Four designers give suggestions about how to design a low-budget project that incorporates rich lighting.


» When architects and lighting designers are confronted with a low budget, the initial fear is creativity will be value engineered out of the project completely or reduced to lack-luster solutions. Even the most experienced design professionals are challenged to provide a universal definition for the term; at the most basic level, however, 'low-budget' means there are not enough funds in the project's coffer to meet the client's and the designer's first choice for material selections to achieve their aesthetic ideal. Hence, any building type can be a 'low-budget' project. It is a relative concept, changing for each space, designer, and client.

Speaking with several lighting designers-all of whom submitted a range of projects in the 'Best Lighting Design on a Budget' category for the 2004 A|L Design Awards program-reveals the challenges in balancing strong lighting design goals with a tight budget. It also proves high-quality, economical design can be done by keeping a few basic guidelines in mind.

( Exclusive online content. Click here to download a PDF with selected images of the Orr Design Office and Q-Lounge, two projects that demonstrate affordable lighting design at work.

1. Choose Simple, and thus Affordable, Solutions
For Michelle Haim of Fanny Haim & Associates in Miami, regardless of budget, 'lighting is an important part of a good project; it makes it or breaks it.' For the Miami restaurant Q-Lounge, project designer Haim wanted the lighting to be clean and simple, following on her theory that 'one light alone can be very beautiful,' and that one light does not have to cost a fortune. 'Materials don't need to be pricey to look good,' she says. 'Find affordable options and use them with definite intentions.' Haim acknowledges, however, that it is not always easy to find less expensive materials that still reach the design goals. 'You have to go through the process. It takes patience, ambition and drive to get the lighting effect across,' she explains.

To light the venue's lounge area, Haim specified a basic A-lamp fixture with a chrome tip, forgoing the standard shade attachment, and arranging them in a striking row across the wall. Using a typical, inexpensive fixture in a non-traditional way worked to the project's advantage. Haim notes that the main lighting feature happened to be the least expensive detail of all.

2. Consider Generic versus Custom
Bob Hogan, lighting principal of Rhode Island-based firm Hogan/ Macaulay, suggests using generic rather than custom fixtures to solve lighting problems. Multiple lighting scenarios were needed to satisfy the different program requirements of Lumiere Salon, which won a 2004 A|L Commendable Achievement Design Award. The mirror wall is illuminated using generic fixtures, and by integrating the lighting element into a piece of the architecture or a built object: the mirrors at the individual workstations, for example. 'The fixture itself was just a generic fluorescent bulb, but it is mounted inside the casework and behind the etched glass so that it has a much different effect than just a mounted light fixture.'

Lighting the space above each cutting chair, however, could not be resolved in the same manner. 'We knew we needed an element that would give us some warm light at the face level,' Hogan says. Here, a custom treatment actually worked within the budget. In order to create the 'luminous cloud,' the term he uses to describe the arrangement of opal-glass pendant lights that hang in the main space, the designers called upon local glass artist, Tracy Glover. Rather than creating the fixture in its entirety, Glover made only the diffusers, which were added to inexpensive, widely available pendant kits. Knowing the locally available resources, whether artists or materials, can be invaluable in the process of creating custom features that both enhance the design and meet the budget.

3. Prioritize the Effect, not the Fixture Details
Garry Orr, design principal of his own firm in Sacramento, California, takes an architectural approach. 'It's not about the light fixture,' he explains, 'it's about the light itself; lighting the space and creating the sculptural form.' One of the problems with focusing on a particular fixture, says Orr, 'is it's a commodity item and it can date the project.' For his firm's office, Orr maintained the project's budget by 'putting my creativity on a diet.' Fixtures with unique decorative features were omitted from the specification, leaving what Orr refers to as 'utility-grade fixtures,' like circline fluorescents as pendants. For Orr, the challenge is to 'create the same basic effect that you might be able to accomplish with more expensive fixtures.' This approach is used throughout the project and the light becomes the source of the design, rather than the fixture. In the lobby, for example, he concealed inexpensive fluorescent fixtures behind the valance to create a wallwash that reflects light off the vertical surfaces and into the space, making the room appear as if it were floating.

4. Prepare for Substitutions
Claudio Ramos, senior lighting designer with San Francisco firm H.E. Banks + Associates, faced a particular cost challenge in the design of Magnet, a health center for a nonprofit organization: Not only was the budget limited, but team members donated their design services pro-bono. Alternatives and substitutions played a key role in maintaining the budget for Magnet, which won the 2004 A|L Best Lighting Design on a Budget award. Although the client wanted an eye-catching color feature in the project, Ramos explains, 'Our first idea, a rainbow of colors, would have blown the budget.' His solution: T5 lamps with color gels (presently blue) in the cove at the back of the space, an alternative that adheres to the budget, meets the client's expectations, and still adds excitement to the project.

5. Think Long-Term
With this project, Ramos notes, he had to focus not only on the short-term budget, but on the center's long-term operating costs as well. He describes his approach as, first thinking about the design and what is best for the project, and then evaluating how it could be approached with lower-budget equipment. 'You must choose the right equipment and the right lamping carefully,' he says. 'You have to consider the cost of paying the energy bills.' Ramos's specification of T5 lamps was 'more expensive than T8 lamps, but in the long term, more economical for the project.'

Jessica N. Johnson is a project manager in New York City. She works on retail projects across the United States for Polo Ralph Lauren, Store Development. She received her Master of Architecture degree from North Carolina State University.