Case Studies

ConTech Lighting

Shining a spotlight on sustainable alternatives

ConTech Lighting strives to highlight not only the advantages of their products, but lighting as a whole, educating consumers on the importance of proper lighting, lighting sustainability, and providing innovative design solutions to a wide range of customers.

“Lighting is the only thing other than air and water that affect all human beings 24/7,” says Mike Lehman, vice president of marketing and product development at ConTech Lighting. “If you light the right way, it can make people happier and more productive. If you don’t light well, it is unlikely most people could identify lighting is a potential cause that may result in them not feeling well, stores may not know why they’re not selling as much and businesses don’t understand why their employees are less productive.”

ConTech Lighting

Founded in 1980, the Northbrook, Illinois-based company manufactures a variety of lighting solutions with a focus on sustainable design and performance. ConTech’s expansive roster of products includes track lighting, decorative shades, pendants and ceiling mounts, recessed lighting, LED tapelight, wall sconces, accent lighting and lamps as well as exit and emergency lighting.

ConTech serves clients across a number of industries, but Lehman likes to break it down into three simple categories: residential consumers, national distributors and retailers, and the “specifiers” such as lighting artists and architects, in whose hands bulbs are treated as more than just a source of light. “These are the people who make light into an art form to make a building more beautiful,” he says.

The lighting industry as a whole has changed dramatically over the past two decades as the science behind light continues to evolve, and ConTech is eager to capitalize on all the emerging information.

“Lighting has been seen as a functional necessity throughout history, but the impact of artificial light on the human being and the planet is something that’s only been studied for such a short period that people don’t completely understand it yet,” he says. “The wrong light will reduce your productivity, happiness and even possibly impact you medically, so understanding the impact of lighting is important.”

Livability leads the way

Originally conceived as a ceiling fan importer, ConTech made a drastic pivot from its early business model to become the midsized lighting fixture manufacturer it is today. Lehman joined the company 16 years ago when ConTech was still a mom-and-pop size outlet and has stayed onboard through a period that has seen the business expand rapidly. “We saw a tremendous growth spurt with the evolution of ceramic metal halide twelve years ago,” says Lehman.

While the introduction of new lighting technologies like LEDs and compact fluorescents (CFLs) have had a dramatic effect on the industry, Lehman says that it’s ConTech’s focus on a light’s entire cradle-to-grave lifecycle that really sets the company apart.

“We understand how lights are used today in many different project types, but we are also forward thinking and look to how they will be used in the future,” says Lehman. “A lot of companies don’t really think about all the impacts a product will have on the people in a space or environmentally with our planet.”

Sustainability has long been a central focus at ConTech, but it can be a slippery term to pin down. “If there are 100 people in a room and I ask them for a definition of ‘sustainability’, I’ll get 128 different answers,” he says jokingly.

For ConTech, sustainability all comes down to producing a supremely livable product, a term he defines in three distinct ways. “It needs to be livable with regards to the planet, the place and the people; that’s how we’ve been defining it for a long time,” Lehman says.

The “planet” aspect of ConTech’s three-pronged definition of sustainability refers to the materials used to manufacture the light, energy to operate it, and the ease of disposal at the end of its life, while “place” refers to how a light functions within the space it is being used. “People” is not only how people look in the lighting, but how they perform, relax, and heal.”

“In lighting the focus is often on energy consumption, and that’s one important aspect, but you can go into a lot of places where they are using Energy Star lighting that ruins the aesthetics of the place because they produce what we call a ‘glare bomb,’” says Lehman. “You take out your mobile device with its glossy screen and you can’t see anything, so it might be OK for the planet, but is it OK for the place or the people in it?”

Lehman says that regulations sometimes place too much emphasis on a bulb’s energy consumption and not enough focus on its other attributes like color quality, glare management, and light distribution. “I spend a lot of time working with sustainability-focused groups like LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council [USGBC], Green Globes and ASHRAE to try and infuse these programs with a balance so it’s not just about the energy consumption, but also making sure the lighting solution is good for the human being and the space itself.”

Lehman cites several incentive and certification programs designed to replace conventional sources with LED as a prime example of the industry getting ahead of itself when it comes to sustainability. “Many companies introduced new products to meet certain energy and performance metrics, but the products were not well received. Did they reduce energy? Yes. But in the end they did not deliver the distribution, quality, or functional capabilities needed by the consumer” says Lehman.

“In a rush to market, some manufacturers and certification programs emphasize the technology just reduce energy consumption, but miss the unintended consequences. Many organizations do not understand all the details about how a product is used, like considering what the product looks like when it is off, disability glare, or the fact that many table lamps have shades that attach to them. Some new LED lamps are not mechanically compatible with the shades they are supposed to work with, so you also have to replace the lampshade when you make a bulb change,” he says. “With new technology comes new opportunity to make the world a better place, reduce energy, and enhance our quality of life. To maximize the benefits of good lighting, you must understand the application, daylight and control integration, and the technology you are using.”

At ConTech, the focus is on making a product that not only out-performs competitors in terms of lower energy consumption but also one that can be said to be a definitive improvement on previous generations. “We consider what the product is, how it will be used and then we take the time to do it right,” Lehman says. “We might take a little longer, but in the end it’s a much better product at a much better price.”

The lighting manufacturer has a number of new products that exhibit their commitment to combining sustainability and functionality, like the two-inch mini O2 track fixture, LED filament lamps, and the CPL LED pendant series. “You can stack that CPL up against anyone on the planet. We make them up to 22 inches diameter, delivering 10,000 lumens, and 50,000 hours to L70 with a bumper-to-bumper warranty, but with all this technical acumen, it’s also very aesthetically pleasing and produces useful light,” says Lehman.

Changing the industry through education

ConTech produces a number of products in-house, sources products from across the U.S., Europe and Asia and assembles many components in-house. This business model not only helps cut costs by enabling the company to combine newer LED sources with older socket components to make new products, but also allows ConTech to react quickly to meet a customer’s needs.

Lehman sees consumer education as a vital part of the growth of the sustainable lighting industry. “There is an assumption that lighting is easy, but good lighting is hard and is changing every day. A homeowner may just want a new bulb to replace a burnt out one at home, but they don’t know what to buy. How many homeowners know what a lumen is? They just want to know what will replace the last one they took out of the socket. Many bulbs state “equivalent to…” but equivalent in what way? The amount of light? The shape of light? The color of the light? Most people just don’t know and their choice that day may be negatively impacting their quality of life by creating eyestrain or glare issues,” he says.

For his part, Lehman works to educate consumers and the industry as a whole through his role as a speaker at a local college, working with the universities and offering continuing education credits which are accredited by the AIA, NCQLP, ASID, and USGBC. “I work with people at any level to understand technology, how to evaluate it, and how it can make a positive impact. We also have a lighting app which features a Lighting Guru to help people understand the many facets of lighting,” he says.

That education is taking place on the consumer level as well. ConTech recently unveiled a new 5,000-square-foot training facility that allows the company to demonstrate the myriad properties of light and how to choose the right product for every job. “We focus on showing light in space and how it can affect that space and the people in it,” says Lehman.

Beyond education, product availability is important to the customer as well. “Most of our competitors have a list of products they can ship in two to three weeks, but our entire catalog is a quick-ship list,” says Lehman. “If you place an order today, you would receive your order in about a week, and sometimes sooner than that.”

As consumers become more light-savvy and learn to ask more of their lamps, ConTech will be there to meet the needs of an increasingly discerning customer base.

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