Illuminating Architecture

Viewed from a cloudless 35,000 feet, the earth’s main cities at night are cheerfully ablaze with lights. Down on earth, there is an environmental price to pay for such extravagant energy consumption. That’s where low-wattage LED light fixtures, no-wattage “glow-in-the-dark” paint and other more efficient lighting systems yet to come will play their part.

By: Albert Warson

Paris is called the City of Light for the flair with which most of its historic monuments and many of its architectural gems are illuminated externally after dark.

Then there is Vancouver, which isn’t Paris, but in its own unassuming yet adventurous style may well be leading the world in “green” architectural illumination. The 60-storey Shangri-La hotel/condo tower, for example – the city’s tallest building upon its completion in 2008 (until a taller one surfaces in the meantime) – will literally “glow in the dark” with a new photo-luminescent paint product, developed by Luna Technologies International, New York (corporate) and Coquitlam, B.C. (research, development and production).

Luna calls itself a “world leader in the emerging field of high-performance photo-luminescent materials,” which typically illuminate building and aircraft “exit” and other escape signage. The new lighting application for buildings is charged by ambient light, especially ultra-violet rays, and can glow for hours, releasing stored light without any electricity. Luna reasoned that the system could find vastly larger applications than signage. Lighting up building exteriors, for example, and Vancouver is the first city to use it in that format.

James KM Cheng Architects in Vancouver, the firm that designed the Shangri-La hotel, the first to be built in North America, chose the Luna system, which is being applied on the exterior as the tower rises. Cheng explains that the “lighting absorbs and reflects ultra-violet light during the day into a spectrum of changing colours, and glows softly at night.” No electricity or light bulbs are used, and there is no maintenance, except to clean the button-like fixtures occasionally. A similar 65-storey Shangri-La hotel/condo in downtown Toronto, to be under construction this year, will use the same technology.

Cheng had previously persuaded a client to illuminate a building exterior differently, in this case the 40-storey Shaw Tower office/condo building dominating one of the last available sites on Vancouver’s waterfront.

Cheng’s firm decided to dramatize the tower’s prominence by using lighting as public art, choosing Los Angeles lighting sculptor Diane Thater to design it. She used a light-emitting diode (LED) type of lighting only for the waterfront façade of the tower to throw a shaft of multi-coloured lighting 480 feet to the top of the building, with a fog-lighting effect at the base.

“Lighting should be considered an integral part of a building, not just some lights added to make it look good,” he says. “Most buildings are illuminated at the top or at the bottom, possibly a whole façade. Our challenge was to do it so that residents wouldn’t get the glare. We devised a system where the computer-controlled light and colour spectrum is contained and dispersed into the harbour, away from the building interior,” Cheng adds.

The solution for the Shaw Tower’s exterior lighting, a product of TIR Systems, Vancouver, is built into a recess in the wall facing the waterfront, containing energy-efficient LED lighting, which doesn’t shine outside the recess.

Casinos are probably among the most brilliantly lit applications of exterior lighting, mainly neon, (think Las Vegas) but LEDs are also used. The Edgewater Casino, on Vancouver’s waterfront, for example, which opened last year in the former B.C. Pavilion for Expo 86.

Patrick Cotter, the local architect on the renovation, recalls: “The variable light levels delivered by daylight coming through the windows had to be controlled. Something like this hasn’t been done on this large a scale before, and we had to overcome some initial concern about how residents living nearby might perceive the building’s look.

“We produced a computer-generated model and simulation to demonstrate how we needed to alter the building and how the lighting would impact the exterior’s visual look within the cityscape. As the lighting system is digitally controlled,” he says, “the lighting program can be modified by changes to the frequency, brightness and colours to meet the changing needs of owners and city planners.”

Ordinarily, if a building’s exterior is illuminated, it is by floodlights, from the ground up and usually at the top, says Phil Gabriel, whose Gabriel Design, architectural lighting design consulting company in Ottawa re-lit the Parliament Buildings a few years ago.

“There hadn’t been as much thought given to lighting building exteriors until LEDs became available within the past 15 years, and which have attracted a lot of attention since. They are popular because it is possible to create almost any colour, they’re programmable and allow for the kind of signage animation at Yonge and Dundas streets in downtown Toronto,” he says.

“Exterior lighting makes buildings stand out from their neighbours, especially hotels and restaurants,” he says. Travel magazines feature more images of resorts, casinos, hotels and other tourist attractions illuminated at night to give them another glamorous dimension. But whether it’s an urban government, corporate residential tower or tourist promotion application, Gabriel says sustainability has become more of an issue.

