January 1, 2003 - From the December/January, 2003 issue

Francis Krahe: Giving Identity to Public Buildings And Public Places Through Creative Lighting Design

Lighting design is a critical ingredient in creating a sense of space for buildings of significance and public spaces. The Planning Report is pleased to present this interview with Francis Krahe, President of Krahe & Associates, in which he discusses the use of lighting to create identity in public spaces as well as the conflicts inherent in working on public projects.

Your firm works with the illumination of public buildings and monuments. Talk about the importance and value of lighting public buildings and monuments. And, what are the challenges you face working with the public sector, particularly through the procurement process, while trying to give the best kind of design solution possible?

First of all, it's important that public buildings have an appropriate identity or image presented at night, and lighting design helps to articulate a vision and an idea about a particular place. So I will help the public agencies develop an idea about how they want to present their city or their place and their facilities at night for their constituents or for the general public. The lighting of buildings is something associated with cities that have vitality and a certain program of redevelopment and growth. Especially for significant and historic buildings, it's a way to feature the legacy and the infrastructure of the city. The process is best managed when lighting designers are engaged with a clear program and have a clear process defined to establish the design objectives, and a corresponding budget, and then carry that design through the development of the ideas and the construction documents and through to the implementation of the ultimate design.

What challenges do you run into? I know, for example, that the procurement proces for Los Angeles City Hall began as a public-private opportunity, bringing in the best of the private sector architects and planners. But, it ended up as an internal public effort. What transpired there and what lessons can we all learn, public and private, about how to do these projects in the future?

The original intent of the Project Restore effort with City Hall was to bring in the best quality design and to implement that design with as many different funding resources as were available, both public and private. When we were engaged in the project, it was through the completion of a competition process. We submitted our ideas on how we would develop the design, and I think our firm was selected both on the basis of our credentials and also on the strength of our ideas. We felt, and strongly believe today, that there were opportunities to engage the private sector, not only in the ideas behind the lighting of City Hall, but also in the funding for those ideas.

When that Project Restore design process was turned back to the city, there were opportunities to maximize the advertising of the restoration, and significant public stature of this building. There were many private companies that were interested in stepping up to the plate to underwrite funding for significant portions of the project, who backed away when the implementation of the design was reverted to the city agencies. Basically, it was poorly managed. We had articulated a plan and an associated cost to implement that plan. Those funds were either not allocated or misallocated and weren't available to help us finish the job.

You must do a lot of public projects. What happens when the budget cycle interferes with the long-term architectural and planning responsibilities of the private sector vendors? Is what you experienced with City Hall something that's recurring often as the budget cycles up and down with public agencies?

Yes, it does happen more frequently than I'd like to see it happen. But the irony of it is, again, that the fee structure for our design services is a small percentage of the total cost of the project. In many cases, by cutting those fees, the ultimate cost of the project is actually substantially higher because our role in designing the project isn't just spending an unlimited amount of money. We're engaged to develop an idea that can be achieved for a specific design and for a specific budget, and to manage that design and budget process. I don't think the savings are realized in the manner that the budget-cutting process predicted they would be saved.

When you submit a proposal on a design contract, who owns the rights to that design idea? You go through the procurement process and competition, you're selected, you go through the conceptual design process, you submit a budget and then they take it inside. Who owns the idea in those cases?

Well, it is a contractual issue. By right, it's our idea and it's copyrighted. Our design is something that is protected by intellectual property rights and, at least theoretically, we would have the authority to demand compensation for use of that material. In some cases, and I don't recall specifically with the contracts that were developed with Project Restore and in the City Hall's case, those rights are assigned to the owner under the agreement. I need to go back to verify exactly what happened in this case. I'd say it was unlikely that we signed an agreement that gave them away.

So generically, what happens? Generally, you would rather let it go to get another contract than fight over it?

Exactly. You have to gauge the outcome. To litigate this issue, first, there's a cost of litigation and whatever outcome might be some years away. Second, we're trying to build a relationship with these clients, and litigating with them isn't constructive to that long-term relationship. In most cases, those downsides outweigh whatever potential compensation you might get from the litigation process. It's just a situation where you would hope that professionalism and ethics would guide a more appropriate response from the client to protect the fair value of what the designers have invested into the project.

