Lighting the skyline of historic Burlington Iowa proves that outdoor lighting controls offer value primarily as a design consideration, along with being a means of saving energy.
During summer 2016, Burlington’s “Lightscape” project enhanced the beauty of the town, giving it new visibility. Burlington was built into the sides of a picturesque natural amphitheater along the Hawkeye Creek valley, which spills out into the mighty Mississippi River. The original capital of the territory that later became the state of Iowa was founded in 1833. As visitors came up the River by boat, their first sight of the town was a skyline punctuated with an array of church steeples and spires.
In 2009, local philanthropist Gretchen Miller contacted lighting designer Chad Palmer of Energyficient Systems about lighting up the steeple of St. John church. As that project developed, people began wondering about lighting up all the steeples in town. A group was formed to investigate the possibilities. The Lightscape committee began serious development in 2013, as LED lighting hit the mainstream. But it needed a control system.
The unique feature of Burlington’s Lightscape program is having the lighting for nine individual churches controlled from a single point. The steeples can be lit individually from controls in each church, or in unison from city hall for special events or seasonal changes. While all the buildings were within walking distance of each other, they were spread out around the city. With dramatic lighting, the design would dominate attention, drawing people’s view to the skyline. Considering the history of the town, it could help renew Burlington as a tourist attraction.
Focusing on Steeples
Each church steeple became a focal point in the design, with the facade lighting tied to it. Depending on the location, lighting would cover one to three sides of the building. Palmer’s team began by getting detailed measurements of all nine churches to create 3D models for use in creating the design. The design was built in AGi32 lighting design software package, and rendered to show committee members and supporters. “The excitement level went way up when people could see what it would look like,” Palmer explained.
Seven of the church communities had historical buildings with traditional design. One of the churches was originally built as the town library. The last building was the Majestic Estate, originally built as a church.
Palmer created a budget based on the original St. John’s project. The committee began fund raising. Several big donors were secured. All the contractors that would be involved became personally invested in the project, donating a portion of their services. As a community project, the lighting and construction were funded by donations rather than the churches themselves. Everyone participated in the construction. The churches would just pay for the electricity.
A number of serious design challenges presented themselves. Lighting nine churches without encroaching on other property was the first major issue. Light pollution can be as big a consideration in a small town as a big city. Trees and other buildings were close at hand. The lighting design would use primarily pole-mounted fixtures, so minimizing the number of poles became a consideration. This was further complicated because most of the churches were built on hillsides. The steeples could be as tall as 200 ft, but the average setback for any poles was only 12 ft. Considering that the project was being funded by donations, it was also critical that the lighting and control be affordable.
The limitations of the physical settings made the lumen package and distribution of the lighting fixtures that much more important. Palmer was impressed by the Alpha series of LED floodlights from Beacon Products. This fully adjustable luminaire is designed for precise light placement, eliminating spill light. Within the product series, 25 different fixture models were utilized. A total of 100 luminaires were installed, mounted on 19 poles.
This new harmony in light needed sophisticated control. A search of available outdoor lighting controls turned Palmer’s attention to the wiSCAPE® system from Hubbell Control Solutions. He contacted sales manager Steve Grossberg, who helped him discover all the capabilities of the system. The wiSCAPE controls covered the original goals of simple on/off switching and unison control, but also opened up more possibilities. Local on/off switching at each location, dimming control, scheduling for community events. Wireless operation simplified installation because the nine churches were spread out over a dozen city blocks, so no wiring needed to be run between them and city hall. It was also affordable.
Palmer’s design took advantage of 96 wiSCAPE external fixture modules for photocell and wireless control, plus nine internal modules that could be connected to three-button switches for local control by each church. A central wireless gateway at city hall networked the system together. “It wasn’t critical for each fixture to have its own control, but so much simpler,” Palmer explained. “Plus now they can give us feedback and monitoring.”
Late in the design stage, a problem arose. The external control modules use a standard ANSI twist-lock base. However, the fixture design prevented the controls from mounting properly if they were aimed over 80% of the way up. Engineers at Beacon designed a “sidecar mount” bracket to remote mount the twist lock external modules next to each fixture.
By the Way, Save Money
Implementing the new Lightscape design had an additional impact. Several of the churches already had exterior lighting. The new LED luminaires and advanced controls used much less power than the previous HID lighting and saved them money. The community gave the lighting as a gift to the churches, but they’ll pay for the electricity. Controls are usually specified primarily for energy savings when they aren’t required by code. The user experience is also important, giving users control over their own environment. Since the controls were central to the Lightscape design, it demonstrates that the value of controls should not be based on cost savings. Moreover, the technology in the new lighting was to enabling the design. “To do this with traditional lighting and controls would have been much more challenging,” Palmer commented.
Planning for the Future
The future was also a priority for the Lightscape committee. Some of the fundraising was used to create a planned maintenance endowment, to ensure the integrity of the system throughout its life. Here again, the LED technology and advanced controls played a part. The system is set with the lights dimmed 20% in normal use to extend the life of the system.
The committee has also turned its attention to future phases of the project, lighting up other parts of the skyline including the Great River Bridge over the Mississippi itself. Lighting the bridge will perfectly compliment the city Lightscape. Updating the bridge illumination with LED will present the city with a major energy saving opportunity. Another spot that can benefit from professional lighting design is Snake Alley. The town’s most famous landmark was once labeled the crookest street in the world, according to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Some items in town have already been lit, like the steam locomotive set in the center of town. However, these spots didn’t utilize lighting controls.
It’s About Aesthetics
As the steeple lighting installation approached completion, the committee wondered about how to roll it out publicly. Would an opening night event be best, or a progressive rollout over 9 nights to showcase each individual church? Excitement about the project grew as the unveiling neared. Many people in town knew that something unique was going on. Local community college students created a documentary about the project with aerial drone footage of the steeples before and after the new lighting.
The Lightscape was unveiled to the city in late August. At 9 p.m. on a Friday evening, the church bells began to peal. The lights came on, outlining the steeples again the skyline along with an American flag atop a local bank. Supporters and neighbors cheered and applauded, turning out in large groups throughout downtown for the lighting ceremony and celebration. According to Palmer, “We were overwhelmed by the community turn out.”
The committee hopes that the eye-catching architectural gestures will inspire both locals and visitors to engage with the town in new ways. Lighting can enhance Burlington’s rich heritage as a commercial and cultural center. Lightscape not only enhances Burlington, it brings outdoor lighting control to the forefront of aesthetics in city design. Once again, the historic skyline is a bright sight to behold along the Mississippi.