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Lesser-Known Reasons to Design with LED Lighting

Lesser-Known Reasons to Design with LED Lighting


By now, the effects of LEDs are apparent to the masses.  They reduce heating bills, use less wattage for equal brightness, and are replaced less-often than incandescents.  At least, these are the advantages typically named when talking about LED lighting in homes and businesses.  At the same time LEDs also have some lesser-known benefits when lighting the exteriors of city buildings such as high-rises and skyscrapers, and for reasons beyond the usual terms of cost and energy-efficiency.

Two years ago, the 72-story Bank of America Plaza building in downtown Dallas, Texas completely replaced their iconic argon exterior lighting system with a modern LED system.  This new LED system is much brighter (the LED lights are being run at only 57% of their maximum brightness to emulate the original argon lights) while operating at half the wattage.  And, at least five buildings in New York City (including the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center) have also replaced or been built with external decorative LED lights. So, while the benefits of LEDs are typically outlined in terms of cost and energy-efficiency, there are other advantages to upgrading or installing external lights.

1) Bird Migrations Birds migratingCities along the migratory paths of birds are being asked and told to turn off their lights during certain seasons to prevent disrupting their natural migration patterns.  The long wavelengths of light (red, yellow, and orange) are used by birds to navigate.  The bright incandescent lights of buildings have a tendency to affect their navigation, leading them to an untimely demise against the side of a skyscraper.  In fact, window-related deaths for avians are second only to the number slain by cats.  So, why would switching to LED lighting be beneficial?  Solid-state lighting, such as LED lights, allow owners to manipulate the building’s illumination, giving lamps the ability to be remotely dimmed or shifted between short and long wavelengths of light, reducing the dangers to migratory birds (and other animals) without having to completely turn off exterior lighting.

2) Control Options

CNA Plaza building, Chicago, IL, "Go Bears" spelled in lights

Previously, changing the color of incandescent lamps on any structure, but especially on large skyscrapers and towers, required multiple workers to climb the building and change out lens filters.  Color displays and special ceremony lighting is expensive to implement via incandescent.  Once the lights are in place, they stay the same until manually adjusted.  None of this is the case with modern solid-state lighting.  An entire building exterior can be changed easily with input from a single device or from several people using multiple remote devices.  Colors, patterns, images, and messages are all possible, transforming already beautiful buildings into art pieces.  Just look at the growing illumination rivalry between One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building.  In fact, this year’s Lightfair International event featured a broad range of connected devices.  Modern solid-state lighting has made interconnection between devices easier and has given lights more control interfaces, allowing for integrated sensors, virtual intelligence, and general networking within your lighting.

One place where advanced controls and input have become a powerful tool is the ubiquitous “Text Message in Office Windows.”  Often seen in movies, actually creating text using office windows is a very difficult stunt to perform with traditional lights.  For example, the final tribute to Chris Gillot, who lit up the Blue Cross-Blue Shield building in Chicago to commemorate the death of Walter Payton, took a great deal of planning, multiple laborers, and several hours to pull off.  Exterior (LED) lighting can easily replicate building letters with very little effort.  In fact, day or night, external LEDs work as fantastic signage, giving you easy access to a public display as a message board, or for advertising space (depending on which you prefer).

3) Tourism and Celebrations

Empire State Building lit up in red, white and blue

Towers, statues, and other buildings define a city’s skyline during the day, but at night, it’s the pattern and array of lights that make a city’s skyline.  LEDs open the floodgates for celebrations by giving you the option of colors, patterns, and animations.  Lighting your building for special events used to require an expensive number of man-hours to get ready for an event, making it impractical to celebrate every event.  However, now a city’s night skyline can benefit from every celebration, whether it’s the Super Bowl or to honor an historic figure, the right lighting will draw people into the streets to celebrate.

Even historical buildings have begun using newer solid-state systems to revive older façades, as is the case with St. James Church in Montreal, Canada.  Projection lighting has been used to great effect for the historic building (Lost Then Found, LD+A, September 2014).  Rather than illuminating the beautiful architecture, the lights frame the building to accent its features and make it more visible from the side streets.  The plaza in front of the building now features what appears to be light from the beautiful rose window set into the front of the church, but it is actually projected light from several Gobo projectors mounted to window sills.  These projectors have since been used to celebrate the seasons by changing the projection to iconic imagery such as an Easter lily or a Christmas star.

