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Lighting is one of the most important elements of a hotel’s design, and hoteliers are starting to realise the benefits of its flexibility and control, says Carl Gardner

Lighting designer Sally Storey, director of consultant Lighting Design, describes an hotel’s lighting scheme as “the most flexible design tool you’ve got. If you want to vary the ambience of a bar, restaurant or reception area, you can’t change the wallpaper or furniture… but you can change the lighting”.

Happily, according to Storey and other lighting consultants, this new flexibility in the use of lighting is a message that increasing numbers of hoteliers now appreciate. “For most hotels today, a good automated control system is a given fact, rather than being seen as an added extra,” says John Bullock of lighting design group Equation Lighting.

With the advent of a new generation of easier-to-use control systems, such as Lutron’s much-admired Grafik Eye, even a relatively small establishment is able to change the mood and atmosphere of a reception area or restaurant to suit a specific time or occasion. For larger hotels with one or more dining areas, Nick Hoggett of consultant DPA Lighting Design recommends Electrosonic’s Imagine system, which he recently specified at the refurbished Swallow Hotel in Northampton.

Until recently, hotels had to rely heavily on pre-set “scenes” programmed into rather inscrutable control panels by designers or electrical contractors, but the big issue now is flexible local control by managements. “Today’s knowledgeable managements are increasingly hands-on, and schemes have to offer a degree of localised control,” explains Maurice Brill of Maurice Brill Lighting Design (MBLD), whose scheme for De Vere’s Grand Harbour Hotel in Southampton recently picked up a commendation in the LIF Lighting Awards. “As designers, we obviously have a vision of what we want to achieve in overall terms, but in the end it has to be run according to the needs of managers.”

Storey agrees, particularly in the case of hotel restaurants, where local control is vital. “Operation of lighting by time clocks is very good for a hotel’s general areas – lobbies, lounges and so on – but they’re too inflexible for restaurants. Eating times may vary, meals may overrun and so on. The lighting there ought to be designed to be adjusted by the maitre d’,” she says.

However, as Brill explains, even with highly enlightened, professional managements, there can be a lack of priority given to lighting at the construction stage. “Lighting is the thing that makes the entire interior design effect work, yet it’s still put last in the pecking order, after the mechanical engineering, the heating and so on – so we often can’t install the lighting where it should be. It compromises the design,” says Brill. Even at De Vere’s Grand Harbour Hotel this was a major issue. The ceiling of the multi-purpose functions suite, for example, had to incorporate a hugely adaptable, multi-element lighting system, including chandeliers, downlights and variable-colour, cold cathode strips.

“It was a classic example of how services dominate the design – the ceiling was full of ducts and there was hardly anywhere to put the lighting,” explains MBLD lighting designer Rob Honeywill. Lighting was restricted to the narrow ceiling slots on two sides of the panels. To achieve the required 300 lux at the floor, with an even spread, Erco’s 250W double-focus downlights were used, their directionality allowing the beams to cross over each other and avoid ugly cusping on the sides of the panels. The chandeliers are supplemented by integral, narrow-beam, low-voltage downlights, to give sparkle to the crystal. Two-colour, cold cathode strips were inserted, on to which the chandeliers were mounted.

Function suites are still one of the major problem areas in lighting terms, according to several specialists, including Storey: “In the worst cases, the entire lighting consists of rows of downlights on dimmers, with no wall-washers or uplighters. They’re gloomy, the ceiling and walls are dark – and inevitably the carpet is dark. Function rooms need a range of light sources, with perhaps a decorative feature, such as wall-mounted torchères or cornice uplighting, and downlights should be controllable in specific zones.”

Bullock takes the complaint one step further. “Even with prestige hotels, such as the Intercontinental on London’s Park Lane, the banqueting suite/ballroom space is under-specified in lighting terms. Many put on regular stage shows and there’s nowhere to mount the spotlights. The cables have to dangle across the ceiling and it looks dreadful,” he laments.

Today’s control systems are more sophisticated, so could hotel lighting be made even more responsive to customer needs? Brill thinks so. At the Grand Harbour, for example, he has gone beyond a simple 24-hour cycle of lighting scenes. “Everyone talks about hotel lighting changing for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But if people are staying for several days, we should also think about mood changes across the week, so that the space offers constant variety,” Brill argues.

There’s the issue of economy too. “In big hotels, people can come back at 2am or even 5am. The bar and dining areas shouldn’t look closed, but you don’t want to run the whole system, so you need good dimmers operating a minimum lighting scene for those periods. The installation of flexible circuitry to allow that soon pays for itself,” Brill says.

The area of the Grand Harbour which requires the most dramatic and varied treatment is the tall, glazed pyramid enclosing the Winter Garden tea room and lounge. As well as having great visual impact, it has to be pleasant to sit in. “In winter it’s not necessarily warm or comfortable, so the lighting has to compensate for the greyness,” Brill explains.

The chosen strategy is highly theatrical, relying principally on “banks” of luminaires inside the glazed frontage. High-level projectors shed a two-colour wash and a leaf-pattern gobo effect on to the floor and back wall. At the lower level, a series of 75W Concord Torch fittings give additional accent lighting, while a series of recessed, 20W 12V fittings, with honeycomb louvres and front cowls, wash the floors. The apex uses discrete metal halide spots mounted outside on the roof to give a blue cap. There are two main lighting states: a basic setting, which relies only on low-level, decorative illumination, and a high setting, which employs the full panoply of washes and gobos.

So much for a hotel’s grand public areas. Would that hoteliers gave the same attention to bedrooms – spaces that get an almost universal thumbs-down from lighting designers. With the exception of the ultra-expensive Lansdowne Hotel in London, where the lighting design is by LDP, it’s difficult to name a hotel where consultants worked on the bedroom lighting. “Hotels usually adopt the same stock solutions – wall lights, bedside lights, table lamps – regardless of the class of hotel,” explains Storey. “But generally, light levels are too low, particularly for business travellers who may want to work in the room. Bedroom lighting needs radically rethinking, to give the guest more variety and control.”

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