News
10.21.2009
Lam Partners Lighting Design
Cambridge, Massachusetts
University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Ken Cobb/JJR LLC

Paul Zaferiou, a principal at Lam Partners Lighting Design, loves skylights. On a recent Thursday, Zaferiou set out a dozen or so scale models, each a variation on a design for a major museum project. Some were outfitted with fritted glass, others with louvers and electric shades, and still others with shading in the form of origami-like geometric shapes. He plugged each into the firm’s heliodon, a waist-high contraption that looks vaguely like an exercise machine and enables daylight testing. “Look how beautifully light falls across the wall in this version,” he said. “We really enjoy the physical model. The clients and curators get it intuitively, in a way they wouldn’t with a computer drawing.”


Custom House Tower, Boston, Massachusetts
Brandon Miller
 
 

Lam Partners, a 16-person firm based in an old brick factory just a few blocks north of Harvard Square, was founded in the late 1960s by architectural lighting expert William Lam. “Bill was part of a first generation of lighting designers actually trained as architects,” Zaferiou said. “The tradition he began, and which we continue, is working with the architect early on to conceive the building—even its massing and how it’s sited—so that the lighting becomes part of the architectural narrative, both inside and out.”

One of the firm’s chief tools is the heliodon (helios is Greek for “sun”). Created by a Lam staffer with an industrial design background, the device combines new and old technology. The mechanics of the heliodon allow the designers to adjust the relationship between a horizontal plane and a beam of light to match the daylight conditions of a given latitude. Using commonly available software that can replicate light conditions anywhere, at any time, and in any season, Lam designers are able to test lighting effects on building models under actual solar conditions. They can even use it in conjunction with the real sun by taking the gadget onto the roof.

The heliodon was very useful in Lam’s lighting scheme for Randall Stout’s Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, which opened in 2008. The building features curving surfaces inspired by the surrounding countryside and a glass entrance pavilion that resembles the prow of a great ship. “The entire building is conceived as a metaphor of a river running through a mountain landscape,” Zaferiou said. One challenge was to make the main entry both energy-efficient and dramatic—after all, it’s an event venue meant to generate income for the museum. “We came up with a luminous stairway,” he said. “The treads are glass, and we put fluorescent lamps underneath to illuminate them.”

Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia
Courtesy Randall Stout Architects

The museum’s glass entry pavilion created another challenge for the designers. Lam had to ensure that it was washed in daylight, but also that it didn’t get baked in the summer, driving up air conditioning costs. Stout also wanted the pavilion to give the building a luminous nighttime presence. “We got Randall to specify fritted glass—about 80 percent frit— so that a tremendous amount of daylight hits the glass, but much of it bounces back,” Zaferiou continued. “And it shines like a lantern on the outside, even with this high frit. It doesn’t take much to make a building look transparent.” As for the interior gallery spaces, skylights were cut out of the budget during value engineering. Wanting to continue the effect of the entry pavilion, however, Lam worked very hard to use electric lighting to simulate daylight.

For the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, one of the biggest challenges was getting the building to be luminous in a place known for long, gloomy winters. “Bill Pedersen’s challenge to us was ‘Make the building glow,’” said Lam partner Keith Yancey.

Located at the edge of the campus, the building’s most striking feature is two glass volumes known as The Colloquium. The volumes crown the structure and cantilever dramatically over two of its edges. “Since this is essentially circulation space and not academic space,” Yancey said, “we placed the lighting on the floor. It makes people look like they’re in the footlights.” There’s also an all-purpose student gathering space called, appropriately for its Michigan location, the Winter Garden. A soaring sky-lit room, it features blade-shaped reflectors that bounce daylight deep into the interior spaces. “The Winter Garden is so popular,” said Yancey, “they have to throw kids out at midnight.”

James McCown

James McCown is a Boston-based writer specializing in architecture, design, and real estate.