From fall semester 2007 to spring semester 2008, Penn State University senior Michael Royer familiarized himself with the August Wilson Center for African American Culture (AWC) in Pittsburgh. An architectural engineering (AE) student in the lighting and electrical option, Royer chose the AWC for his senior thesis, which required him to select an existing building for evaluation and redesign that was substantial in size, and either currently under construction or recently completed. “As a signature building for downtown Pittsburgh, the architecture provided many unique opportunities for creative lighting solutions,” Royer explains. “The theatrical and museum aspects allow a more artistic influence in the lighting, while the quality of the space demands a quality lighting solution.” While Royer developed redesigns and conducted analysis in terms of the building's lighting, electrical, architectural, and acoustic elements, his work is a proposal to fulfill his thesis requirements. Associate professor of architectural engineering Rick Mistrick, as Royer's faculty adviser, provided feedback to Royer during the yearlong thesis process, in which he applied the knowledge he learned throughout the duration of the AE program.

To begin, Royer prepared reports based on the AWC's existing design, completed extensive analysis of the building's systems, and proposed a work plan for his spring semester. Information from the architect, Perkins+Will, in regard to materials and coordination issues, helped Royer conduct an in-depth lighting system analysis, while Turner Construction—which sponsors many students to work on the company's projects—provided Royer with job site contacts, drawings, and documents. At the end of fall semester, he presented his work to lighting professionals—including Penn State graduates Andrea Hartranft, senior associate at C.M. Kling and Associates, and Shawn Good, lighting department manager at Brinjac Engineering—at Lutron Electronics, which has hosted the university's first-semester schematic design reviews for the past 10 years. The thesis also included the redesign and analysis of certain electrical, architectural, and acoustic elements, allowing Royer to draw on knowledge from previous courses.

For the lighting design portion of the project, Royer focused on the areas along the transparent glass façade facing Liberty Avenue. “My first goal for the project was to create continuity among the spaces due to the transparency of the façade and the transparent boundaries between adjacent spaces,” Royer says. To achieve a continuous feel whether viewing the building from the interior or exterior, he used the same luminaire style in the areas along the façade, and appropriate illumination levels were achieved by varying the fixture spacing.

Another goal was to highlight the AWC's theatrical aspects by implementing a theme along the façade creating two scenes: one as if the curtains are “open,” allowing the building to interact with the streetscape, and the other as if the curtains are “closed” for when the building is not in use. “The key to this design was to create an absence of light on the façade of the building, only highlighting the iconic sail structure and the main entrance, to allow the interior of the space to become the focus,” Royer says. “To maintain a sense of presence for the building, I used indirect luminaires to light a soffit that runs the length of the building.” Those fixtures, along with LED strips that illuminate the existing building's sail feature, were designed with color-changing options.

Royer says the completion of his thesis was satisfying as it provided a valuable experience to work on a large-scale project with real-world conditions. “It was necessary to work with the contractor, architect, and consultants to better understand the project,” he notes. “I also had to deal with the reality of having the drawings changed and updated.” In the end, Royer presented his work to 40 design professionals who ultimately awarded him the top prize in his degree option for his thesis—a culmination of the knowledge and experience gained in his time at Penn State and a step toward his future in lighting design.

Project Pennsylvania State University Architectural Engineering program senior thesis
Student Michael Royer
Degree Bachelor of Architectural Engineering, Lighting and Electrical option
Thesis Subject August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Pittsburgh
Renderings Courtesy of Michael Royer