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Something To Build On: Justin Haas On Architectural Lighting

Posted on March 1, 2016
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“Over the last decade, Dallas commercial buildings have donned an increasingly elaborate wardrobe of high-tech lighting systems,” declared Steve Brown, real estate editor of the Dallas Morning News in a recent article. Mr. Brown knows whereof he writes. From Dallas to Denver to Detroit, buildings of all shapes and sizes are being transformed with new color-changing exterior LED lighting.

Decorative exterior lighting has been popular in other parts of the world for some time, and now the idea has caught on in the US too. All of which has created an opportunity for cross rental houses and integrators to broaden their businesses beyond events and clubs by lighting the exteriors of small to mid-sized edifices. Among the lighting professionals at the forefront of this trend is Justin Haas, founder and general manager of AMP’D Entertainment in Spokane, WA.

Haas came to our attention when we saw his work at Steam Plant Square in Spokane. Using a collection of COLORado 4 IP fixtures, he turned two idle 225’ steam plant towers into richly colored landmarks. His work not only added a majestic touch to Spokane’s skyline, it helped spark the renewal of a neglected urban neighborhood. We caught up with Haas to ask him about lighting buildings, how it compared to his work at events and what advice he had for others about this emerging new lighting market.

You’ve done some impressive architectural lighting projects. How did this all start for you?

“We started doing event lighting, and during the course of working on events we would sometimes be asked to illuminate the client’s building at the same time we lit the event. Then one client asked us about keeping the lighting on the building. They wanted to know what it would take to light the structure year round. At that point, we started to realize that we had something special here. As the trend of lighting buildings started growing around the world, the demand for our architectural lighting services skyrocketed.”

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So now that you’ve acquired some invaluable experience in architectural lighting, can you tell us how lighting a building differs from lighting an event or club?

“In our opinion, it differs very little. In club lighting, your goal is to create an ambient feeling in a space that helps the music get absorbed by the club goer. In architectural as well as event lighting, similar fixtures are used in a way to accent, highlight or bring attention to a specific architectural element or space. The main difference is that those fixtures in clubs change colors and move at an excessive rate to help create a sense of engagement. In architectural lighting, in most instances, they stay static, but you still want them to evoke a feeling.”

Obviously the IP rating of a fixture is critically important in architectural lighting, but what other features are important when you evaluate a fixture for architectural lighting? Throw distance? Brightness?

“Certainly, all of those features matter a great deal for obvious reasons – but there’s another factor involved. The fixtures you use in lighting a building are going to live in an all-weather environment, so the construction of these fixtures is very important. You have to look at what the fixture is made of and how will it hold up if something hits it or it a rock falls on the lens during a wind storm. These are all factors that we have to take into consideration here.

“Power requirements also count for a great deal when evaluating fixtures. You have to ask yourself if the fixtures are going to help the customer save money by replacing their old halogen or metal halide or incandescent fixtures with LED. Color temperature is another question that comes up in the preliminary talks with the client. Some of the customers we work with want to keep the same color temperature, whether it is 3150K or 5500K. We have to make sure that the fixture is capable of that temperature.”

Spokane Stacks credit James Richman

When you install architectural lighting, does it require ongoing maintenance?

“Oh yes, and this is a key part of the equation. When we offer architectural lighting, we put a maintenance plan together for the customer, which gives them peace of mind for two years. The lenses need to be cleaned to help the fixture displace heat and to get the maximum amount of lumens out of the fixtures at all times. We also want to make sure power supplies don’t go either. So we check them often to make these adjustments. After the two years, we still talk to the customer and reassure them that the maintenance on their fixtures is being up kept.”

Is the demand for architectural lighting growing as more people become aware of beautifying spaces?

“It seems that way, yes. A big selling point is the power saving they will get from LED over traditional conventional fixtures. There are rare times when LEDs aren’t the right fixture, but we tackle those on a case-by-case basis. Also, in new construction the cost saving, too, is a big selling point.”

Rigging is extra critical in architectural lighting: how do you decide how to attach outdoor fixtures to a structure?

“This is a very important thing to consider. We operate this function on a case-by-case basis. In the case of the Steam Plant, we partnered with a local steel company and they creatively came up with a unistrut construction frame to mount the lights too. So, each case is different. Some just need a pipe batten hanging and a 1/2 coupler to rig the lights, and others need custom fabrication.”

It seems to that more outdoor lighting is color rather than white nowadays; are you finding this to be true?

“We do find this to be a part of their decision making process. They like the white, however. In most cases, they want the ability to be able to give their building a different look, using white and using the colors from the same fixture on special occasions and holidays.”

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What are the biggest challenges involved in outdoor lighting?

“Getting power and data where it is needed is a challenge, especially in construction that is already built. In new construction, it isn’t much of a concern. Choosing the right fixture can be sometimes a challenge. Most clients we work with don’t know what they want or what the fixtures are capable of doing, so the challenging part is to test fixtures so they see what it can look like or what the lights can do.”

What are the biggest rewards?

“The customer’s reactions when they see the finished product is a huge reward. Also, having your work displayed for thousands of people to see every day and night is pretty nice too.”

Do clients have a pretty definite idea of what they want when they hire you for outdoor lighting, or do they ask you to create their look?

“My advice for anyone wanting to do architectural lighting:, be prepared to do lots and lots of demos — and sampling too. You need to do this to help clients get the look they want. Clients generally know they want the lighting to do. They want things like color changing. However, they typically don’t know very much about what’s involved until you start talking to them about the install process and demoing the products. The bottom line is that there is a commitment involved in lighting buildings, but the rewards are worth it.”