Architectural lighting considerations

Architectural lighting design is much like architecture itself. It requires a combination and understanding of both artistic and scientific aspects. How do what are supposedly two differing worlds work together? It would not be an assumption to state that the science has to support the artistic. Architectural lighting is about using the knowledge of the scientific to bring out the aesthetic.

Look at it this way. As far as lighting is concerned, the end effect is apparent. Someone may say “I want this section to look bright while the background is lit with red sparkles.” What is not so clear, and this is where a lighting engineer can bring in knowledge, experience and expertise, is how this effect is going to be achieved. The lighting engineer can bring in years of training and know-how, and for the beginner, having the lighting engineer to learn from can take years off the learning curve and process is accelerated.

A creative spirit is sought from a lighting designer. But it is not all about creativity. The qualified professional knows how light works, understands its properties as well as its effects on humans. He knows the aesthetic impact of light on humans.

Too much light? It causes glare and causes discomfort. Too little light also causes discomfort, but in a different way. If you have to squint to narrow your focus because the lights are too bright, your body language is immediately defensive. If the lighting is insufficient and too dark, you have to psychologically extend yourself in order to make more sense of it. An object with higher level of light stands out from its background, of course, but how do you manage the level of overall light?

When it comes to architectural lighting design, the points of emphasis revolve around three areas of focus. These three areas are fundamental aspects that we will commonly encounter in the illumination of buildings and spaces. The aesthetic appeal of a building, how the building looks, is one of these. The second is what we might call the ergonomics, this is an aesthetic measurement of the lighting and its impact is experienced by the building/space. The third aspect is that of energy efficiency. If a lighting for a building scores well in all these three aspects then it is likely that its overall feel is good. Quite often the decisions a lighting engineer has to make are how to obtain a balance between all three even if there was one area he could really go all out on. There is no point excelling in two areas if the third average, because the aesthetic quality, the feel of things just wouldn’t be right.

The lighting designer often works in conjunction with the architect to arrive at a common consensus about the effect of the lighting. When it comes to aesthetic appeal, the architect’s vision for the project comes into play, and it is important for the architect to fully describe what he aims to get from the project. What parts of the building or installation does he want to emphasise? Which parts does he want to make more subtle? More importantly, what is the aesthetic, or the emotion, that the architect wants to project? The lighting designer has to fully take in the architect’s ideas and vision, and then work out the means to achieve these. The architect provides the “What” and the lighting designer provides the “How”.

The ergonomics of the design must also be considered. If it is going to be a brightly-lit space, will there be too much light for users during different periods of the day? And what about the changing of the seasons? Considerations for human users as well as the impact of the lighting on the surroundings must be factored.

To give a recent example, a company decided to revamp the entrance grounds, where all visitors and staff pass through. This involved the construction of a bronze company logo, which at night was highlighted by spot lights from various angles and backlit by semi-indirect lighting. The aesthetic the company sought to promote was that of pioneering leadership in its field, and the lighting brought this out fully. Visitors passing by in the night could see the logo well-distinguished from its surroundings. The only problem was that as winter approached and it got dark towards the end of office hours, those working on the ground floor were often blinded by some of the spotlights. If you were waiting in the lobby to see a member of staff, some of the lights, as well as the reflections off the structure, depending on where you sat, you might have well been sitting on a sofa with a red dot between your eyes.

Another company had the same intention, with their company logo of a torch on the grounds. At the top where one would expect to see the flames, there were four strong spotlights that streaked out to the sky to mimic the same effect. At the time of construction, at the start of summer, the project opened with the usual fanfare that accompanies such openings. But by late autumn no one was applauding, especially those who worked on the upper floors and fell in the direct line of the spotlights. Eventually it was decided that the lights would only come on after office hours, but in doing so, the aesthetic quality that the company sought to convey, that of being a shining light among its surroundings, was lost.

Ergonomics and aesthetics must be balanced and quite often ergonomics triumphs.

The third factor is that of energy efficiency. Even if the ergonomics and aesthetic aspects are satisfied, what is the cost of maintaining such lighting? It is no good having a well-lit installation if it is going to drain the company budget and be a source of future grumblings and spawn areas of contention. The running costs of the lighting are not only the costs that lighting designers have to deal with; they may have to find ways to source materials that accomplish the same effect but which do not cost as much to acquire or do not have high running costs.

The lighting designer has to find a way of meeting all the above three areas in a “best fit” situation – it is not point excelling in two and dwindling in the other. A project that is ergonomic, projects the desired effect but costs too much to run is no good. One that falls within budget, and projects the sought impression, but makes the surroundings or the nearby users uncomfortable is similarly an undesirable outcome.

Designers also have other considerations too. For more complex works, they have to project manage the work itself as well as the acquisition of building materials. They also have to evaluate the materials for cost and regulations, while also ensuring the outcomes adhere to building and energy codes. In addition, growing environmental focus has meant that they are increasingly under pressure to work sustainably – to source sustainable materials and deliver carbon-neutral works.

If it were a musical world, we would say lighting designers are the conductors and the orchestral managers at the same time. Not only do they have to conduct the various forces at the disposal to obtain a desired emotional effect, they have to recruit the musicians at the same time. If musicians are unavailable, they have to recruit others in their place, or find a way to get the same musical result without them altogether. And they have to make sure the budget for musicians is met. So if – at the start of this paragraph – you thought, “What an overstatement”, it really is not!

But one thing is for sure. In having to meet all these demands, it takes skill.