A coordinated effort between architect and lighting manufacturer creates an educational environment that teaches a thing or two about lighting design.
Creating a comprehensive, coordinated lighting package for an environment with as many diverse spaces as a school is a conundrum for only an advanced problem solver. A school's facilities package usually includes locker rooms, athletic spaces, teacher lounges, offices, meeting and event rooms, hallways, and of course classrooms, which have a distinct set of programmatic demands depending on the subject. Current educational philosophy also requires architectural flexibility: As educators realize individuals learn differently, and thus are attempting to teach differently, they expect their buildings to have equally variable responses. Finally, for both public and private schools, cost is a critical factor, not only up front, but for the life of the building, meaning the lighting must do its part to save energy and limit maintenance.
Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island, provides a case in point-of both the challenges faced when lighting a learning environment and best-practice solutions to those challenges. A 2003 renovation of the middle school by PDT Architects was the first step in a master plan the firm had developed in the late 1990s. In addition to enhancing the school's program, the building inspired a unique collaboration between PDT and Fall River, Massachusetts-based Lightolier. According to Dan Blitzer, a consultant to Lightolier, the manufacturer wanted to create a working example of its approaches to quality lighting. Appropriately, the situation also provided a chance for learning. Says PDT's principal in charge, David Webster, 'The level of information and technology was much higher than we as architects usually get, so for us it was an educational process.'
'Our design focus is to support what is going on in the classroom,' says Webster, 'so we look at air quality, the proportion of the spaces, and certainly at the lighting.' Today, teachers rarely lecture from a post at the front of the room. As Webster explains, 'In the early twentieth century, information was presented in a way that was suitable to only one style of learning. Progressive education today says 'kids are different and we need to accommodate them,' so teachers now put information out in a number of ways.' Concordantly, Lincoln needed spaces that supported a variety of teaching approaches.
Flexibility is at its most developed in the classrooms. The first element in the three-pronged lighting approach involved an indirect/direct pendant. Webster wanted to avoid the 'fatigue factor' that comes from harsh lighting, so the classrooms are illuminated with an indirect luminaire, that also casts about 25 percent direct light.
'We wanted some directional illumination on the faces of the kids,' says Blitzer. 'While it is IES recommended practice regardless of class size, in a room with 10 children, the teacher really has the ability to read a student's face and respond on an individualized basis.' Secondly, adjustable track-mounted wallwashers allow teachers to focus attention on the front of the room. The third element, a dimmer system, enables instructors to customize the lighting to the task at hand and to compensate for daylight levels. A similarly flexible approach is taken in the 1,200-square-foot main meeting room, which accommodates everything from trustee functions to performances to the Quaker school's weekly 'silent meeting.' A four-layer arrangement of wallwashers, accent and cove lighting, and a canopied pendant, controlled with a programmable multi-scene dimmer, support a variety of scenarios.
A contemporary fixture aesthetic marks the renovation, which is otherwise a riff on the early twentieth-century design of the main building. Located in a historic district, the school wanted to maintain its traditional character. These concerns, and a preexisting footprint, meant PDT was limited in the amount of daylight it could bring into the building. Skylights offer the suggestion of natural light, but otherwise are not an energy-saving solution. Instead, compact and linear fluorescents, and a few incandescent spotlights, illuminate most of the renovated space. The commitment to an energy-efficient pallet did not compromise the quality of the lighting. By reducing the wattage and number of lamps in each luminaire, the team installed enough fixtures to 'spread light around,' ensuring there would be light on important surfaces. 'Less light is counterintuitive,' admits Blitzer. 'The more light you get from each fixture, it seems the more efficient the system, because there are fewer parts, but my experi-ence says spaces with fewer fixtures feel shadowy and uninspired.'
Conscious of cost throughout the project, the team specified mid-range luminaires. Eliminating occupancy sensors in the classrooms also helped the budget, though, for Lincoln, sensors and timers seemed to undermine a higher goal: 'In an independent school, where there is a very high sense of ownership, an automated controls system deprives teachers and students of both the responsibility and the opportunity to teach concern for the environment,' says Blitzer.
With the first stage of the master plan an example of superior architectural lighting, Webster believes the school is committed to this aspect of the design going forward-a refreshing change from many of the educational projects his firm works on where lighting is often the first thing to be compromised.
Emilie W. Sommerhoff
project | Lincoln School, Providence, Rhode Island
design team | PDT Architects, Portland, Maine (architect); Allied Engineering, Westbrook, Maine (electrical engineer); Lightolier (lighting
photographer | Jim Kelly, Boston manufacturer | Lightolier