Jul 20, 2022
Under the roof of one midwestern conservatory, layers of light immerse visitors in the landscapes of two diverse continents

By Samantha Schwirck

Cleveland’s nickname may be the Forest City, but the desert of Madagascar and rainforest of Costa Rica also make an appearance in the midwestern city’s arts district—at least inside the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s (CBG) 18,000-sq ft Glasshouse. Originally constructed in 2003, the space is divided into these two otherworldly landscapes, home to 350 species of exotic plants and 50 different types of butterflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians. “The glasshouse is considered unique among conservatories because it shows how plants, animals, geology and climate interact in a delicate balance,” says Ardra Zinkon, president and director of Tec Studio, Columbus, OH, who led a project to renovate the building’s lighting in 2017. 

One of two major motives behind the lighting upgrade was the existing, outdated system of 1,000-W metal halide luminaires, installed when the glasshouse was first built. “The HID system in place was difficult to maintain due to access,” Zinkon explains. “When lights failed, they were just being abandoned, so we first needed to address the challenge of having a maintainable system in the space.”

An added advantage of the new all-LED system—consisting mainly of upper-level color-changing luminaires and mid-level and low-level landscape accent lighting—is a decrease in the building’s operating costs and carbon footprint.

The second objective of the new lighting, particularly the landscape luminaires, is an enhanced visitor experience. “It’s a public space that’s often used for special exhibits or rented out for events, so the owner wanted the opportunity to have a dynamic, changeable look,” Zinkon adds.


Lighting a conservatory was a first for Zinkon and Tec Studio, but some aspects of the project were familiar to the design team. “My training was in theatrical lighting design,” Zinkon says, “where every production is different and has an experiential story-telling quality that I could draw from with this project.”

Indeed, theatrical moments emerge in both the Costa Rican rainforest and Madagascar desert environments, as DMX controls offer multiple scene options with color-changing effects for staged events, as well as time-clock control throughout.

Upon entering the Costa Rican biome, for example, upper-level RGBW LED luminaires (Lumenpulse), mounted high on a truss, disappear to create a moonlight effect. “The fixtures were spaced out to fall directly over paths for access in the future,” Zinkon says. As the journey continues, discreet low- and mid-level landscape spotlights (Hunza Lighting), with both spot and narrow flood distributions, as well as colored and diffusing lenses, provide 2700K accent lighting.

The fixtures were mounted to 24-in. ground spikes or existing architecture such as a catwalk structure. “We used a large-diameter stake in the beds to ensure stability,” Zinkon adds. “We also used remote power supplies so the wiring could be tucked into the planting material, and the power supplies are located along the back walls and can pull power from existing receptacles.”


Certain site-specific factors were less familiar to the design team, and called for input from glasshouse staff and experts, as well as some trial and error. “These were living biospheres and there needed to be some understanding of the impact the light had on the plants and animals within,” Zinkon says. “Ensuring the ecosystem could safely coexist with the new lighting required coordination with the facility staff on all lighting types, locations and controls.”

The layout of the aforementioned landscape luminaires is a prime example. “The density and varied foliage types required multiple walk-throughs to fully layout the luminaires within acceptable limits based on anticipated growth of the plants,” Zinkon says. “One of the challenges was that we did not have a planting plan or layout to work from. Since my office is three hours from the project site, I had to work off of pictures from my site visits and try to reconstruct the current planting based on images as I was laying out the plans.”

Then came the on-site collaboration with the glasshouse staff, which inevitably led to some unforeseen hurdles. On the second site visit, the team brought along plans and sketches and, with the greenhouse manager’s approval, marked specific fixture locations with flags for the electrical contractor to reference during installation. “Some light positions were moved significantly because we learned that some trees were to be removed due to size and growth issues, and some trees had large root systems that could not be disrupted. The space—especially the Costa Rica biome—was so lush with growth you really couldn’t tell right away if certain locations would work or not.

“We made a lot of changes on the fly,” Zinkon continues. “Selecting the alternate locations was just a back and forth with the greenhouse manager. Kind of along the lines of, ‘Can I do this?’ … ‘How about this?’ … ‘What about over here?’ He’s passionate about his job and the care he takes with all the life in the biome,” Zinkon adds. “I think as designers we must always remember we serve the design, not vice-versa.”

Custom details provide smooth visual transitions between upper-level color changing fixtures and lower-level accent lighting, as well as the diverse environments. Step-lights on a bridge in the Costa Rican biome, for example, were mounted on the structure’s existing mesh sidewalls. “We also coordinated the plate detail to match, which allows these to go unnoticed during the day,” Zinkon adds. Lights installed under the elevated bridge deck were customized for easy aiming and concealed by matching adjacent finishes. “The fixtures were line voltage as it was fairly easy to hide the conduit runs within the deck framework,” Zinkon says.


The team was also unfamiliar with the Madagascan environment, but challenges in the arid setting were different from those of the lush Costa Rican forest. “Installation and aiming was a bit precarious as the succulents included spikes and spines, but their sculptural appearance also provided the perfect canvas,” Zinkon says—and the group embraced the task. “I think we all took a spike or two for the team. It wasn’t just the location of the lights; it was getting to that location that was tricky at times—it was an adventure.”

The result is that after nightfall, the same upper and lower-level fixtures as those used in the Costa Rican setting create a surreal world of illuminated spiky plant life and rocks. Again, details—for example, an uplight glow within a cavern, coupled with illuminated trees ahead to maintain the path of travel tie the various lighting tactics together. “The cavern glow was something I knew we wanted to create on that first site visit,” Zinkon says. “It allowed an opportunity for your imagination to think about what may lay beyond the trail. Luckily that was one of the areas we could get power to easily and conceal mounting locations.”

Of course, the experience would not be complete without a glimpse at one of the country’s largest collections of Madagascan baobab trees under glass—illuminated by a mix of the RGBW luminaires and spotlights, creating an enchanting pattern to conclude the journey.


Ardra Zinkon, CLD, IALD, IES, is the president and director of lighting design at Tec Studio Inc. in Columbus, OH. In addition to serving on the IES Board of Directors and multiple IES committees, she regularly guest lectures at universities and presents at conferences including LIGHTFAIR.

Tim Pool, PE, RCDD, is a principal and the director of engineering for Tec Inc. Engineering & Design, a Cleveland-based MEP & IT firm.


Samantha Schwirck

Samantha Schwirck is Managing Editor for... More info »