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Architect About Town

Illumination has key role in plans

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

Would it come as a surprise to learn an architect doesn't design a building by starting with the plan? Initially we consider the site; topology and built and un-built characteristics; views, adjacent structures, vegetation and direction of the winds and the sun. Then we imagine the volume of the building and determine where it should be located.

Illumination plays a crucial role in determining the plan. I anticipate the effect of natural and artificial light on the building, how it will be experienced from the inside and how it will be perceived from the outside — not only in the day, but importantly, at night.

Will the building glow from the inside? Which means glazed openings must be strategically located. Or, should it be lit from the outside? Which implies solid walls to reflect light.

Some areas require accent light while less significant sections need only subtle light, or left shadowy and dark. Illumination just outside a window or door creates the perception of the inside extending out.

Architectural lighting can be functional for purposes of safety, to light a path, a parking lot or a flight of stairs, but once mastered will differentiate a building or place. It is possible to create something moody, artistic and playful as well.

I have designed blank walls with the sole intention of lighting vegetation in a manner that generates dramatic shadows that become animated in the darkness — well before I have even considered the plan.

Is it evident I am fascinated with the possibilities of light? Apparently, despite evidence that outdoor lighting is becoming a lost art, I am not alone.

Marc Schmitz, area manager at Envision Lighting Systems LLC, has worked in the lighting industry since 1992 and passionately shared his expertise.

Initially Marc identifies focal points — areas that will benefit most from accent lighting. For additional visual interest, secondary architectural features and objects in the foreground, vegetation and sculptures, are more subtly lit. This technique creates depth and perspective.

His favorite trick is “grazing.” Grazing refers to light gently spread across a surface. It requires placing the light source directly adjacent to the surface instead of several feet away.

Marc explains that light directed at a surface from a distance tends to wash out texture. Grazing objects, whether a building or a royal palm, looks spectacular at night. Textures emerge from the dark.

When asked about which lights are the most effective outdoors, Marc confirmed metal halide lamps are his choice. “They are more efficient. Not only lumens per watt, but dollars per lumen — they’re the best bang for the buck.”

“LEDs are coming along too but must be used with care. Unfortunately, there are so many new LED products springing up. It’s easy to get sucked into using an inferior fixture just to lay claim to using LEDs.”

The light outside, artificial or otherwise, is as critical as light inside. It is a fundamental design factor, one of many, essential to be considered before plans are drawn.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA