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  • Writer's pictureNancy Clanton

Lessons from 40 Years of Having Fun in Lighting Design!


Nancy Clanton sits at a desk and looks into the camera

It seems like yesterday when I was working on a drafting table, drawing lighting plans and sketching details. The slide rule finally was retired for an HP45 calculator. A two-person company, trying to find clients and make a difference with our quality lighting and daylighting designs. Now, 40 years later, our diverse team is incredibly talented and committed to a net zero energy world! Innovation, exploration, and creation happens when we ask, "what if?”. Our clients and work are extremely diverse from Performing Art Centers to the Department of Defense. Environmental stewardship gives us compassion for preserving dark skies, using renewable energy, energy code creation, and providing daylighting and views for all.


40 years and counting… what’s next?


In 1981, I was a business partner in a firm called “Lumineering” with Dr. Ron Helms, a professor teaching Illumination in Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado. In the summer of 1981, Ron left Colorado to become chair of Architectural Engineering at University of Kansas and sold me the company for the price of a drafting table and computer terminal. That was the beginning of Clanton & Associates, Inc.


At the start, the going was rough, as I had to learn how to get clients and how to run a business. My college friend, John McGovern, helped me navigate professional liability insurance and other necessities needed for an engineering company.


Early on, I volunteered to teach an IES continuing education class for engineers, a class Ron had taught in the past. As a twentysomething, I was so nervous! During one class, a group of engineers were sitting in the back row snickering at many of my examples of poor design. I nervously approached them during a break and asked them if something was wrong. They profusely apologized and said, “We are project managers at the airport, and every bad example you gave we have at the airport!” They decided to hire me to work on the airport projects, instead of trying to learn it on their own. MY FIRST CLIENTS!!!


Lesson #1 – No matter how nervous you are, take on challenges!

As years passed, more opportunities like this came. Another student in the same class was Greg Franta, an architect leading daylighting design at NREL. Greg approached me about designing the lighting for a mental health half-way house. Amory Lovins, chief scientist for Rocky Mountain Institute reviewed my plans and criticized the indirect lighting as not being energy efficient. I asked him what metric he was using? He replied “Footcandles of course!” I told him that I had used “Equivalent Sphere Illumination” and that indirect lighting was more energy efficient than direct lighting. His curiosity perked up and he researched Equivalent Sphere Illumination and discovered that I was correct! A few years later, Amory recommended me to chair the lighting group during the Greening of the White House for his friend President Clinton, which became the pivotal moment in my career.


Lesson #2 – Explore new creative innovations to constantly improve design quality, by asking “What if?”

The Greening of the White House was the first-time sustainability experts got together and developed an amazing sustainability plan for the White House and for all buildings. As lighting leader, we worked on all topics ranging from minimizing lighting exposure on artwork to relighting the exterior of the White House to match the historic “white color”. Most important was the incredible network building of the best of the best team. We all kept together as a team and continued our collaboration with the Greening of the Grand Canyon, Greening of the Pentagon… and eventually joined to help support the creation of the US Green Building Council.


Lesson #3 – Sometimes one opportunity can create a lifelong network of friends, collaborators, and thought leaders.

Within a few years, Clanton & Associates had gone from a small lighting consulting firm looking for work, to a design firm known nationwide working on historic projects, masterplans, and helping to develop sustainable goals for daylighting and lighting. We were invited to join innovative teams, contribute on technical advisory groups such as LEED EQ, and become part of the sustainable and regenerative visions. In our 40-year history, we have developed lighting guidelines for Department of Defense, written performance criteria for General Services Administration, developed California’s exterior lighting Title 24 energy code, written design criteria and specifications for Colorado Department of Transportation, been involved in visibility research for roadway lighting for four cities, and contributed to a number of award winning design projects. Our dedication to the advancement of lighting design has led us to join and provide leadership to multiple technical committees that develop all of our lighting standards. Even though our firm is relatively small, around 20, we have made a huge influence in the world. Our core mission is to “make a difference in the world” and we are doing it!


So, what is my final piece of advice after 40 years?


Write the standards, criteria, and recommendations in order to help shape quality design into everything we do. Take care of all people, design the best for all, and establish a net zero energy world.


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