St Francis sees the light

News /
21 January 2010

The recent renovation of a church in the West Midlands includes a state-of-the-art lighting control system from Philips Dynalite. This enhances the architectural beauty of the building, and provides easily changeable lighting moods to improve both its functionality and ambience.

The atmosphere in a church is often ethereal, presenting an air of almost other-worldliness. Entering a church provides a break from the hectic schedule of daily life and can promote a sense of stepping outside time itself. This subtle ambience comprises a certain blend of reverence, history, stillness and a kaleidoscope of light. If any of these elements are missing, however, then the aura within the church will fall short of its potential.

This was the problem faced by the Church of St Francis of Assisi in Wednesbury. The architecture and atmosphere were let down by an unflattering and poorly functional fluorescent lighting scheme. Not only did this lighting make it difficult for the congregation to read, but it also detracted heavily from what is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful church interiors in the region.

The Grade-II-listed Church of St Francis of Assisi was built by Italian prisoners of war, and consecrated in 1941. Its contemporary brick exterior belies the Italian flair apparent in the interior design. The church features a timeless mix of round arch arcades with painted intrados, plastered walls, and a trussed roof. Throughout the nave there are a number of beautiful hand-painted frescos and plaques, the latter depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross.

In order to enhance the ambience and the practicalities of the lighting within the church, the priest in charge, Father Ron Farrell, approached Lightmaster Direct to design and install an improved lighting system. Lightmaster Direct is a member of the Philips Dynalite Dimension dealer accreditation and training program, and this association enabled it to leverage the strengths of the Philips Dynalite lighting control system in the lighting scheme developed for this project.

Aesthetic ambience
The problems with the legacy lighting were not limited to poor light levels and a design unsympathetic to the aesthetics of the building, however. The system was both cumbersome to control and expensive to maintain. “Father Ron had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve through a lighting redesign,” says Lightmaster Design Director, Richard Nock. “The brief he gave us included atmospheric and calming lighting to encourage quiet reflection, and the ability to easily alter the lighting effects to complement the different parts of the service.”

“The Lightmaster team have been a delight to work with,” says Father Ron. “They grasped the vision we had for the building and ended up delivering more than we had hoped for. Nothing was too much trouble, and none of our design requirements proved too difficult for either the capabilities of the Philips Dynalite system or the expertise of the Lightmaster team.”

The design incorporated both functional and architectural lighting. Bespoke dimmable wall uplighters used in the nave allow a range of lighting levels to be achieved—from bright crisp light to a warm candlelit effect. Low-energy fluorescent fittings were used in the aisles, narthex, vestries, sacristy and porches, and these help minimise energy usage. The altar, lectern and font are lit by low-voltage halogen lighting that both illuminates Father Ron for the congregation and allows him to read.

Illuminating architectural potential
Architectural lighting effects have been accomplished through a mixture of spotlights, uplighters and LEDs. Miniature spotlights are located on the ceilings with narrow beams used to accent the plaques depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross. Uplighters have been used in the chancel to provide a wash of light on the walls and ceiling and to highlight the high-level windows. LED strip-lighting illuminates the hand-painted arches, and LED spotlights illuminate the gold-leafed St Francis on the roof of the church.

“The lighting improvements have served to emphasise the overall architectural beauty of the building as well as highlighting individual features,” Father Ron says. “It has revealed the fine structure of the church in a way that the previous lighting scheme never could.”

Underpinning this awe-inspiring design is a lighting control system comprising 48 lighting channels, controlled by six Philips Dynalite multipurpose controllers. These feature a unique hardware-configurable design, where plug-in output cards accommodate specific loads assigned to the system. The use of these multipurpose controllers means that a single controller provides trailing edge, relay, and DSI ballast control, as required, in each area of the church, precluding the need for multiple control units in each control cabinet. Thus there are no channels wasted, while providing future-proofing flexibility.

“We believe that Philips Dynalite provides the best control systems on the market, offering both the best value for money and the greatest flexibility,” says Nock. “The use of these multipurpose controllers was integral to the success of the project; they allowed us to achieve a broad spectrum of lighting requirements in a neat and cost-efficient installation.”

Setting the scene
The entire lighting control system is founded on Philips Dynalite’s sophisticated peer-to-peer communications serial bus network, DyNet. This links the controllers with six Philips Dynalite Revolution 2 user interface wall panels—located in key areas around the church—and with two ceiling-mounted IR sensors that receive signals from a specially programmed remote control.

There are 15 preset lighting scenes programmed for the main church, and four for each of the side chapels. Using either the remote control or Revolution wall panels, Father Ron can now simply select the appropriate preset to simply and discreetly alter the lighting in accordance with different aspects of a service from any part of the church. A slow fade-time of five to six seconds helps provide a subtle and atmospheric transformation from one scene to another.

One such scene—for sermons—dims the main church lighting to 25 per cent, while illuminating Father Ron at the lectern. This effect naturally draws the attention of the congregation to the sermon. Another scene illuminates the pathway to the side chapels, effortlessly drawing the worshippers to the right venue when smaller services are being held in these areas.

“Most of the congregation had modest expectations of the new lighting scheme,” says Father Ron. “After years battling the encircling gloom of the previous system, they just hoped to be able to read their service and hymn books! The finished results have exceeded everybody’s expectations, especially with regard to the ambience of the building.”

All revealed on Christmas Eve
The main challenges faced by Lightmaster on this project related to the fact that the church is a listed building. “We were restricted where we could route the cabling. However, the compact nature of the Philips Dynalite multipurpose controllers meant that we could use small attic spaces on each side of the church,” Nock says. “It was necessary to completely scaffold the inside of the building, even though the church was in continual use during installation. The time factor presented a major challenge, as it was important to complete the work in time for Christmas.”

As it eventuated, the work was completed on time, and the grand unveiling took place on Christmas Eve. “Subdued lighting—emphasising the arches of the nave and the apse behind the high altar—served to provide a quiet air of expectation in the congregation as they arrived,” Father Ron recalls. “When the Midnight Mass began, the lights subtly rose to flood the church with light. There was an audible gasp as the enhanced beauty of the restored building was revealed by the new lighting.

“Looking to the future, the church will now provide an incredibly beautiful and appropriate setting for important rights-of-passage—such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. Before, the church was gloomy and dull: now it is a bright, welcoming place of encounter with God.”

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