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Parking garage lighting design: things to consider

A parking garage is one of the most utilitarian architectural structures, yet as the “front door” of many buildings and complexes, it’s also a golden opportunity for owners to make a statement. How can parking garage lighting design add visual appeal, meet energy standards and improve user safety? We talked with Ardra Zinkon, CLD, IALD, president and director of lighting design at Tec Studio Inc., about this oft-overlooked area.

How can lighting design help ensure the parking garage establishes a positive first impression? 

AZ: A parking garage can be so much more than a block of poured concrete that gathers dirt and grime. It’s really a landscape feature, and designers should approach it as such. For example, imagine dynamic or static LED displays on the exterior, or lighting fixtures that complement the surrounding (often urban) environment. 

Maneuverability is one of the biggest things to consider. By the time visitors park, exit the parking garage and enter their intended destination, how do they feel? Are they frustrated? Running late? Do they experience a smooth transition moving from space to space? 

Garage spaces can also double as art galleries. Think about using them as a place to display public art and support local artists. The result can be both beautiful and memorable for facility guests.

Remember, the true front door is often not the most frequently used door. If an urban building has a street-level pedestrian entrance and underground parking, few people may enter via the front door. 

For example, our firm worked with Columbus Metro Library, where the parking garage is located beneath the building. Here, it was important that the entrance for the connecting garage be easily visible and have the same welcoming sentiment as the less frequently used, more formal front door.

The Franklin County Convention Center Authority has also included public art programming within all of its existing and new parking garages in the elevator lobbies.

How can light fixtures support wayfinding in parking garage structures?

AZ: Climbing spiraling ramps in search of a parking spot can cause visitors to become disoriented or lost. From clear directional signage to ample driving lanes, parking garages must be easy to maneuver. Can visitors easily find the stairwell or elevator? Is it clear that they have to cross the street to reach their final destination? Thoughtfully placed, illuminated entrance and exit signs and signs identifying the garage level or elevators and stairwells can all help light the way. 

Uniform illumination in a parking garage helps create a sense of heightened security, but it can also make it more difficult for visitors to identify reference points for wayfinding. That makes lighting strategies for landmarks such as exits and stairwells even more critical. We can use lighting to emphasize the vertical surface of the elevator bank or even incorporate color-changing elements into points of interest in the garage.

Lighting fixtures can also help guide visitors before they arrive. For example, exterior lighting and creative selection of cladding materials can help people spot the garage as they drive down the street. Color-changing facades can be even more eye-catching, and these dynamic elements can double as seasonal or special event branding.   

Why is durability such an important concern for parking garage lighting?

AZ: Remember, a parking garage is essentially a rough service environment. The space needs to feel finished and clean — think back to the importance of a positive first impression — but lighting fixtures must also be durable enough to survive unconditioned spaces, potentially harsh weather and damage from contact with vehicles and people.

What are energy standards and considerations that affect parking garage lighting design?

AZ: LEDs allow us to be far more efficient than before, and control strategies represent the next step. New daylighting and occupancy sensor guidelines are having a significant impact on lighting design. For example, ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1-2010 incorporated additional requirements for controls. It essentially mandates dimming strategies based on the available daylight in the structure, as well as occupancy sensors to dim the lights depending on the need. 

As a lighting designer, I’m focused on determining energy strategies that meet the requirements and enhance safety while maintaining an appropriate look and feel. Remember, with LEDs, the wattage is already so low that we have more flexibility when it comes to some of these things, even if we’re aggressively trying to reduce energy consumption. It’s always important to think about the design of the space and associated needs. 

No matter what, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all configuration. For a parking garage or any type of project, we have to consider each space separately and take time to run the calculations that will help us determine the best lighting layout. Often, we can save energy even using a configuration that includes more lighting fixtures, because those fixtures have better optics and distribution.

At the end of the day, our goal is to get every last lumen out of every last watt.   

All LEDs are not created equal. What are some things to look for or avoid? 

AZ: My team has had good luck with LEDs that do not include visible diodes. Your typical cookie sheet covered in diodes tends to yield lots of glare. That can be a burden on the driver.

Many early LED parking garage fixtures were quite bulky because of heat sinks, or they created a lot of glare. In general, these problems are far less common in products being developed today. 

Is it possible to achieve form and function in garage spaces? What are some creative ways to employ creative design that highlights architecture?

AZ: I’ve always believed that even the most utilitarian spaces can be beautiful and cost-conscious. Lighting designers view their craft as an art form, but designing within budget and scope is also part of the challenge for any space. 

Every element of our designs serves a specific purpose. While I don’t think we’ll reach the point where we’re including custom decorative fixtures in parking garages, we still have huge potential to incorporate things that are both beautiful and utilitarian. For example, my firm completed the lighting design for the façade illumination of the new Goodale Parking Garage at the Columbus Convention Center. Early on, the owner informed us that this space would contain public art. Today, our lighting design illuminates these custom murals, located throughout the garage’s stairwells. 

We’re not always lucky enough to work with an owner who appreciates the value of great design, especially for something as practical as a parking garage. That’s why I like to remind people that a good designer can do more with less if the product is solid. The better product may provide 10 times the value, though it rarely costs 10 times as much as the alternative. 

What’s next?

AZ:  How many times have you driven circles around a large parking garage, looking for a parking spot? More and more, we’re beginning to see parking garage systems that alert drivers to the location of vacant spaces using special lighting sensors. 

The internet of things is making its way into parking garages, too. There are so many ways to piggyback on the electrical framework already in place in these spaces, and I’m excited about the possibilities.