Elegant Simplicity in Engineering: Seeing the light in lighting design

By: Andrew Moore
27 June 2017
“Elegant Simplicity in Engineering” is a recurring feature wherein engineering-
focused team members discuss the relevance of design in their work.

Often I’m asked about how we can think of lighting differently and get away from the grid of 2x4s that has been etched into the brain of lighting engineers since the early 1970s. During a recent WebEx discussion on lighting, we discussed the Flynn studies — also from the 1970s, but related to how people react to a space, based on the surfaces being lit.

For years we focused on footcandles on a task plane, but those who took the studies to heart realized illuminating perimeter surfaces could increase the perceived brightness of a space. How do we utilize this to create “elegance in simplicity” within our lighting designs?

It starts with being integrated into the architectural and interior design decisions from the start. When you can hide sources of light, and illuminate spaces and surfaces from invisible locations, it adds to the built environment and truly creates an elegantly simple approach. This may require coves or recesses to be carefully coordinated with the design team. Or, in some cases, it may be that the light source becomes the architecture.

What happens when the media or lens for interior daylighting and exterior site lighting is melded into one aperture? For Renfro Design Group, it meant a beautiful mass of translucent material acting as a backdrop to an otherwise historic art museum in Kansas City, MO. In the 2007 Bloch addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, architect Steven Holl and lighting designers Renfro Design Group, Inc., decided to construct a building (or series of five buildings) from light.

A criterion for museum gallery lighting is allowing a dynamic input, in some form of daylight, while a contrasting criterion is a need to control ultraviolet and infrared radiation association with daylight. For the Bloch addition, this meant using a sandblasted acrylic with embedded filters, and making the entire structure an aperture for daylight. As the design progressed, the sandwiched construction also allowed for an aperture for artificial light, in the form of asymmetric T5HO luminaires embedded within the wall construction (these have since been replaced with linear LED lamps from Osram Sylvania).  The result is a stunningly dynamic space, both on-site and when experienced from within the gallery.

I had an opportunity to access the sandwiched channel during a site visit in college, and experience the space both during day and night. The imposition of this project has never left my memory. Amazingly, despite the size of the addition, the structure is able to act as a light source for the adjacent 1933 Nelson Atkins Museum at night.

A system that provides interior daylighting and exterior site lighting while complementing an adjacent site is difficult to accomplish, but Nelson Atkins’ Bloch addition achieves it, providing a fine example amongst many of the project types we work on here in rural Montana (like Bozeman, where I live) and the larger metropolises in which we function (such as Austin, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, and New Orleans).

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