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Perfecting the formula to façade lighting in our cities

Currently, lighting standards for a building or development are determined by their location, typology and functional requirements. These standards vary for residential, commercial, retail, manufacturing, education – every typology – and are designed on a case-by-case scenario without any requirement to consider how its neighbours are lit.

This assessment methodology is logical for internal spaces; however, when designing external lighting compositions for buildings, there is a strong case that it should have to consider and respond to how its neighbours and the surrounding streetscapes are lit.

Planning schemes and zoning regulations provide developers and architects with a set of confinements, like maximum building height and site coverage, which relate to the surrounding properties. These constraints form part of a strategic masterplan that provides the overall foundation for land use regulation in the city.

Take a second and imagine the chaos that would exist in our cities if there were no planning schemes, and developers could build whatever they wanted, wherever they liked. As crazy as it sounds, this is frighteningly close to what already exists within most Australian cities when it comes to lighting installed on building façades, and light that emanates from internal spaces into the urban environment. Currently, façade lighting does not have to consider and complement the existing ambient lighting conditions of its neighbours or the surrounding environment or consider how it sits within the city’s nighttime skyline. If the installation meets the minimum Australian standards, it can be whatever colour, brightness, or motion desired and change as the occupant sees fit.

You can currently look across your city’s nighttime skyline and see just a few buildings with façade lighting and shrug your shoulders; however, this is set to change very quickly. In the 2019 International Association of Lighting Design (IALD) Awards, 60% of the awarded projects had significant external or façade lighting as part of their schemes. So why is external lighting trending and becoming more prevalent on projects?

In the early 2000s, very few practices were specifying LED products, as the technology seemed daunting and yet to be proven. When I started working as a lighting designer in 2012, the practice had already transitioned to specifying predominantly LED products, with rare exceptions. In 2021, LED products dominate the external lighting marketplace and offer significant advancements over traditional luminaires.

  • The size of external luminaires with significant light output has decreased.
  • Light can be distributed in new ways and aimed very accurately through precise optics.
  • LED chips can produce any colour within the visible spectrum.
  • Luminaires can be controlled individually, including colour, distribution and intensity on demand.
  • The cost of external lighting compared with traditional capabilities has decreased dramatically.

All these factors have contributed to building owners and developers, including façade lighting in the build. Exterior lighting is an affordable way to dramatically increase their building’s eminence with the city’s inhabitants.

Streetscape Lighting Research

In mid-2019, an extensive research project was undertaken by A Billion Suns to develop a methodology to evaluate multiple streetscapes’ lighting signature. The cross-sectional study included Melbourne CBD, South Melbourne, East Melbourne, South Yarra, Cremorne and Richmond.

Documentation of the city’s street façades in elevation at night began on Victoria Parade, then to Spencer Street, Clarendon Street, turning onto Park Street, snaking up Toorak Road to Punt Road and back to the beginning forming a loop.

Documentation of the city's street façades in elevation at night began on Victoria Parade, then to Spencer Street, Clarendon Street, turning onto Park Street, snaking up Toorak Road to Punt Road and back to the beginning forming a loop.

Hundreds of images were taken at set intervals along each street, think Google Street View at night. The photos were then stitched together to form a single view wrapping the entire city.

Hundreds of images were taken at set intervals along each street, think Google Street View at night. The photos were then stitched together to form a single view wrapping the entire city.

This methodology proved useful in understanding the lighting conditions, patterns, transitions, and anomalies across the city. When the view is stretched vertically, a unique canvas is created. This blurred streetscape assists in identifying lighting conditions, varying colour temperatures and changes in intensity.

When the view is stretched vertically, a unique canvas is created. This blurred streetscape assists in identifying lighting conditions, varying colour temperatures and changes in intensity.

After identifying the significant variations and anomalies, the canvas was restored to the original linear view. Each anomaly, or distinct outlier, was then assessed individually based on the original street view photograph.

After identifying the significant variations and anomalies, the canvas was restored to the original linear view. Each anomaly, or distinct outlier, was then assessed individually based on the original street view photograph.

Dimly lit residential pockets were easily identifiable as were glaring façades. By zooming into the individual stand-out, hyper-lit areas, the research uncovered a series of building lighting schemes that were distinct outliers. The main culprits of light pollution included new mixed-use development builds, floodlit exteriors and buildings with transparent façades with significant light spillage from internal spaces to the exterior environment.

By zooming into the individual stand-out, hyper-lit areas, the research uncovered a series of building lighting schemes that were distinct outliers.

After establishing this reliable methodology, the same research was conducted in the City of Melbourne along Bourke Street, King Street, Flinders Street and Spring Street.

From this assessment of over 400 buildings, it was conservatively estimated that 90% of buildings within the city currently do not have façade lighting.

