Updated: Aug 24, 2021
We’ve been bustling away now in the north of Sweden for about six months and after some record breaking snow this winter we are through Mid-summer and into days of perpetual daylight. So a few, perhaps obvious, observations here from my first 6 months or so in a new region.
It’s quite humbling stepping out of your comfort zone in a new but similar market, but the continuous opportunities for learning have always been a big draw for me in lighting design and, hopefully, will continue to be.
As it's my first year here I’m still adjusting to the different seasons and their impact on how we talk about lighting. For example in countries closer to the equator we often conceptualise exterior lighting with reference to winter use, when spaces are dark but usable and summer use, when the outdoor space will in fact be...in use.
In the Northern Nordics this is of course a fallacy. There is no real need for landscape lighting in the height of summer and, at -20C, you’re unlikely to be using parks and gardens a great deal in the depths of winter. So how should this affect our approach to lighting design?
Assuming that the exterior spaces are occupiable and we have people meandering around them that we might interact with, we usually design lighting for landscape or public realm to deal with several needs in mind. Safety and security dictate lighting to be high up and sufficiently bright and uniform, whereas designing the lighting to be lower and more localised is generally better for light pollution and creating a more intimate and visually interesting lighting scheme.
This year's particularly harsh Nordic winter has highlighted the need to appreciate how a bollard, uplight or even a street column can be buried for months in compacted snow and ice and the brutality and speed that public areas are cleared with by huge excavators late at night. This means that any 'low level' lighting needs to be safely concealed or suitably durable to survive.
The heart of Umeå town centre is however gently heated from below by district heating from a local CHP plant to reduce the build up of ice & snow, limiting the need for gritting and mechanical clearing which are a death sentence for low level fixtures.
It's an accelerated test bed for product durability and reminds me of the first middle eastern projects I worked on, getting to grips with how blisteringly hot conditions can get and the havoc a sandstorm can wreak on an unsuspecting lighting installation.
The limited use of private gardens in the winter can happily mean that landscape lighting in can be designed as more of a ‘set piece’ with certain key viewpoints in mind. This can reduce the need for quite as many fixtures and provide more flexibility for how they are mounted in terms of glare and maintenance. Another factor worth noting is that whilst the relatively grey and benign weather in months of November and March either side of winter can need a boost in light levels, the arrival of snow and its inherent reflective qualities should also be considered in terms of light spill and perceived light levels.
In a region where the sun doesn’t set and a client might not engage with nor depend on their lighting system for several summer months it can be difficult to promote the need of ‘good’ artificial lighting for a large portion of the year. In fact controlling natural light is more of a consideration in architecture and interior design.
However even in the land of the midnight sun there are deep plan and windowless areas within buildings that adjoin those bathed in natural light and without a balanced lighting design these areas can suddenly appear lifeless and unappealing when it's blissfully bright outside. Lighting controls also become increasingly important in areas where natural light is pouring in and intelligent controls can save a small fortune.
Environments with static lighting scenes such as offices, schools and retail are usually supplemented by natural light during their core hours of operation taking the pressure off the lighting design to reduce eye strain on people working indoors and provide environmental cues to the time of day. This becomes a much more fundamental discussion in the winter where deep plan spaces no longer benefit from incidental or borrowed light and designers of colour palettes and interior finishes in schools, for example, are strongly cognizant of this when developing their schemes.
As far as residential projects are concerned, houses are built with a greater level of ‘plug and play’ adaptability compared with the UK market for example. Pendants can be changed seasonally with ceiling sockets and 3 pin plugs, whilst power supplies are often located adjacent to windows to encourage the use of lighting when there is no view and offer a more comforting vibe in the bleak winter months. You may argue that people living in this part of the world have through generations developed their own survival strategy using artificial lighting, candles, lanterns and paraffin torches as a way of enriching environments such as schools, restaurants and their own homes lifting their spirits in the deepest darkest winter months.
Whilst talking to people about their thoughts on lighting I’ve noticed a strong aversion to thinking about the winter. The summer is embraced and the winter made bearable and it’s good to know that lighting helps with that.