Illuminated building façades and building envelopes not only add to the versatility of the architecture itself, but alter how we see and use the building. Building façades are powerful fixed statements which can be used to convey messages, communicate emotions and create attention. Contemporary lighting solutions for building façades also need to add value, showing a building off to its best potential whilst providing a positive corporate image. Lighting in Design spoke to Otto Horlacher from Giantlight to find out more about the latest trends in façade lighting and the challenges lighting designers are currently facing.

Emerging trends in façade lightingLiD: What are the main considerations when it comes to façade lighting?

OH: First, you need to identify the building and categorise it correctly. So you’ll have a commercial venue, such as an office block, an entertainment venue, such as a casino, then you have residential venues and also hospitality venues – such as hotels or restaurants. Often the issue with façade lighting is that a façade has dimensions – it’s not a flat screen. You can take a floodlight, position it X metres away (as far as the road or the neighbours will allow) and you can blast the entire building with a floodlight, but you won’t pick up the detail, you won’t bring out the relief, you won’t access the 3D component of the façade. You need to try and get onto the façade and, if the architecture has overhangs, balconies, or any architectural features, attempt to highlight them. That brings another set of challenges; now that you’ve installed lighting on the façade of the building, how do you do maintenance 15 storeys up? Owing to the fact that access to halfway up a façade is very expensive, maintenance often doesn’t get done.

A commercial building would typically have one or two features on the façade. A good idea is to highlight the roofline – this way the maintenance staff can get onto the roof, put on a safety belt, lean over the parapet wall and work on the linear lighting system around the top. With additional floodlight from the base, the features on the façade will be accented.

When it comes to an entertainment venue, such as a casino, the sky’s the limit. You’re not going to offend anyone because casinos cannot be placed too close to a residential area, and they want the ‘wow factor’. They want people to drive past and say, “What is going on there?” The lighting can be as big as the budget available to you. There can be animation, search lights etc – you really want to blitz the place right out of the ground with light. Take something like Times Square Casino, they’ve got many architectural features that are so over-the-top that you need permission from the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) to use certain lighting, such as search lights.

Hotels are especially tricky because they want to attract attention, but you have tenants who stay in hotels so you have to be careful about how you design the lighting. You cannot have a guest who cannot sleep because of colour changing lights coming through the windows, so you have to be very careful that you don’t bounce light into the hotel rooms. At the same time, they do want feature lighting because it’s a billboard for the business.

With hotels it’s a fine line between accentuating the entire building with light and not causing discomfort for the patrons. And, anything that goes for a hotel, goes for residential as well. For the Michaelangelo apartment project in Sandton, we are doing a combination of lighting on the roof and on the ground, shining 42 storeys up, but nothing on the façade per se because we do not want to disturb residents with the lighting.

With residential projects, it’s difficult because you’re often dealing with homeowners who don’t understand lighting and, frequently, the husband and wife differ in opinion. In factories, façade lighting issues tend to relate to security. Light pollution is another consideration. In certain regions, such as the Nordic countries, you are not allowed to shine light up into the sky. There are associations such as the Night Sky and Star associations that have become environmental bodies which prohibit and legislate against lighting straight up into the sky. That places modern floodlighting, such as lighting up a skyscraper, out of the equation.


LiD: What new innovations have you come across in recent years?

OH: Animation and control. The ability to put colour, and not just white light, onto a building. White light is often not differentiated; drive past a big carpark and you can see all the fluorescent tubes or LED tubes inside or you look at the façade of the building and they’ve delineated the top, but in white. You don’t automatically see it as something different.

The Leonardo project we are currently working on is going to employ colour changing lights. This can be viewed as kitsch, so you have to be very careful – it should not change every few seconds, and you have to be selective of your colours. Choose tasteful colours with a slow morphing period from one colour to the next so the installation does not look like a traffic light. The colours should bleed into each other, so set a fade-up time and a fade-down time and ensure the two morph into each other slowly.

Depending on how the electronics and controls are digitised, you can mix colours that are not primary. Primary red and primary blue and green are very harsh – they are monochromatic and look artificial. The trick is to try for pastel colours. LED has effectively made other light sources extinct. They are tiny. In the past fittings were bulky, so there is greater control these days. A light fitting the size of a thumb placed on the side of a building will shoot a pencil beam of light. But, this means someone has to get in a gondola and go down the side of the building, with all the safety issues involved. We try and stay away from ‘on façade’ lighting. It is better, it is more effective, but it never gets maintained. When light fittings fail, they tend not to get repaired until half the façade is not working – this makes the façade unsightly. If the installation is on the ground, someone can use a ladder for maintenance and there is no need for the services of someone with Level 1 mountain rigger certification from the Department of Labour who charges R4500 per day for his time.


LiD: How does South Africa fare against the rest of the world when it comes to façade lighting?

OH: We suffer from an, “I don’t want to standout” complex in this country. Clients want to do something brash and loud, but they’re scared of the repercussions or the criticism. I worked in Dubai for two years and there was no limit there. The brasher and louder, the better. I try to ask an architect or a property developer, “What do you think was said about the Eiffel Tower when they put that up? Or the Sydney Opera House?" They were originally slated but now people flock to them. Fortune favours the bold, but people are so uncertain of doing something and being criticised that they stay subtle. So subtle, ultimately, that it makes no difference – and they might as well not have done it. That’s the balancing act as well – to do it in such a way that it is tasteful. Our architects are brilliant, but in terms of lighting, we do things tastefully and not quite bold enough. Even though it is possible to be bold and tasteful at the same time.


LiD: Can you tell us about a project where you overcame some interesting challenges?

OH: We lit up the Sultan of Oman’s palace with 500 in-ground LED lights. This was when LEDs were about to take off and people were suspicious about whether they were reliable. I convinced my client that they were, on one proviso – they must never operate during the day because in Oman it gets to 46° C in the shade. After a week or two we were sent photographs showing that the lenses we placed over the LEDs had melted. My immediate response was,

“Why were they on during the day?” My instructions did not reach the guy doing the maintenance. He obviously didn’t work at night, so he switched the lights on during the day for maintenance and the fittings cooked. I had to replace 500 innards ... but in doing so, I added a thermal trip switcher. When it reaches 60° C, the copper coil becomes hot and expands, opening up and breaking the connection. It was an expensive lesson.


LiD: Have you used that technology in other products?

OH: I don’t supply an external product without a thermal trip switch anymore. It’s a R20 device that can save a R5 000 light fitting. It goes into every external product we make. For centuries, humble façades have stood proud in the overall aesthetic as well as the technical performance of a building. While façade engineering has evolved, placing an impetus on solving aesthetic, environmental and structural issues of construction, the industry is exploring new directions in terms of lighting up these spaces as well. From the humble incandescent lamp to state-of-the-art LED lighting, to laser lighting, the evolution of the light sources themselves is fascinating. With rapid urbanisation and spaces getting denser, façade lighting has received a much needed face-lift, and with continuing innovations and experimentation, this area of the industry is one worth keeping a close eye on.