Academic lighting design remains rooted in practicality. That’s not to say that the spaces are stagnant or that the challenges of lighting them aren’t real. It’s simply a matter of balancing form and function, along with practicality and technology, all while making programming the priority. Michael Barber, principal, The Lighting Practice, Philadelphia, explains: “You don’t need to specify tunable light sources, color changing fixtures, or technologically cumbersome products. I try to keep it simple. It’s the union of light and architecture, with a focus on the program. At the end of the day, it’s got to be functional.”
The Lighting Practice has built a portfolio of extraordinary projects based on the fundamental principles of careful listening, collaboration, and dedication to achieving the vision of their clients. The recent Powel SLAMS K-8 school project is just one example.
Opened in 2021, the Powel SLAMS school co-located Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLAMS) on the Drexel University campus. The 87,000 square-foot, two-story building in West Philadelphia is now open to 720 students.
With an emphasis on active learning, interaction, and engagement, the classrooms at Powel SLAMS are lit for high visual acuity. Students today work more collaboratively than in the past. “The concepts are still the same though: put lighting on writing surfaces and provide even ambient illumination,” says Barber. Projections, smart boards, and other tech tools make minimizing glare and reflection a priority, as well as recognizing that all areas of the classroom are being used for instruction. “We have to treat the room more evenly. Writing surfaces are all around the room now,” he adds. The high ceilings of exposed concrete deck meant that a combination of direct/indirect lighting fixtures had to compete for space among acoustic panels to provide even illumination in classrooms. Downlights in the soffit provide light on writing surfaces.
Glazing heights are maximized at Powel SLAMS and natural light and electric light are carefully balanced to provide even light levels. “Access to natural light is critical in learning environments, but you don’t want the deeper ends of the space to feel cavelike,” notes Barber. Teachers have the option to use window shades and dimmer controls to achieve a comfortable learning environment. Classrooms also have daylight sensors. The Lighting Practice provided guidance on the lighting controls for the school, which is a networked system. “There is a central back-end, a brain, that controls everything and allows for timeclock control,” explains Barber. “The idea was that in typical classrooms, a teacher can dim and control the lighting fairly easily without having to call the IT guy.”
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Architectural SSL magazine.