Inside the Realm of Architectural Lighting

Architectural lighting tranforms First Congregational Church (FCC) of Los Angeles.

Your sanctuary can have the most ornate artwork and furnishings in the world.  But without the right type of lighting in place, it's going to be difficult for you to show off these features to their best advantage.

Welcome to the realm of architectural lighting.  Part art and part science, this is a combination of the fields of architectural and electrical engineering that focuses on effectively using lighting to bring out the best in buildings and their interiors.

And because of the importance of visual displays and productions in many aspects of today's houses of worship, getting the light right can make a big difference in how effectively you get your message across or not.

First Congregational Church (FCC) of Los Angeles
The main sanctuary was spectacular.  Its stained glass windows were beautiful. The carved-oak pews, doors, organ cases, and chancel furniture were stunning. The 20,000-plus pipes comprising the world's largest church pipe organ were magnificent in both sound and appearance.

But it was so dark inside the sanctuary of First Congregational Church (FCC) of Los Angeles that was extremely hard to visually appreciate all the spectacle, beauty, and majesty of the main sanctuary's furnishings and architectural detail not to mention that it was hard for church attendees in the pews to see the preacher, or read from hymnals and sing during services.

The problem was that the chandeliers lighting the sanctuary of FCC's Gothic Revival cathedral, home to the oldest Protestant church in continuous service in Los Angeles, dated back to the building's completion in 1932.  And they just weren't up to the job. 

"The sanctuary was dark, and we needed to find a way to increase the lighting inside as much as possible, while keeping the original chandeliers, which we did not want to take down," recounts Susan Leary, FCC's chief administrative officer.

It took a pair of lighting professionals hired by FCC to come up with a cost-effective solution.

"The church knew it had a spectacular environment that was, at the same time,  archaic when it came to illumination," said Matt Levesque, founding principal of First Circle Design LLC, the Newport Beach, California lighting design consultant that supplied the equipment and supervised its installation for this project. 

"It was almost shameful that they had this wonderful pipe organ, furnishings, and the architecture itself but none of it was properly illuminated because the lighting technology of today was not available when the church was built," he says.

FCC had a couple of routes it could follow to address its lighting deficit, according to
Mitchell Payton of ShowPro Inc., a Los Angeles-based sound, lighting, video, projection and staging products and services provider who served
as systems integrator on the project.

An LED Solution
The church could increase its lighting with its existing array of incandescent fixtures.  But, this would have meant paying to have the city of Los Angeles add electric transmission infrastructure to bring more power to the building, according to Payton.

"But by replacing their current lighting with LED lighting, we would not have to incur the expense of bringing more power to the building," he notes, "and, we could reduce the wattage of power currently being used."

LEDs (light emitting diodes) have become the new "go to" technology in the lighting industry, notes Andy Manning, president of Manning Lighting Inc., a Sheboygan, Wisconsin-based custom designer and manufacturer of lighting for religious, institutional and commercial applications. 

"Its benefits include huge energy savings, almost no maintenance, and greater control capability. And the prices have gotten to the point where LED is affordable for any size church," says Manning. 

The pay-back time for LED system installation varies depending on electricity costs, and how much the fixtures are used, he notes.  "But most churches will find that the higher initial cost of LED is paid back quickly in the form of energy savings plus, customers like the thought of never having to access fixtures to change burned out light bulbs again!"

In addition to the energy savings, the controllability of LED technology is central to its popularity in architectural lighting applications, according to Jim Anderson, director of product marketing at Philips Color Kinetics, a unit of consumer health/lifestyle/lighting products manufacturer Royal Philips Electronics.

"LEDs lend themselves to getting the light beam where you need it," said Anderson.  "They allow you to focus on and bring out architectural features that were previously very difficult to highlight," he explains.  Additionally, LED fixtures can easily provide "color tenability," i.e. they can be adjusted to create warm incandescent-style or cooler white light, as well as any color in the spectrum.

Utilizing an array of Philips Color Kinetics fixtures, First Circle and ShowPro converted the lighting in the FCC sanctuary to LEDs in a four-month, $400,000 project. 

The lighting and the various color combinations available are adjusted via a DMX (digital multiplex) controller that allows users to customize lighting schemes for different occasions and events taking place in the sanctuary; several pre-programmed lighting schemes are also available at the touch of a screen.

Following completion of the project, "The pastor said it was the first time in years he had actually been able to see his parishioners," says Payton.

Along with enabling FCC to highlight its organ and unique architecture, "[The project] has really enhanced our event business, which is significant," says Leary.  In addition to weddings and concerts, "We've done a lot of light shows, many concerts, and we've also been the scene of quite a bit of filming."

Getting Started
Considering an architectural lighting project for your church and need some advice?  Well, you've come to the right place.

At the outset, "Don't worry about what anybody else is doing," says Levesque.  "Focus on your objective, and who is it you are trying to reach out and promote your church to," he says, "And then surround yourself with good consultants with the right skill sets to achieve your objective."

Defining what you want to accomplish with your lighting project will go a long way towards determining the equipment you need and how much you'll have to budget for it, according to Manning. 

"Chart your course by answering a few simple questions, such as, do you want more light? More even illumination? More energy efficient fixtures? More control over the lighting? More theatrical effects? Better lighting for video recording , or something else?" Manning advises.

Once you define the scope of your project, it's time to call in some help but just what kind of help depends upon how big and complex a project you have in mind. 

If your project involves technically complex elements such as theatrical lighting and control systems, or multimedia production, you'll need the help of lighting design professionals, knowledgeable architects, or electrical engineers, according to Manning. 

For less-involved projects, many lighting manufacturers, typically represented by local independent sales representatives, will provide free advice and services in anticipation of earning your order for fixtures, Manning says, "But be sure to choose a manufacturer with a good reputation and experience in accommodating the special needs of churches. "

Important Considerations
Most churches need several different types of lighting, according to Manning.  These include direct light above the seating area for reading; indirect light to brighten the space above and avoid the "cave" effect of a dark ceiling; and accent light to draw attention to the pulpit, altar, or other important areas.

When formulating a lighting scheme, one important thing you'll want to decide at the start is the type of lighting fixture that complements the design of your church's architecture, according to Manning.  This means determining "Should the fixtures be ornate and decorative units that work in harmony with the space, or more utilitarian fixtures that don't call attention to themselves?"

It's also important to consider the different elements of a worship service and how they should be lit. Sophisticated control systems offer preset "scenes" for these events, so that different lighting effects can be accessed at the touch of a button.

"In the hands of a trained professional, lighting can accomplish amazing things: make the space look larger or smaller, communicate a joyous or somber tone, draw attention to important elements within the church, and much more," says Manning. "Even a few small, inexpensive fixtures placed in the appropriate locations can have a big impact."


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