Mar 2, 2021

Everyday adjectives comprise the lighting vocabulary at the Washington Fish Market

By Samantha Schwirck

The first development phase for the Wharf—a multi-billion-dollar, mixed-use urban renewal development designed to reinvigorate Washington D.C.’s southwest waterfront— was a massive undertaking for the capital city. Ironically, its completion hinged on a tiny, yet complex parcel of land nestled within the development, which houses the historic Washington Fish Market.

Just as this parcel was the final component of the Wharf’s first phase, site and artistic lighting was the final design component for the parcel. “We were the last consultant boarding the fast-moving train,” says Debra Gilmore, president/principal of Gilmore Lighting Design (Bethesda, MD). “The architectural design team was bringing up the ‘caboose’—the last and most complicated phase.”

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Gilmore’s project scope included short-term parking, six retail buildings and a circular drop-off, all organized around a historic oyster shed and bordering the Washington Channel and a major street. The various vantage points and “carnie” characteristics of the existing and historic fish market, which would remain in place, contradicted the overall site lighting needs for ambiance, identity and public safety. Understanding user activity needs, as well as the various viewpoints, drove lighting concepts incorporating artistic moments while solving for security, branding, signage and wayfinding.

Due to the timing of Gilmore’s contribution, speed and coordination were critical. “I knew we needed to be under contract quickly, and with no RFP, I submitted a limited scope of services for creating a schematic design that could translate toward the architect’s needs of solving for egress, and the landscape architect’s needs for landscape lighting,” Gilmore says. “We identified lighting design project goals as designing distinct zones of visual identity; providing appropriate illuminance for all pedestrian/vehicular areas; minimizing glare; and reinterpreting the existing seafood market’s honky-tonk character.”

With goals clearly defined and the final proposal in hand, the overall design concept of “Connected Sparkle” emerged. “It was an early working concept phrase that stuck,” Gilmore says. With that phrase came a series of “lighting adjectives.” “The client related to how we defined the activity zones—Lively/Active, Atmospheric and Iconic/Accent. They could think programmatically, and about how implementing lighting solutions and general lighting character supported their needs.”

Utilizing layers of light in different locations established a visual hierarchy relating to each area’s activity level. “Iconic accents could reflect in the modern glassy facades of Phase 1, while building-mounted fixtures were considered functional sparkle and visually connected the site to the active and lively areas and general lighting,” Gilmore says.

For example, the Market Square area bordering Maine Avenue called for higher light levels because it contains a pedestrian/vehicle conflict zone—“a very lively area,” Gilmore says. “The circular drive serves as a drop-off for numerous retail venues and was very narrow. We knew a few discreet poles would solve the issue, but the word ‘pole’ was now forbidden.”

Instead, Gilmore’s team proposed using the retail building’s exposed structural columns as a mounting location. The architect and owner approved the idea in lieu of poles; however, Gilmore was concerned about glare. “Luckily, we found a small-aperture fixture with enough output to meet the luminance criteria, and in the end when all the surrounding glassy buildings were occupied, the glare blended and became serendipitous ‘Connected Sparkle.’”

The area between the Market Square and the public plaza, which doubles as a pedestrian entry point and gathering space, presented a site branding opportunity via “iconic” lighting. “The void between the two buildings needed something special,” Gilmore explains. “Architecturally, it was the formal entry down to the public plaza and could be seen from many vantage points.”

The design team was not excited about the landscape architect’s suggestion for café string lights, but the structural benefits of a catenary solution were apparent. In turn, Gilmore proposed a glowing floating ring concept. The owner and retail partner were both on board, but cost was a concern. “We had sold an idea that the factory hadn’t yet built,” Gilmore says. “We also needed enough lumens to cover egress needs. Calculations proved positive, but the technical challenge was ensuring the electrical connection could also join to an angled cable. We wanted the rings to appear suspended vertically, as if they were beads of bubbles rolling along the cable.”

The final design incorporates an angled catenary system using suspended, glowing custom LED rings (iLight), which delivers functional egress illumination, while adding an artistic moment and memorable site location by day and night.

Luminaires accenting smokestack signage provide another iconic moment. The fixtures are bracket-mounted onto building façades and the finials of promenade lanterns. “Though technically not located within Market Square, the smokestack for the distillery was visually connected,” Gilmore says. “Illuminating the tapered element featuring bold mural-like quotes so it would appear ‘iconic’ meant locating [the luminaires] either on the smokestack or remotely.”

Glare was a challenge, as were mounting options. “An in-situ mock-up showed the location of the Wharf development site stanchions was best for fill light at the drop off,” Gilmore explains. “The architect agreed to modify the stanchions with additional building brackets for supplemental light in the drop-off area, and for lighting the smokestack.”

Finally, soffit-mounted “moonlights” (projectors), strategically located and specified with different optics, provide atmospheric illumination that unifies the plaza circulation areas while avoiding spill onto buildings. Parking areas utilized similar fixtures clustered to a singular, centralized mast.

“Given the relationship of parking to the existing fish-market foot traffic, the area needed higher and even light levels. The client questioned why more light was needed given the existing floodlights on the barges adjacent to the site. Separation for emergency purposes was required. We proposed one mast rather than a series of smaller poles, and four different studies were performed before a final position was agreed upon by all parties.”

The lighting design not only solves for site and artistic lighting, but also ensures energy efficiency, as dimmed and switched zoning tie back to a project- wide control system that helps achieve an overall LPD of 0.09 watts per sq ft. Gilmore credits the underlying adjectives for helping carry the concept to fruition. “Most sites have artistic opportunities,” she says. “Thinking in terms of lighting adjectives helps us in defining concepts, but more importantly enables others to better understand lighting character proposed. Through a more expansive narrative and vocabulary, we can educate.”

This article is based on Gilmore’s presentations at the 2020 IES Street & Area Lighting Conference and the 2019 IALD Enlighten Americas Conference.


Samantha Schwirck

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