4) Dynamic Art Installation

Council House Lights - Perth, Western Australia

Over the last decade we’ve seen amazing displays made using light projection on the surface of buildings.  Exhibits attract tourists, leading to a stronger economy.  The customizations of an LED external light frame-work make them perfect for a more artistic touch to building exteriors.  While the effervescence of light-based art will never be as solid as a full architectural design, many artistic constructions can be temporarily created through a few lightings tricks during the night.  Then again, if your goal is to attract citizens to the streets in view of a building you can use lighting that’s a little more fun.  As mentioned previously, seasonal projection lighting such as the Gobos at St. James Church are becoming a common sight.  Some buildings, such as the Empire State Building, are even displaying animated lighting performances which have been set to music.  Going a step further, the Banco de Credito Building in Lima, Peru took it’s very professional edifice and added interactive lighting.  The lights on the front of the building can be controlled by pedestrians from a podium in the street.  While many of the displays are preset (constellations and light patterns), some are fully interactive as a single person can trace light trails and push particles around the surface of the building from the controller.

5) Asset Enhancement Solid-state LED lighting systems have an additional return on the owner’s investment through LEED (Leadership in energy & Environmental Design) certification and artistic recognition.  Consider the prestige of a LEED Platinum property:

In a world focused on sustainability, structures designed to the standards of the U.S. Green Building Counsel’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) rating systems are in demand.  These standards emphasize energy efficiency and reliability.  Since the LEED Energy & Atmosphere Prerequisites and Credits are based upon the standards established in 2010 (written before the energy efficiency of LED’s was commercially embraced), LED’s illuminating a structure’s façade contribute to LEED acquisition and recognition.

Beyond a LEED certification, the difference is visible to both layman and discerning consumer.  People are drawn to ingenuity and beauty.  When selling a house, one of the most important factors is to ensure “beauty from the street.”  Acquiring tenants for your building, whether it’s an apartment complex, high-rise, or simple office building, is difficult enough based on your location.  Creating an aesthetically pleasing and enticing welcome view for the building itself can make the difference in a new tenant’s choice.  Intelligent architects can employ the highly directional and controllable qualities of LED’s to highlight exterior:

  • Light colored surfaces
  • Architectural features
  • Element edges

Proper lighting will take each of these features and cast them in the best light.  As your aesthetically attractive structures fill with high lease and occupancy rates, owners’ returns on investments improve.

6) Reduction in Sky Glow and Light Pollution

Map showing concentration of light in the USA

External building lights have been a major source of light pollution.  Wide angle flood lights have filled the skies above cities with a vibrant orange glow, masking stars.  While reflectors and special fixtures have helped to focus the indiscriminate lighting from HID and incandescent lamps, they can’t quite match the accuracy and direction of solid-state LED lighting.  Since LEDs are directional, there is less light spill and no need for reflectors to catch the excess light.  The narrow distribution allows for precise control of the light to highlight architecture without illuminating the night sky.

Keeping a building illuminated against a dark black backdrop or the twinkling beauty of a star-filled sky only enhances the majesty of architecture.  Designing your buildings in accordance with IES recommended practices and using DarkSky rated fixtures is a step in the right direction, but, as can be clearly seen, the difference between more traditional lighting and newer solid-state sources is immense.

LEDs will always be sought after for their efficiency and longevity.  The energy cost over time is a very tangible benefit to switching or building with them despite their starting cost, but LEDs have far reaching benefits for business, science, and aesthetics.  Although the light itself is intangible, its effects have become an integral portion of architectural design.

Credit for this article goes to Will Parsons. Title image was provided courtesy of Adrian Valenzuela.


Additional Sources: LD+A Magazine, September, 2014 LD+A Magazine, November, 2014 LD+A Magazine, December, 2014 Model Lighting Ordinance, DarkSky.Org

Recommended Reading: Lighting for Exterior Environments, ISBN: 978-0-87995-301-0

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