus has a different activity. Lighting and controls need to complement this. Remember, a high-performance lighting system is one that delivers the right type of light, right amount of light, where needed and when needed.