Faded gels. Broken lamps. Stolen fixtures. That's the reality for many outdoor lighting installations “after the love has gone,” to quote Earth, Wind, and Fire. When an exterior lighting scheme is first switched on, the designer is a proud parent, boasting of his or her new “baby” and showing it off to anyone who will crane his neck. Unfortunately, disappointment does not wait for a project's teenage years; the terrible twos can be really terrible when the first batch of sources burns out or vandals have found their way to the lighting rig to snatch an instrument or three, or the building owner just doesn't care, or you forgot to account for acid rain, thank you very much.

But is the designer done with the project? Whose responsibility is the installation after the design is done? If new fixtures are created that will make the design look better and last longer, is it the designer's responsibility to update the creation? Or is the LD done when the check from the architect clears? Well, it depends on whom you ask. “You have to walk away from it” when you're done, says Dawn Hollingsworth, managing design principal, Visual Terrain. “Your heart breaks sometimes when you go back and see it's not being maintained, but there's not a lot you can do about it; you're hired to do the design, not the maintenance.”


Typically once a project is done, the designer is no longer needed. and the future of the design is essentially up to the building's owner. The lighting designer — like the architect and builder — is too concerned with getting the project off the ground to worry about the future maintenance issues that will arise in the coming years. “Expecting a lighting designer to change lamps and worry about maintenance is like expecting the architect to wash the windows,” Hollingsworth says. “We're hired to build it. Somebody else is hired to maintain it. Lighting is a discipline that needs a lot of maintenance to keep the image of the property looking good, but it's the last thing people want to put money into because they don't see it as a problem.”

Hollingsworth adds that the real responsibility designers have to the building's owner is to let them know what to expect if they want an elaborate design. “You have to tell them what they're in for,” she says. “A lot of owners will come to us and want effects, animation, and really cool things, but they don't realize what it takes to maintain that.” She added that showing the owner pictures of the finished product and giving clear instructions on how to maintain it is the designer's responsibility, if the design is to carry on months and years later.

Anne Militello, founder of Vortex Lighting in Hollywood, CA, agrees that maintenance is a big issue; still, she says, lighting designers not only need the support of the building's owner, but the architect as well. “You have to have the cooperation of the architects to help build in access areas so that the lighting can be properly maintained,” she explains. Her award-winning exterior lighting for The New 42nd Street is an example of such a cohesive partnership between the architect and the designer, as all of Militello's lighting positions are easily accessed. However, the same was not true for a shopping mall she worked on in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “I used a lot of metal halide ellipsoidals for a four-story atrium that would project flower patterns. I also designed the maintenance system because the lamps could not be top-accessed,” she explains. “When I returned three months later, the architect had moved it out where nobody would be able to ever get to it. So that's $100,000 down the tubes because the architects thought they knew better.” Militello added that, fortunately, she had written enough letters and provided documentation on how to maintain the lighting so that if the issue ever comes up in the future, she will not be liable.

There are also myriad maintenance issues when a project has been commissioned by a municipality, according to UK-based designer Durham Marenghi, who recently illuminated the London Eye for New Year's Eve festivities. “What can happen is that a city council, for example, is in control of a new visitor attraction and they want to leave the best legacy possible while they are in power,” he explains. “So they invest all of their resources on the look of the building and architect fees and leave no funds for maintenance once it is open. This seems to happen with alarming frequency and inevitably leads to a very poorly lit installation or the actual closing of the attraction. There are obviously exceptions, but maintenance is one of the hardest things to sell to a client and further reason that LEDs are overtaking the world like a rash at present.”


When it comes to the type of designs she has on a building, Hollingsworth says that she often lets the fixture choice dictate some of the design considerations. “I let the lamp choice drive a lot of decisions because a fixture is often a lampholder,” she explains. “So if you let lamps drive that decision, then you can consolidate the number of lamps you're specifying, because the fewer the lamps, the less maintenance that is needed…theoretically.”

Hollingsworth also takes a close look at lamp life and says that despite what sales reps say, a 2,000-hour lamp life is not great for an outdoor installation. “It's really not a good lamp life at all, but we're stuck with it for performance fixtures on an exterior,” she says of the 2,000-hour lamps. “It's dark 4,000 hours a year, so when you start looking at three replacements per year, it's more than people are willing to do for a smoke detector.”

One of the biggest issues with lighting is that the technology is changing so fast, especially when designers are trying to do something interesting, groundbreaking, or with some artistic merit. “When you're trying new technologies, you're gambling with somebody else's money and time,” Militello says. “Sometimes, we get lucky and sometimes, we don't. If I can rely on proven technology to make my artistic statement, I will. But I'll also go for the gamble on the same project. So if the new technology fails, I've got something to fall back on.”

Some of the new technology did fail for Militello; the New 42nd Street project has had its share of problems but only with the hottest items Militello gambled on. “Lamps are blowing up, and glass pieces are getting into fans, and the fans are melting,” she laments. “Companies can't help me five years down the road because they're discontinuing this stuff. I thought I was specifying stable fixtures with a lamp life that was reasonable. But the lamp life was cut in half due to the extreme vibrations of subways and trucks that I underestimated. Lamps were exploding because the fans weren't rated correctly for the fixtures. The heat sinks couldn't handle the extreme temperature shifts of New York.”

All was not lost as Militello solved the vibration problem with a more stable tungsten lamp with “beefier” filaments. Still none of the issues that cropped up could have been predicted by her, manufacturers, or the systems engineering people. “You try to look at all the technical material and scrutinize these things, but you never really know until you're gone, and it starts working for you,” she says. “We've all used the big monstrous moving lights that got made into architectural fixtures that didn't pan and tilt but had computer-controlled dichroic capacity that are failing and leaving us all in a lurch.”

Militello is taking yet another gamble with new technology as she has specified hundreds of LEDs for two high-rise apartment buildings in Brooklyn on the bank of the East River. She has placed the LEDs on the buildings' crowns, and the project will be seen by a large portion of Manhattan's east side. “I've done mockups, and it looks good, but I am a little scared because I haven't done this before,” she admits. “Preliminary tests look good. Manufacturers' claims look great. But what's going to happen in five years? Sometimes, I question myself: am I foolish to do this, or am I doing something that everyone can use because I was one of the first to experiment with it in that capacity?” Time will tell.