Illuminated trees—both real and replica—are just part of the fun at the Botanic Gardens’ new facility
By Samantha Schwirck
When you think of winter in Colorado, you might imagine snow-covered mountains and ski-trip destinations, with visions of greenery and urban entertainment reserved for the post-spring thaw. The newly opened Freyer-Newman Center at the Denver Botanic Gardens is poised to change that narrative. Housing classrooms, galleries, an auditorium, a library and an herbarium, the 50,000-sq ft facility transforms the 24-acre institution into a year-round attraction.
To lure people inside the new building, Davis Partnership Architects (Denver), BCER (Arvada, CO) and Visual Interest (Denver) collaborated on a design that’s equal parts welcoming to visitors, expressive of the Gardens’ programming and respectful of the natural setting.
That setting—and its surroundings—helped inform the lighting plan. “The institution is sited amid a historic residential area with a vocal neighborhood organization. This required a sensitive lighting design that serves the community while being appropriate for the nighttime neighborhood context,” explains Lisa Bartlett, senior lighting designer for Davis Partnership. “The lighting team formulated their concept with an understanding that the dynamic interplay of illumination and darkness was essential not only to foster an immersive user experience, but to complete a building that intimately connects occupants with nature. To that end, the blend of light and shadow was expressly designed in each area, with the lighting throughout the building softly changing from day, through dusk, into nightfall.”
Not surprisingly, the first example of the building’s connection to nature comes via trees—live ones located outside the entry, as well as steel structural supports resembling trees inside the atrium. “The uplighting at the newly planted exterior tree forecourt creates a direct line to the tree-form structures in the atrium, and adjustable path lighting provides clear lighting from the sidewalk to the entry amid densely landscaped, seasonally evolving beds,” Bartlett says.
The interior tree structures are highlighted by in-grade uplights (BK Lighting) with narrow-beam lamping (Soraa), as well as tree-mounted up- and downlights (Ecosense) with a 60-deg beam and snoot, while benches throughout are backlit by cove fixtures (Traxon) with a 50-by-10-deg beam.
At the atrium’s center, an expansive skylight frames a diamond-shaped view of the sky and clouds above, with a louver system underneath regulating daylight. “The placement and angling of the louvers were analyzed to limit luminance values on the glazing while allowing dynamic shadow play and high contrast during daylight hours with minimal use of electric light,” Bartlett explains. “As dusk falls each day, the electric lighting gradually shifts into prominence with purposefully reduced contrast and light levels: uplights and downlights at the tree forms cast mesmerizing shadows onto the complex ceiling, and uplights below wood fin walls create a firelight glow visible from outside.”
For spaces beyond the atrium, a wide range of end users and stakeholders had a seat at the table when the design plan was created. Indeed, seven different user groups had a voice in determining each area’s unique lighting needs. In galleries, for example, track fixtures (Lightolier) controlled by ELV dimmers allow curators to set light levels for exhibits via a phone-based app. “The active and diverse programming for the gallery spaces required two-circuit track lighting,” says Gregg Adams, senior lighting designer for BCER. “The luminaires were specified with multiple beam spreads and accessories to provide flexibility for installations.”
Flexibility was also key in the 275-seat auditorium, where lighting accommodates the room’s multiple functions. Fixtures consist of 2-in. aperture recessed downlights (USAI), recessed steplights (Winona Lighting), continuous linear LED striplights (Kelvix) to accent ceilings, and suspended singlecircuit track-mounted luminaires (Lightolier) for stage lighting. Controls include a portable touchscreen with preset scenes for easy recall.
Attention shifted to tunable-white technology in botanical illustration classrooms, where linear recessed lighting (Finelite) can be adjusted from 2700K to 6500K. “We created a system with multiple layers of light that allows the instructor and students to illustrate under conditions mimicking a variety of natural lighting conditions, from bright overhead daylight, to sunset, to moonlight,” Bartlett says. Thanks to addressable DALI controls, “each scene is accessible at the touch of a button,” Bartlett adds. Finally, color-critical activities in archival spaces called for a 90+ CRI LED array located in a recessed 1-ft by 4-ft luminaire (Soraa).
All areas with neighborhood-facing façades contain light filtering interior shades that are lowered daily at dusk, and the design team worked to keep direct-view luminaires limited in the 15 ft abutting the glazing. “Where shades are not practical nor desirable, preset scenes bring evening light levels to the lowest possible threshold,” Bartlett adds.
The library is one such example. The space is lit by a combination of linear recessed fixtures (Finelite), recessed point-source downlights and wall washers (Intense Lighting), and 40-deg flood fixtures. In perimeter reading rooms, suspended wood pendants (LZF) complement ambient light from linear cove luminaires (Tempo Architectural Lighting). In the evening, shade controls, combined with manual and daylight-responsive controls, reduce brightness outside while occupants continue to work inside.
Throughout the design process, neighbors were vocal in their requests for modifications to light levels. “The design team received neighborhood feedback and performed nighttime scene-setting visits to tune the perimeter and exterior lighting to provide balanced and unobtrusive lighting on the site,” adds Alyssa Weber, controls manager for Visual Interest.
The Gardens’ desire to be a responsible neighbor meant that controls were part of the discussion from the project’s onset in 2016. In addition to managing light at the neighborhood boundary, the control system also needed to work with the various lighting technologies used throughout the Center, and be adjustable so that programming could be updated as occupant needs evolve in the future.
A Crestron system with hybrid wired and wireless components meets all of the project’s needs. “The design included both wired and wireless components, control protocols ranging from 0-10-V to DALI, and interfaces varying from simple keypads to portable touchscreens, to phone applications and software,” Weber explains. “The various product types came together under a unified network and user interface for a streamlined experience for the end user. Software and app-based control was provided for adjustability of scenes, timeclock and sensor settings for the diverse use functions throughout the building.”
In addition to helping the team meet a stringent budget and fast-paced schedule, the control system also contributed to the project’s LEED Gold certification, with lighting energy usage totaling 0.59 watts per sq ft—20% below 2015 IECC allowed usage.
While sustainability is certainly a public benefit, the Center’s larger feat is providing the community with functional indoor space at a cultural site often considered only for its outdoor offerings and when weather permits. A good neighbor all around.