Decorative decisions

Long gone are the days when wiring accessories came in a choice of white plastic or white plastic. Today’s market is awash with products that deliver a myriad of different functions and are available in hundreds of different styles and finishes. Caroline Boden of Legrand talks about the seemingly unstoppable growth of decorative wiring accessories.

For many years wiring accessories were very much functional items. Nobody paid a great deal of attention to them, and as long as they worked that was more than sufficient for everyone’s needs.

All that changed in the mid-1990s when our airwaves were hit with an explosion of home makeover shows that brought interior design to the fore of public attention.

As a result, everything, including sockets and light switches, was put under the magnifying glass. No longer were chunky white wiring accessories that did not match the rest of the décor suitable. The big DIY stores jumped on this new, interior design-led, bandwagon; their shelves suddenly becoming packed with a range of new and exciting accessories.

While this huge shift in the public’s appetite for all things interior design related happened virtually overnight, designers and architects had been preaching interior style for years beforehand. New build homes and commercial premises were already strongly design and style led, with products such as wiring accessories being championed as playing as important a role as furnishings and colour schemes in ensuring either a consistency of theme throughout a property or a specific look in one particular room.

Today the extent of this transformation can be judged by the fact that around 25-30% of the wiring accessories we sell across both commercial and residential sectors are classed as decorative.

And while the growth of the market hasn’t been helped by the recession, it hasn’t been unduly hindered either. Yes, the number of new construction projects has dropped, but this has led to a considerable rise in the amount being invested in building improvements and upgrades.

Combine this with the wider choice of wiring accessories; the growth in demand for building automation and control; and the fact that decorative wiring accessories are actively being promoted; and you find yourself in the unusual situation of being able to say that the decorative wiring accessory market has continued to grow despite the economic turmoil.

One of the most interesting aspects during this period of change is the way in which specification priorities have altered. In the past, function was very much the only thing people thought about when considering wiring accessories, but the advent of decorative ranges shifted the focus firmly to style. Today though there are three main factors that tend to be considered when specifying wiring accessories – namely style, function and cost.

The right style

The choice of finishes and styles now available means there is something to suit virtually every building design scheme. For example, our Arteor range includes 17 different finishes, amongst them woven metal, leather, tattoo, brushed steel and wood, and was amongst the first to feature a round switch plate.

Perhaps the most popular finishes at present are brushed steel and polished chrome, which tend to be used in conjunction with slimmer profile plates, which feature no visible screws.

Worthy of note is the fact that we’ve found tastes for decorative wiring accessories are similar across both residential and commercial interiors and that they tend to follow similar style trends as those seen amongst light fittings and other architectural hardware.

Function

Function is now about much more than simply switching power and lights on and off. Today it means meeting the needs of a modern facility, and as such new functions are regularly being requested. Our wiring accessory offering now features everything from flat screen multimedia panels to USB chargers, dimmers through to lighting control panels and on to AV distribution systems – all of which can now be housed in plates that match the standard switches and sockets.

Taking things one step further are grid systems that deliver unparalleled flexibility – allowing for everything from mixing and matching functions within a single plate through to bespoke engraving of rockers.

Furthermore, products have been developed to deliver solutions to meet new end user requirements. For example, our Synergy range features large rocker switches that ease operability, and contrast plates that help those with visual impairments. While automated solutions, such as light paths that are aimed at reducing accidents by lighting dark areas when needed, and heating systems that respond to room temperature, are also proving popular.

That said, socket outlets and switched and fused spurs are still the most commonly installed items within the residential sector. In commercial premises the picture is very different, the main reason being that lighting management has been taken up on a far greater scale than it has been by residential developers.

Time for change

However, things are set to change. Firstly a combination of the Government’s target to create zero carbon homes by 2016 and the fact that lighting can account for over 20% of a property’s annual bill is likely to result in a significant increase in the number of residential properties opting to make use of lighting management systems. Secondly, expected changes to Approved Document Part L linked to the Government championed Green Deal are likely to further entrench lighting and building management systems in the heart of any new commercial development.

All of this means that wiring accessories have had to be adapted to deliver control over increasingly complex functions. Product ranges like Arteor now provide access to smart/automation solutions as well as traditional functions, while other systems deliver the perfect solution for everything from basic sensors through to full building management systems.

But the development doesn’t end there. The wiring accessory market is continually evolving, with the key driver at the moment being the growth in demand for modular accessories. These are products where the mechanism is separate to the plate, and the plate is simply clipped on. This allows the mechanisms to be fitted at build level, and for the decision on plate colour and style to be taken at a later date during the interior design/decoration stage. Our Arteor range actually goes one step further, as all mechanisms are supplied with protective covers. This means that once installed they are fully protected during decoration and the plate is only added as a final touch.

Cost

As you’d expect when talking about products that have the potential to deliver so many different functions in so many different ways and styles it is hard to talk accurately about average costs. If pushed I would say you should expect to pay at least three to four times the price of a white plastic product for a standard decorative wiring accessory.

Prices do vary enormously though and some of the more exclusive products tend to command a far higher price.

People no longer expect to be confronted by purely functional items. They have become accustomed to products that look good and feel good. And when automation and control systems become commonplace they will expect these to be easily controlled by products that have the same look and feel.

As such, the popularity of the decorative wiring accessory, whether in the home or the office, will continue to grow no matter what the economy does.

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