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What are some examples you are proud of that demonstrate the illumination design work that can be a benchmark for our readers?

Well, there are two recent examples here in Los Angeles, the first being the Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, which we just completed this year. It is a tremendous landmark building and it's even more prominent and interesting at night, because of the lighting we've added to the project. The second project is the Grove at Farmer's Market, which is a great example of a public space. It's generated enormous public interest and it's been just an amazing success. Again, the lighting played a key role in terms of creating atmosphere and inviting the public to be a part of a building to really enjoy a place.

Both of those projects were developed in a very collaborative process. The ideas that were generated are not our ideas alone. They're a result of a partnership that we developed with those clients and with the architectural team and the landscape designers to bring the best ideas into the project and to help execute them in the best way. Those are examples of projects that have outstanding success. I believe Children's Hospital Los Angeles will be a similar success because again, we have a very supportive client and a great architect, and a very clear mandate to produce a superior quality design.

Talk about how the mandate is communicated to you and how you go about exploring ideas that lead to the desired design solution.

Well, the first thing is to have a dialogue or investigative process at the beginning of the project to understand what lighting values should be a part of a successful project. In many cases, that requires a series of meetings or tours or discussions with the client to enable them to focus in on this subject and to analyze what's important to them, and what they would appreciate or what they believe would make a difference in that particular project. This idea has a lot to do with the perception and, as I mentioned before, the identity of a place. Engaging in that discussion from the beginning is vital to making the best of the project's potential. Once we can identify what the core values are, what the key lighting qualities should be in the project at its completion, then we all have a common objective and the designs that are developed can support that ultimate outcome.

The second part is to go through this exploration of how do we get to that outcome and what are the means and methods of developing lighting intensities and patterns and color and quality that would generate that identity that we're looking for. That process is arduous. There's no simple ‘one-stop shopping' kind of answer. There are a series of value judgment decisions that are required with respect to how much money we spend, what level of finish detail and complexity is required, and the character of the lighting components as they relate to the building. This process requires a very hands-on client in one sense, and in another sense, it takes someone who has the respect and management skill to delegate the ultimate implementation to us. At some point, I do believe there's a series of decisions that will be based, to a certain degree, on trust in our ability and our experience in dealing with these issues. Our recommendations should have substantial weight in the decision-making process.

What's the impact of 9-11 on your work, not only of buildings, but in streetscapes?

There's been a significant delay in almost every building project type we're involved with throughout the US and even overseas as a result of September 11th. I don't think there's anyone who said, "let's go faster because of what happened on September 11th." There's been a noticeable increase in the awareness and discussion and emphasis on security and the aspects of lighting that can aid security. We've had several projects that were solely dedicated to redesigning lighting as part of public space to address issues of security. There will be a lasting change in terms of the design parameters that would be considered good design for public spaces as a result of the perceived or actual threats of terrorist activities in those areas where you are going to gather a large group of people. It's not been articulated in clear terms, but I sense that those concerns are starting to filter through and it will ultimately be embedded into design criteria of all lighting designs.

We once had an energy crisis here in California and one might wonder how to relate the lighting of public buildings and public spaces with the energy crisis. How do you do that and make it work efficiently?

First, the lighting industry is responding to two environmental issues right now. One is energy and the second is environmental, in terms of light being projected into the night sky, and trying to limit any further degradation of the visibility of the stars and the atmosphere at night. Those two issues combined have significantly altered the value of just simply flood lighting buildings and projecting a lot of light into the sky. City Hall is one of those monuments where that, in fact, is appropriate. But I don't believe that floodlighting design should be the uniform or a typical approach to the lighting of tall buildings. We're looking at other types of technology and other types of application of light that would a) use lighting sources that are much more energy efficient such as light-emitting diodes and other types of energy saving light sources, and b) projecting the light in a much more horizontal direction so that it's visible to people on the ground, but it's not projecting light up into the atmosphere. Those two aspects will alter most of what you see going forward in terms of exterior building lighting. It's going to have a dramatic impact over the next five years.

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