March 30, 2006

Smart lighting design: go for timeless, not trendy

  • Spare, functional fixtures help a Belltown retailer save energy


    Retail design has a short shelf life, generally three to five years, and often responds to the fashion of the moment. Thus lighting design for retail projects is rarely sustainable.

    More timeless designs, however, can deliver a visually appealing retail space that embraces environmental stewardship and creates a sense of peace amid visual noise.

    One example is Alchemy Collections, a home furnishings store that opened in Belltown last fall. Owners Evelyn Yee and Michael Hsu describe the store as "East-West fusion, where contemporary meets classical." It has a Zen-like ambience that draws patrons in and encourages them to linger.

    Sustainability was addressed in the planned longevity of the design, efficient use of energy and use of long-life light sources to reduce waste.

    Sustainable ambience

    Photo courtesy of Candela
    Lighting, structural and mechanical elements were coordinated to enhance the architecture at Alchemy Collections, a home furnishings store. A mix of lighting sources enabled designers to get the most light for the least power.

    The design goals for Alchemy Collections were to provide spare, clean architecture and lighting that showcases its Asian-inspired merchandise.

    Large storefront windows help beckon passersby inside, where lighting is focused on merchandise without the use of a separate ambient lighting system. The setup creates a higher contrast and adds drama.

    The primary lighting system in the two-story volume consists of suspended adjustable accent lights that illuminate the merchandise. The spill light from the long throw provides the ambient light. Similar fixtures, recessed in the finished ceilings, provide a complementary light above and below the mezzanine.

    This spare lighting system saves on first cost and ongoing energy use because one system is used to provide two functions. Since there are fewer fixtures, the hazardous waste associated with disposing of spent lamps is also reduced. (All fluorescent and metal halide lamps contain a small amount of mercury, which is hazardous if released into the environment.)

    To the casual observer, this system might appear to be incandescent, but it's actually ceramic metal halide. Metal halide provides excellent color, superb efficiency, long life and — an added bonus in Seattle — it seems to bring in the sunshine.

    Around the mezzanine, large paintings create a vivid display from inside the store and are an eye-catching showpiece from the street. The ceramic lamps seem to make these pieces pop off the walls.

    Different lights, different uses

    A key challenge in the store's design was meeting the tight energy code restrictions while satisfying visual quality requirements for a retail setting.

    The Seattle energy code allows the use of 1.5 watts per square foot for general illumination, with an additional 1.5 watts per square foot for accent lighting. In comparison, other parts of the country commonly use upwards of 6 watts per square foot.

    On this project, the combination of ceramic metal halide, fluorescent and LED sources permitted designers to obtain the most light for the least amount of power. Careful placement and aiming of these fixtures achieved the desired effect. Actual energy use was 2.2 watt per square foot.

    Abundant daylight from east-facing windows creates a variable daytime-nighttime effect, and mixes well with electric light sources to accentuate the architecture while keeping the focus on merchandise.

    In a koi pond at the entry, separately controlled fluorescent and ceramic metal halide sources illuminate carved tiles on the wall. Both sources are used during the day — the fluorescent to blend with the diffuse daylight, and the ceramic metal halide to pick up the intense colors of the fish. At night, the metal halide lighting emphasizes the wall texture and picks up quartz sparkles in the tile material.

    Fixture locations were coordinated with structural and mechanical elements, and work together to enhance the architectural envelope. In some cases, fixtures were modified to simplify the support structure and be less intrusive.

    For example, the original design of the pendant-mounted accent lights used four aircraft cable supports and one power supply. To reduce installation time and create a cleaner finished look, the design was modified to one aircraft cable and one combined aircraft cable and power supply.

    Controlling glare is essential in a retail environment to ensure the lights don't become the dominant element in the space. This is especially the case with high-lumen-output light sources. To minimize glare throughout the store, louver accessories were added to all the fixtures that were not aimed at the walls.

    Measurable results

    The lighting serves all the functional and aesthetic goals of the project and met some important sustainability goals as an extra bonus. The use of efficient fixtures delivered real cost savings for the owner in terms of overall energy use.

    Color rendering is another measurable result. Color rendering is how true a light source renders color, especially when compared with direct sunlight.

    In many retail stores, the only light sources are lamps that are being sold on the floor and ceiling lights with poor color-rendering qualities. As a result, clients may have difficulty discerning colors in the store. At Alchemy Collections, the ambient lighting system makes objects appear as close in color to daylight as possible.

    "Customers tell us that our products look just as beautiful in their home as they did in the store," said owner Michael Hsu. "With energy bills much lower than we had expected, we couldn't be more pleased with the results."

    Knowing that the owners will personally operate this store as it evolves over the years made this a project a wonderful challenge. Close collaboration between the owners, Heliotrope Architects, general contractor Schuchart Corp. and electrical contractor Titan Electric helped deliver a design that is long on energy efficiency and charm and short on hazardous materials and waste.

    Denise Fong is principal at Candela Lighting Design and Consulting, based in Seattle.

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