Exterior Lighting: Onwards and Upwards

By Jennifer Pieszak

Approaching a lighting design project is always a balancing act of multiple goals towards a single end: a beautifully lighted project that enhances the perception of the place, meets the budget, and satisfies code requirements. But as discussions of dark-sky compliance and reduced power consumption to meet stringent new requirements have come to the forefront of exterior lighting design, the quality of the lighted nighttime environment has come under siege. Are we moving forward into a world of lighted pavement, mitigated only by the siren glow of illuminated commercial signage?

Lighting of exterior environments not only provides for safe navigation during hours of darkness, but can reveal design elements, both built and natural, that are lost in daylight, returning delight to the hours without sun. With all of our energy focused on lighting the ground, the importance of vertical illumination is getting lost in the darkness.

Silver Spring Lam Partners

Early versions of LEED SS Credit 8 (Light Pollution Reduction), with stringent requirements to limit all light above the horizontal plane with the exception of very low-brightness fixtures, was an effort to push dark-sky agendas forward without acknowledging what a well-lighted exterior environment actually requires, or what it contributes to the urban environment. Downlight with sufficient uniformity can facilitate movement across plazas and walkways, but where are people headed? Lighted pavement alone can provide orientation only without end or destination.

While obscuration of the heavens through urban sky glow is one of the most unfortunate results of the urbanization and industrialization of our planet, the metrics for nocturnal illumination cannot be based upon the assumption that the primary task of humans in an urban environment is to go and gaze at stars. Even when these standards are met, the results can still have a negative impact: a modestly lighted parking lot with light-colored concrete pavement lit to the minimum IES recommendations, using only cut-off fixtures, can substantially degrade a dark residential environment if that pavement is within view of residences – and the reflected light from the pavement is going into the sky, even though the fixture itself does not emit light above horizontal. (This is a great opportunity to advocate for tree cover – not only does it provide parking lots with cooling shade during the summer and soften their appearance during the day, but it blocks reflected light from trespassing upwards! That’s not accounted for in the requirements).

Walmart Store Parking Lot

The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has developed a metric for evaluating and designing exterior lighted environments, known as Outdoor Site-Lighting Performance (OSP), that accurately documents the effect of electric illumination on a project. OSP acknowledges that glare, light trespass beyond the physical limits of the site, and sky glow are all important factors that warrant consideration. However, by using modeling tools that measure the amount of uplight trespassing off the site – not only light emitted by fixtures, but also the reflected light off of surfaces such as the parking lot mentioned above – a more realistic picture of the lighting effect can be examined. Similarly, current and future versions of LEED SS Credit 8 do allow for some amount of uplight in the urban environment.

What about projects where reliance on cut-off downlight fixtures is not a good fit architecturally? Can they still meet the intent of a sensitively lighted nighttime environment? Lam Partners’ Hermann Park Lake Plaza project avoides pole-mounted fixtures, equipment that is, in effect, prescribed by LEED and other dark-sky guidelines. Determined not to use pole-mounted lighting along the water’s edge to avoid distracting reflections in the water, the designers devised a fully integrated approach. One-watt LED button steplights illuminate and guide, tracing the arc of steps around the lake; ground-recessed ceramic metal halide tree uplights create a welcoming border.

Hermann Park Lam Partners

The graceful composition remains uncluttered by hardware, focusing solely on form and line. The arrangement is serene and contemplative in early evening, then emerges dazzling and energetic as night descends. Because awakening the appearance of surfaces and landscape forms was critical to attracting visitors after dark while fostering safety and security, tree trunks and wall surfaces are boldly illuminated.

Hermann Park Lam Partners

The team deliberately relinquished the LEED light pollution credit (although the project did achieve LEED status), and yet, the uplit trees are magical during nighttime strolls. As darkness conceals architectural stonework, the wooded procession comes to life through light. From across the lake, the trees form an illuminated horizon, and indirectly lighted walls form the edges of this exterior room.

Photo Credits: Anton Grassl / Esto (1), Walmart Stores (2), Overland Partners (3, 4)

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