“There is much greater interest, sensitivity and care in illuminating buildings but also in conserving electricity, and eliminating light that dissipates into the sky,” he says. Apart from energy conservation issues, professional and amateur astronomers and casual stargazers who belong to and/or support “dark sky” associations are lobbying against what they consider to be pollution emanating from illuminated buildings and street lighting in heavily populated cites.

While LEDs are the future, Gabriel thinks the technology isn’t going to advance much further and has at times been applied “overwhelmingly rather than appealingly.” Toronto office towers, he suggests, would benefit from an imaginative use of exterior lighting.

Bjarne Pedersen, like Gabriel a certified lighting designer and a partner in Architectural Lighting Design in Toronto, says there is room to improve LEDs and, in fact, “things are changing by the month.” They are more “robust than neon and last longer,” generally for 100,000 hours of illumination. They can also be used to transform an entire wall of a building into a giant brightly-lit pixel board, with moving images and text messages.

Gerry Cornwell, also a Toronto lighting consultant, regards LEDs as part of a trend to “architainment,” which can enliven building exteriors, but also important because they use little energy and don’t compete with ambient light.

There are such things as one-watt LED light fixtures, or ones with the same output as traditional 1,000-watt metal halide fixtures, but that use only 50 watts, Cornwell says, and with a much longer life than neon. They are more flexible in use as well. At the same time, he considers LEDs to have limitations and puts them “about halfway between incandescent and fluorescent in terms of efficiency.”

While nobody can predict how LEDs will evolve, Cornwell considers them not as good as the present generation of fluorescent lighting, although he thinks LEDs will overtake fluorescent as the primary source for outdoor lighting in the near future.

He is more concerned about the enormous waste and unnecessary cost of street lighting or lighting highways during the middle of the night when it isn’t needed, certainly not at the present intensity. He hopes municipalities will install programmable systems, which will automatically brighten light levels when a bus approaches or turn down highway lighting when traffic is sparse during the night.

TIR Systems, established in 1982, is a specialty lighting manufacturer serving architectural, commercial, industrial and corporate identity markets around the globe. In 2000, it focused on LEDs as an energy-efficient, high-quality source of illumination, culminating in its Lexel solid-state white LED-based lighting system that was introduced in 2005. It has since won a shelf full of international industry and government awards for the system’s technology platform and energy conservation properties.

Equivalent to a conventional lamp, ballast and socket, the Lexel has the potential to use up to 80 per cent less energy to produce the same amount of light as a conventional light source, the company says, and it does not degrade its output or colour temperature over its 50,000-hour life.

Lexel has this year been introduced into a global lighting marketplace worth an estimated US $102 billion, backed by production agreements with a consortium of eight manufacturers in the U.S., Germany and Japan.

A company spokesman describes SSL as “semiconductor technology, which like computer power, increases geometrically” and will in time make LED use more cost-effective, although he acknowledges the system has limited application.

“There won’t be millions spent on research. Lighting manufacturers don’t want to be reworking their entire system. Technology has to come to the manufacturer, not the other way around. What’s needed is a LED system that’s like a light bulb system,” he says. Where is Thomas Edison when we need him?

Exterior LED lighting on the waterfront façade of the 40-storey office/condo Shaw Tower on Vancouver’s waterfront is visible for many miles on a clear night, but not indoors. Los Angeles lighting sculptor Diane Thater, hired by building designer James KM Cheng Architects in Vancouver, created the colours and patterns as a piece of public art. There is also a coloured fog lighting effect at the base – when there is no fog.

Edgewater Casino

Edgewater Casino, on Vancouver’s waterfront, is illuminated at night by brilliant hues of LED lamps. Not quite as hard on the eyes as Las Vegas casinos, but out-of-town gamblers would find it easy to locate. The casino, housed in a former Expo 86 pavillion, was designed by Patrick Cotter Architects, Toronto. Photos by Nic Lehoux.

No, this isn’t in Canada, but it’s a good example of what Canadian companies can do – outside the country. This dramatic internal and external architectural lighting application and starburst effect was created by TEON Environmental and TIR Lighting, both Vancouver-based firms, for the Full Moon Tower, centrepiece of Galaxy Park, the main civic plaza in Tianjin, China. It’s just part of the city’s night-lighting program. Photo by David Pham.


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