wing luke museum frazier

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Seattle, Washington. Photo: Paul Sundberg.

When light and architecture are successfully integrated, magic happens. Getting there can be a struggle, but when an architect and lighting designer truly collaborate, integration becomes much more of a sure thing—and fun.

At its best, lighting design blends daylight and electric light seamlessly into a building’s architectural form, structure and aesthetic. Treating daylight and electric light design as disparate parts of the creative process is not the path to success. Relegating electric light to something pasted onto architecture and specified by someone without a real understanding of the physics and art of light will usually result in something between ho-hum and “what were they thinking?” Then there’s the budget. A good independent lighting designer’s ability to prioritize design and equipment options based on the overall good of the project can bring substantial savings and support the architectural intent.

How do you get there? Collaboration—the fun part. The architect and lighting designer must truly understand the way all forms of light move around and over a space, surface or object. Each needs to be able to discuss concepts in a language they both understand and with respect for each other’s roles and expertise. This will facilitate an integrated design that serves and enhances the architecture while meeting technical requirements. Ideally, the initial discussions are all about concepts, perception and priorities— specific types of lighting equipment comes later. This gives the experienced lighting designer the tools to develop a preliminary plan adaptable to the iterative design process. This sequence results in the best chance that a project will include light that is truly integrated into the architecture. As long as the lighting designer has an appropriate breadth of experience and knowledge of technical issues and available equipment, a balanced approach will help ensure that the project can meet budget requirements and satisfy design concepts. This is best accomplished by the inclusion of an independent lighting designer on the design team; that is, someone who is not associated with any manufacturer, agency or distributor.

Integrating electric light into the design in such a way that the architecture shines, not the light fixture, requires an understanding of the daylight distribution in the space. Daylight analysis, which ideally informs the architectural layout and finishes, must go hand-in-hand with the development of the electric lighting layout. The discussion must include analysis of how the daylight and electric light interact, balancing and enhancing each other. Without that coordinated effort, opportunities will be missed. With it, operational economy can be facilitated by lighting controls, and the aesthetic quality of the space has an increased chance of meeting the project’s architectural goals.

Daylight floods the space from above, reducing the visibility of the illuminated windows. In the evening, the environment is much darker, and the space must still serve as a corridor with all the attendant code requirements for circulation lighting. Everyone on the design team agreed that we didn’t want to see light fixtures in the space; it needed to feel like the alley outside. An on-site mock-up of the window backlighting proved a perfect way to determine how bright the apertures would appear, how much light would be provided and how to construct it. This process confirmed that a simple fluorescent strip with an asymmetric reflector concealed behind the frame would provide sufficient circulation light.

Without this careful collaboration between the architects and lighting designer, this could have required a much costlier solution. Studying the mock-up together strengthened the team’s commitment to the concept. Collaboration is part of the design process that can seem to add expense. But economizing on this aspect can actually detract from the overall quality of the project. Solving challenges by bringing the important decision makers together to consider the options and develop the overall design together benefits everyone. While this method applies to all architect/consultant relationships, it is particularly important that as the architectural design evolves, time is allowed for architects and lighting designers to envision and realize together how light will move around the space. Keeping your design ideas close to your chest is never going to bring the best results. So meet, discuss, be open to everyone’s thoughts, and appreciate the contributions of designers reaching beyond narrow boundaries. Your project will celebrate it.