Six bridges lit just in the nick of time helped Houston make a statement
By Katie Nale
Out of all the cities in the U.S., only a few are punctuated by broadly recognizable landmarks. The Empire State Building decorates countless New York postcards, the Space Needle looms above Seattle, Washington D.C. has the Capitol Building and the Liberty Bell is often one of the few things non-Philadelphians can name about the city.
Landmarks can stir up a sense of hometown pride and as host of Super Bowl LI in 2017, Houston found itself in the fortunate position of having a new landmark ready to be unveiled … almost. “We had to bump up our finish date six months ahead of schedule,” says Lance Gandy of Gandy2 Lighting Design, whose Houston-based firm had been in the process of lighting six 230-ft-long bridges in the area since 2013.
“Houston is a city with wonderful attributes, yet few recognizable landmarks. The neighborhood, which the bridges span, wanted to change that and turned to lighting to create a bold signature statement across 10 city blocks,” says Gandy, who served as the principal lighting designer on the project, which won a 2018 IES Illumination Award of Merit. “The illuminated bridges have been a major draw for locals, visitors, media and photographers.” Due to the bridges’ location over U.S. Route 59, Gandy had to work with the Department of Transportation to overcome the challenges that came with such a large-scale project.
To the Point
Gandy decided early on to work with one manufacturer to keep technical issues to a minimum. He also made sure to choose a manufacturer with a proven track record. “We were really only looking at some of the larger companies in the industry because it was a significant expense and we wanted someone who could really stand by it long term if there turned out to be any issues,” says Gandy. “We ended up using two different fixture types from Traxon.” Floodlights (Traxon’s Washer Allegro) are used to wash the truss work of the bridges while the inside and outside of the arches are lined with direct-view fixtures (Traxon’s Media Tube), which illuminate the bridges in pre-determined color schemes.
To deploy different lighting scenes across the bridges, DMX controls (e:cue) are used, with data hardwired to one bridge and wireless controls connecting the others. The controls allow the bridges to function as one coordinated design, changing colors simultaneously or creating a rolling effect across the 10-block span. The controls also allow scenes to be managed via the Internet. To this day, Gandy still helps with the day-to-day operations of the bridges’ lighting. “It’s not a project we consider complete because we still help the city operate the lights. We do all the changing of colors ourselves and we help them with scheduling and maintenance.”
The State and the City
Along with the city of Houston, Gandy also worked with the Texas Department of Transportation Standards for Roadway Applications. “There wasn’t an architect above us so meeting their standards, putting together a team with electrical engineers working for us was a little out of the ordinary, but a great experience,” recalls Gandy. “We made several trips to the State Capitol to walk them through everything and how it works.” With drivers passing underneath the bridges and planes flying overhead, Gandy worked with the DoT to make sure glare control standards were met. Beam spreads and glare shields were chosen to highlight the structure without wasting light, while direct-view fixtures ensured that the six curves of the bridges could be easily seen from a distance.
Shortening the construction time for the 2017 Super Bowl was another obstacle. “Once the city knew that we were working on the project and they had been awarded the Super Bowl bid they said we had to have the lights up in time. All of the sudden we were in crunch time to make that happen,” recalls Gandy. “But we were able to do it and it made a lot of the local residents feel like they were a part of the celebration.”
Despite the looming presence of the Super Bowl, the completion of the bridges’ lighting was ready to be celebrated a few days prior to the sporting event. “The first night we closed one of the middle bridges and the city threw a party on top of it,” recalls Gandy. A special lighting program started with the party bridge and emanated out in both directions. “The celebration lighting did a lot of things that were very cool that we wouldn’t be allowed to do on a daily basis because of the amount of distraction that it would cause,” says Gandy. “We had state representatives there, congressmen, the mayor, the former mayor, as well as neighbors and all of the design team that worked on it. After an hour of the celebratory lighting, we switched to the Super Bowl theme. It was a blast because we had worked so hard to get them turned on in time. It was really satisfying.”
Even after the Super Bowl, the local community continued to incorporate the lights into celebrations big and small. “There’s a fairly sizable sidewalk on either side of the bridge. We turned the lights on February 2nd and by Valentine’s Day, there was a couple that set up their Valentine’s dinner on one of the bridge’s sidewalks. It made the newspaper.” Since then, the bridges have appeared in various media outlets as symbols of the city. Local organizations and non-profits can contact the city and request to have the lights changed in order to represent them and any special events taking place. “We never go more than three days without changing the lights,” says Gandy. “It’s sort of a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to do something as significant for a city as this.”