Kerry Penwell is a pioneer in the blending of architectural lighting design and AV integration professions. But unlike most AV integrators who are only now beginning to consider lighting, his career started there more than two decades ago.
The owner of the 13-person Greenville, SC-based Kasted (the lighting design division) and Drakes Penwell Design Group (the AV integration division) studied electrical engineering and physics, before taking his first job in the electrical engineering field doing construction and power distribution work. He was soon drawn to architectural lighting design, an area that his boss at the time wasn’t as interested in pursuing.
“He had a different interest; we were doing power distribution plants and a lot of industrial stuff,” Penwell recalled. “But, people were coming to us for lighting design and consulting, so I decided to start my own firm, eventually moving into commercial and high-end residential lighting design and consulting.”
Penwell eventually realized that the user experience, via lighting control technology, was a key to satisfying lighting designs for his clients. Soon, his company had added Lutron programming and installation to their skillset, and from there, customers started to ask him for AV design advice and dealer referrals.
“We truly became a low-voltage lighting/electrical architect of projects,” Penwell said.
But, despite their best efforts, Penwell often witnessed clients getting much more than what they had asked for when it came to AV designs supplied by referred integrators.
“Fifteen years ago, it was typical for customers to end up with the Starship Enterprise in their home, whether they asked for it or not,” he said. “Eventually, clients started asking us just to do the whole thing for them. So, we partnered up and had someone pull the wire, and we were off to the races with AV design and integration.”
These days, the Kasted lighting design division of the company services clients all over the U.S., while the Drakes Penwell Design Group, under the guidance of AV integration veteran Steve Drakes, handles a more regional client list in Greenville and throughout the Carolinas.
On the national lighting design projects, Kasted will still partner with top-quality integrators for on-the-ground work, having found many of them through their Kasted’s Azione Unlimited buying group membership.
Lately, however, the lighting design market has begun to change. In recent years, for instance, Penwell has witnessed high-end architectural firms that embrace lighting in their designs, pulling some of that work in-house. Changes in technology – particularly the addition of LED options – have also changed the business for the better.
“It’s night and day,” Penwell noted. “We’ve moved from incandescent to low-voltage halogens and LEDs, and that’s doubled our toolbox and our precision. No longer are we using this big chunky chainsaw. Now we have scalpel-like precision. At this point, the sky’s the limit. We can really be creative, and really bring the architecture interiors and finishes to it, and we have so many tools to do it. We just have to navigate the 10 options and decide which is the right one for a particular application.”
So, a designer must not only learn how to use a new palette of paints, so to speak, with more fixture options, but also navigate which bulbs to use and which ones to avoid. That’s getting easier, according to Penwell.
“With LED, it’s now 90 percent good and 10 percent bad, whereas it used to be just the opposite,” he said. “But you have to start thinking about more specific applications. You get to be much more precise, and you can really be creative. We’re past rolling an art piece with a roller brush; we’ve got all the brush sizes to give us a final pencil level of detail. LED is a huge positive in what we’re able to do.”
That being said, Penwell adds a word of caution about the AV industry’s interest in moving into lighting design and fixture sales.
“I’m not trying to be a doomsday person,” he clarified. “I’m trying to make sure we can have success as we look back at this point in history for the AV industry. It offers great potential, but also a huge opportunity for a black eye for the industry. My concern is that AV guys are quickly gaining access to a dangerous amount of stuff that they don’t understand and aren’t being given enough information about. When you’re talking messing up lighting, you’re talking about taking down ceilings and walls and rewiring to fix it. You’re talking about huge-dollar mistakes.”
Penwell likes the approach of one integration firm that he met at a conference recently. In the early days of home network design, this firm outsourced 100 percent of IT work. Two years later, that company felt confident enough to bring that work in-house. Now, they’re taking that same approach with lighting design.
“They dabbled in one project and went, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute … Things are getting tricky, and we’re going to burn relationships.’”
That being said, Penwell believes that the AV business is the right field to tackle advanced lighting design.
“I think this business is going to leave 99 percent of electricians behind as that industry goes through major changes in the next five years,” he noted. “We’ve seen all of the other building industries forced to change and get better at what they do. Electrical is one of the last groups being forced to change.”
For AV integrators moving into lighting, Penwell says the biggest key to success is understanding that lighting is completely subjective. “It’s about understanding what the owner expects to see when they walk in. Is it dramatic or is it wall-to-wall light?” he asked. “It’s subjective, and you have to be able to communicate that, set expectations, and document what your client wants. Because, a year down the road, when they turn the lights on – memories are really funny things – the client might say, ‘Wait a minute. It’s too bright…’ or, ‘It’s not bright enough.’ We told them we were doing a dramatic space, so we accented certain areas. Having those things documented is important. It’s about what that owner wants and has in their head. That’s the key element of success in lighting design.”