When Lighting Goes Al Fresco

March 13, 2017

The lighting of outdoor eating areas, bars and social areas needs careful thought. Lighting designer Mark Sutton Vane shares his expertise in exterior lighting and tells darc, how the right decorative lighting product can add to that all-important ambience.

“Illuminating a building’s exterior is an exciting challenge for lighting designers. The requirements are quite different to that of an interior scheme, as a building’s exterior is often high profile and on public display. It can be decorative or functional, and serve a multitude of purposes, often intended to present a message about the building or space, or about what happens inside the building itself.

With such a variety of reasons for deploying a full outdoor lighting scheme, the first decision to make in the planning stages of a scheme is whether it should be lit at all, and if so, why. It may tell the story of the building, or sell the brand of the owners. It may emphasise a new vision for the building, such as when a historic building has been given a new lease of life to be used for a modern activity. Often the lighting is used to simply express the beauty of the architectural structure itself, thereby demonstrating the power of lighting to depict the way a building is perceived.

The next consideration is whether these messages are best conveyed through decorative or architectural lighting. Decorative fittings can be placed on the outside of buildings to stand as glowing message in themselves. They may provide no illumination to the building or the surroundings, but the glow of the illuminated fitting is the message. An extreme example of this is the gas flares that some buildings feature on their external walls. These large, bare flames look exciting, they burn a lot of energy and have little effect in terms of actual illumination, but they attract attention with their movement and offer an air of sophistication.

Until the invention of bright electric lighting, the outsides of buildings were not lit. The only fixed exterior lighting on buildings was practical and was there to light entrances. Decorative fittings that aim to achieve a historic look are suited to this pattern and are most effective near entrances or archways. They should aim to match either the period of the building or, if that is not possible, they must fit in with the style and scale of the building. The selection of decorative fittings depends on the message or sentiment that the designer wants to project. Now with the smaller size of LED fittings, it’s easier to achieve more effective lighting from a decorative lamp without revealing the light source.

When lighting the outside of a building, hiding the source of this illumination can have a magical impact. If no fittings can be seen during the day, passers-by do not know there is a lighting scheme and it does not clutter the façade. In contrast, at night the building is lit as if by magic from the hidden lights.

The effect of this illumination on passers-by is also a fundamental consideration in lighting scheme design. A well-lit building can engender feelings of civic pride and reduce the fear of crime. By making the area brighter, it can encourage people to linger and enjoy the space, thereby boosting the evening economy.

Lighting the outside of a building can also add to the light levels of the surrounding areas, such as the Titanic building in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which stands as a tall beacon for the city covered in shiny metal with outward tilting façades. When Sutton Vane Associates designed the exterior lighting, the building had to be bright to stand out to sell its nautical shape, branding and unique metallic finish. Bright yet discrete lighting was designed that reflected off the building to light the surrounding area. This eliminated the need for lamp posts or columns to light the surrounding area so the views of the building were not cluttered.

A good exterior lighting scheme can also add to the value of the building, making it stand out as a point on the map. The building can become a beacon and a way finding point for people to use it to give directions, making it stand out from its neighbours.

In a multiple occupancy building the designer has to consider whether each occupier will have the same lighting scheme as viewed from the outside. The designer must remember that ceilings and the lighting in them, is what is seen from outside so they can decide whether they want the view to be uniform or not. Where uniformity is wanted – landlords have insisted that, for example, the lighting of the first two metres back from all windows must be of a certain type so that all lit windows look the same.

Similarly it usually makes commercial sense to leave shop window lights on all evening, after the shop has shut. It makes the street look more attractive and allows customers to window shop at night, encouraging them to come back to purchase something the next day. An easy solution is to put the lighting of the merchandise in the window on a different circuit from the rest of the shop and have a timer that keeps it on until around midnight.

The lighting of outdoor eating spaces, bars and social areas also needs careful thought. Unlike the indoor versions of these areas, where lighting will probably also be used for breakfast and lunch, the outdoor lighting schemes will only be used in the hours of darkness for evening dining, drinking and socialising. This means that the lighting will tend towards more atmospheric, less bright and possibly romantic moods.

As with all environments the lighting in outdoor spaces must also provide practical illumination as well. The bar staff must have adequate light to do their job, the bar should be well lit to advertise the bottles and diners must be able to read their menus. I recall eating at an outdoor restaurant in Lebanon where the dining experience was enhanced by battery powered lights clipped onto diners’ menus.

Glare is also a significant consideration for decorative lighting in an outdoor eating or bar area. In an outdoor environment, due to a lack of walls or ceilings to reflect light back and soften it, the lighting can easily have uncomfortable levels of glare and levels of contrast that are too high for comfort. In a traditional setting, exterior style lanterns can reinforce the atmosphere well, but can also create glare and don’t offer much illumination. It is often good lighting design practise to allow the decorative fixtures to be just that – decorative, glowing, good looking objects that give the right atmosphere – then use suitably shielded, hidden spot lights (dimmed down to the right mood) to provide the functional light.

We were commissioned to design the lighting for a very upmarket outdoor dining area, where the client wanted outdoor chandeliers, which needed to be waterproof, kept clean, protected from insects and so on. We were able to design safe low voltage chandeliers that could be easily detached and unplugged and were robust enough to be moved indoors at the end of every evening.

Compared to interior lighting, exterior lighting faces many more environmental challenges: driving rain, snow, frost, dust, birds, insects and vandals. A high Ingress Protection (IP) rating of say IP65 or higher is usual, and this must apply to not only the light fittings but to the whole electrical installation. While the lighting designer must consider all of this, albeit a daunting task, a well-lit exterior that expresses the heart of the space or the building is a pleasure for everyone to see and enjoy.”