From this assessment of over 400 buildings, it was conservatively estimated that 90% of buildings within the city currently do not have façade lighting. The image below from the study highlights the lack of façade lighting and the delineation between the lit ground plane and the currently dark building façades above. This demonstrated that there is an opportunity to maximise the probability of success in developing a comprehensive façade lighting strategy for the City of Melbourne. More importantly, it makes a clear case that the time to implement it is now whilst the vast majority of buildings are not lit, and the nighttime sky is still visible.

Lack of façade lighting and the delineation between the lit ground plane and the currently dark building façades above

An almost blank canvas

Melbourne is a city filled with potential. With accolades as the “Most Liveable City” for several years, Melbourne is renowned for its layers of culture, hospitality, cohesive and stable society, and infrastructure. But it is essential to get the lighting signature right to provide a balance of aesthetics, usefulness and safety, as well as supporting the residents and the environment.

A robust façade lighting framework with thorough forethought and planning can create vibrancy within the city while highlighting the beauty of the heritage buildings. Through proper planning and future-proofing, a strategy can directly influence how people feel in the city at night. The bigger question remains, what will Melbourne look like in 20 years if we do not start master planning and setting standards now?

More than beauty

Aside from creating an ambient and engaging nighttime cityscape, the practical and health-related concerns that a rigorous façade lighting strategy offers are also worth noting.

Poorly executed lighting, particularly external lighting, can cause adverse effects on residents. Intrusive or glary lighting schemes can shine into apartments and houses, disrupting living spaces, leaving many occupants baffled about how they can stop it. In addition to potentially disrupting urban residents, poorly controlled and excessive lighting at nighttime causes light pollution and sky glow. The night sky is an asset to the city and is critical for the environment – it should be protected at all costs. Light is the fastest-growing pollutant on the planet and the easiest to solve – just turn off the lights at sleep time.

Research confirms that overexposure to artificial light at night poses health risks [source]. Even short periods of exposure to artificial lighting at night can disrupt circadian rhythms, disrupting natural sleep/wake cycles linked to long term health issues. The World Health Organisation categorised this ‘unnatural’ light exposure as probably carcinogenic as long ago as 2013. Living in an over-lit urban environment can have far-reaching consequences for residents.

With an estimated 90% of Melbourne’s CBD buildings without façade lighting, there is an enormous potential to deliver a world-class façade lighting strategy. Rather than fixing issues after the fact, the potential problems can be circumvented through a framework to stop them from happening in the first place.

Setting the framework

What should the lighting signature be? Establishing a façade lighting strategy now can ensure that Melbourne is illuminated with care and thought to support the ambience and atmosphere while protecting the wellbeing of the city’s inhabitants. While most buildings across Melbourne are not currently illuminated – and knowing the international trends – now is the time to maximise the probability of success in the future. The same can be said for the overwhelming majority of councils throughout Australia.

Setting the strategy needs to have a multi-faced approach and include many stakeholders, including planners, architects, lighting designers, government consultants, dark sky defenders and other experts.

The first step in establishing a successful façade lighting strategy is to define the standard with clear objective criteria. The next step is formulating a process for assessment, approval and implementation.

Considerations for standard criteria

  • Façade zones – based on activity and “busy-ness” establish zones. Quiet residential streets would remain dimly lit zones, while peak thoroughfares like Bourke Street Mall would support a high-level of lighting.
  • Façade typology – the materiality, function, and shape of the façade would be an initial determinant into the lighting scheme, related to the architecture and its immediate context. For example, a building’s age and location can determine how bright it can be, giving precedence to culturally significant buildings that have stood the test of time.
  • Colour and movement – ambience is greatly influenced by the colour and movement of the light. Fast-moving dynamic lighting creates a significantly different atmosphere than a static white light.
  • Lights out – setting an operation period ensures that residential areas are not polluted with light at night while ensuring vibrancy is activated in parts of the city to support safety and encourage liveliness late into the night.

Barcelona is an excellent example of a city that took a concerted effort to enhance the city with façade lighting regulation. To install or change façade lighting, applications undertake a series of steps during the process to ensure that all potential schemes fit the criteria. After installation, there is an audit process in place to ensure compliance with the ordinance.

Setting a façade lighting strategy now can ensure that Melbourne will continue to be a world-class city, one that considers the wellbeing of its residents and visitors, and one that inspires and delights through its lighting. By enacting good planning decisions and foresight, we can create a positive, beautiful city for today and into the future.

The final 10%

A façade lighting strategy can address the 90% of the unlit city, however what about the existing 10%? Based on the passion for improving current lighting conditions, the Cri Awards 2021 were created to implement positive change and correct awful lighting environments within the urban environment.

Citizens, community groups, students, families, the lighting aware and unaware are asked to find something in the public realm – a façade, park, path, landmark, structure, sculpture or another icon – that is awfully lit and photograph it.

All submissions are reviewed by an expert panel of lighting designers and architects. The top four submissions become student projects under the direction of leading lighting design professionals. Each team will be tasked to solve the lighting offence. The winning Cri design solution, decided by public vote, will see their project implemented through the lighting industry’s support. For more information head to criawards.com.

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