Blood, Sweat, and Photons

September 17, 2012 / no comments

A lot of the work we (and all design professionals) do is pretty straightforward. You get plans, discuss the design, produce your layouts, and send it all out for the contractor to build. We walk around the site when it’s all done, but we don’t really get our hands dirty on those jobs, for better or worse. A bit oversimplified perhaps, but that’s the basic process.


Then there are those other jobs – the jobs where we really are rolling up our sleeves, getting up on lifts, and spending hours on end aiming lighting fixtures. These are the museums and galleries that, without that professional touch, can end up looking like train wrecks if the lighting is not properly aimed. These projects are different from your average office building, school, or hospital in that the lighting design changes throughout the life of the building. You can’t plan to light the Mona Lisa and have the same solution work the next month for a Picasso that’s twice its size and occupies the same space. Where static lighting, like pendants and downlights, is great for a classroom, track is the go-to solution for these evolving spaces. It affords the ability to adapt and change, but it also leaves the door open to lighting chaos at the same time. The contractor can power and hang all those track heads, but who’s going to aim them?


For galleries and museums, the work is far from done when the contractor is finished. You may think that anyone can get on a ladder and point a track head at a painting, but there’s so much more to it. Is there enough light, too much, good coverage across the piece, enough accent, any unwanted reflections, good fill light, spill onto the adjacent pieces, etc. And the hardest part is that it’s all highly subjective as well. You can easily spend an hour aiming fixtures at one piece of art, nudging, tweaking, lensing, and dimming, to get it just right. Now, imagine doing that 100 or 1000 times and, on top of that, making sure the space looks just as good as the art. This is where a good lighting designer adds value. We work with the curators and technicians to fine tune these installations and bring order to that chaos, to meet their expectations. Our biggest asset is our experience; we know what works and how to do it as efficiently as possible.


Yes, it means ridiculously long hours spent on ladders and lifts, up near the ceiling where it’s 100+ degrees. We’ve bloodied our knuckles putting lenses on and off and burnt our fingertips grabbing hot lamps because there’s no time to lose. But in the end, it’s all worth it. It just looks so incredibly good when it all comes together and we can actually say, “we did that.”

Photo Credits: Matt Latchford/Lam Partners

The Taubman Museum of Art

June 14, 2009 / no comments

In Roanoke, Virginia, a luminous river of layered translucent polycarbonate panels runs through the new Taubman Museum’s central circulation space, tipping and turning as it surges among the galleries. It is indirectly lit with pendant indirect fixtures, carefully coordinated for even illumination, and aligned with the panels to provide access from below.


Can translucent polycarbonate panels be transformed to become a glowing, iconographic element in a metaphorical landscape? Certainly, the challenge was there from the start, when the early physical model straddled the architect’s office and the architect’s desire to evoke the rushing rivers of nearby foothills was our mandate. But how does one move forward from concept to execution?

Exterior Model Image

Planned for the Central Gallery circulation zone serving the second floor galleries, the luminous ceiling spans between the Atrium entry and a terminal skylight, with a branch entering the soaring Contemporary Gallery. For the central spaces, pendant uplight fixtures would be used to indirectly backlight the suspended panels, activated in effect by daylight at the Atrium and skylight ends.
A clerestory window above the panels in the Contemporary Gallery was to provide a diffuse ambient glow. Physical daylight model testing was employed to verify that the daylight from above would light the sloping translucent panels in the gallery, while still meeting artwork conservation standards of no direct sunlight on surfaces displaying artwork.

Interior Model image

A scale model of the gallery was mounted to a heliodon outside in sunlight, adjusted to correct for latitude and season, and tested for perceived visual brightness of the translucent panels as well as absolute illumination levels within the gallery.
The luminous ceiling system not only provides the ambient lighting for Central Gallery circulation, but supports its use as exhibition space as well. Strategically integrated into the panel layout, sparely used surface-mounted track can light sculptural displays; optimum track placement was coordinated with the accessible panel system’s design. Small-profile tapered T5 pendant indirect fixtures above with symmetrical reflectors are used to minimize shadows and contrast of lit fixture housings.


Before the construction documents were completed, it became apparent that cost-saving strategies would need to be pursued. The panelized ceiling had been planned to temper daylight from clerestories, but budget constraints eliminated all gallery skylights, elevating the importance of the luminous ceiling system as a source of energy-efficient ambient light. A selection of translucent multi-cellular polycarbonate panel products were evaluated for their luminous appearance and their ability to minimize the appearance of supports, light fixtures, pipes and beams from below.

Diffuser Mockup

The mock-up clearly underscored the importance of painting out all surfaces above the panels with white paint to improve lighting uniformity.

Construction photo

Four years of thoughtful teamwork and disciplined coordination result in a architectural element and ambient lighting system that transcends materiality and function, to animate a modern museum.


Location: Roanoke, Virginia
Architect: Randall Stout Architect, Inc., with RRMM Architects
Project size: 81,000 square feet
Project cost: $66 million
Photo credits: Timothy Hursley (1), Randall Stout Architects, Inc. (2-3, 5, 7), Lam Partners Inc (4, 6)