Sep 9, 2021

With a little help from the other side, a Michigan designer turned a ‘clump of dark cement’ into an award-winning bridge for pedestrians, boaters and drivers

By Katie Nale

Photos: Bill Lindhout

When it comes to life after death, everyone has their own beliefs, but more than a few may agree that when Tony Kuhtz took on the task of lighting the Charlevoix Bridge, he had help from beyond this physical realm. In 2017, the designer from Grand Rapids, MI, firm Fishbeck received a call from Paul Belding, a semi-retired light fixture engineer living in Charlevoix, MI. An avid fisher who frequented Lake Michigan at sundown to catch salmon, Belding was bothered by the “clump of dark cement” that he passed under three times a week. Having worked in the lighting world, Belding knew the bridge had potential and he reached out to Kuhtz based on his bridge work in the city of Grand Rapids.

“He had a vision of lighting the bridge in Charlevoix and he thought Fishbeck could help bring his vision to life,” recalls Kuhtz. Unfortunately, the two never met. “When I talked with Paul, he knew he had cancer and he passed away a couple short months later before I got to meet him in person.” Before his death, a small community group was formed in Charlevoix to turn Belding’s vision of bridge lighting into reality by funding the project. The group acted as the final decision maker during the design process and is responsible for maintaining the lighting system.

When Kuhtz took on the project, his main goal was to bring Belding’s vision to life by adding a little extra “wow” factor, while addressing the bascule bridge’s three main audiences: watercraft, vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Focusing on the rail, arch and underpass allowed Kuhtz to cater to all three.

To give the rail lighting visual interest and separate it from the stretch of road before and after, Kuhtz specified individually controlled rows of color-changing lighting strands (Color Kinetics iColor Flex LMX gen2 RGB). “The existing roadway lighting was similar to the roadway lighting in town and there weren’t many visual cues at night that you were driving over a bridge. So, one of my goals was to bring some light above the bridge deck, so drivers could enjoy the lighting and know they were driving over a special bridge,” recalls Kuhtz.

The luminaires are mounted under each of the three rails that make up the pedestrian guardrail structure that runs along the bridge sidewalk deck. Each section of string light across the bridge has its own DMX address, so it can be programmed separately. The lights are located on the water side of the decorative guardrail detailing and are aimed down to prevent a direct view of the luminaires from vehicle traffic and pedestrians. Along with the underpass embankment lighting, the rail lighting can be changed for holidays, community events and special occasions. Fishbeck has assisted with programming the bridge via calendar since the lighting was constructed.

Below the rail and hidden from direct view, the arch is lit by exterior linear luminaires to help boaters to better see the bridge at night. The fixtures are mounted above the arch on the structure supporting the sidewalk—high enough so that boaters can’t see the fixtures when approaching the bridge on the water (Figure 1). Beam clamps were used to connect the fixture to the existing structural beam. The luminaires are aimed down and back toward the bridge arch to reduce light spill.

Controls for the customizable lighting were complicated by the lack of a non-submerged connection across the bridge as the bridge opens every 30 minutes between April through December, as well as on-demand. To combat this, there are separate control and power sources on each side. The control software utilizes a single calendar-based program for the entire bridge that is installed on both controllers. The timeclocks of each DMX controller keep both sides of the bridge synchronized.

Lit by RGBW exterior architectural and landscape spotlights, the underpass also features color-changing capabilities. The luminaires are mounted as high as possible over the pedestrian walkway to create pools of light on the angled embankment next to the sidewalk, as well as to keep them away from pedestrians and any potential vandalism. The lights are positioned such that the four pools of light are largely separate from one another for more visual appeal. This also allows the colors to be different or the same, depending on the color scheme.

“We followed IES recommendations for lighting the pedestrian walkway under each side of the bridge,” says Kuhtz, who wanted to make safety a priority for those on foot. Pedestrians can view the rail lighting, the arch lighting and the lighting at the pedestrian underpasses from both sides of the structure. “It was our pleasure serving the community and bringing Paul Belding’s vision to life. Maybe one day we’ll get his input, but for now we trust he is proud of the final product,” reflects Kuhtz.


Katie Nale

Katie Nale