By Bridget Mintz Testa
That’s not only the organizational mission, but also the design result at the nonprofit Girls Inc.
Girls Inc. in Omaha, NE, hopes to lift its clients to new heights. The design of its facility adds a boost—actually a burst—as well. The nonprofit organization encourages all girls to be “strong, smart and bold” through direct service and advocacy. The group works with disadvantaged girls from an area of Omaha where 30 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 70 percent of annual family incomes are less than $30,000. “The program empowers girls to be strong, smart and bold through life-changing programs and experiences. We wanted [our work] to embody a journey of discovery for the girls,” says Andy Lang, the chief lighting designer with Morrissey Engineering in Omaha, which did the lighting design, electrical and mechanical work for the expansion of Girls Inc., earning the lighting designers 2017 IES Illumination Awards of Merit for both interior and exterior design.
“The plan was to create an expansion to the existing facility that was complementary to it,” adds Keith Herrman, the project architect with Architectural Offices in Omaha. “The major components on the exterior of the facility used precast concrete panels that had random reveals that created interesting patterns.”
The existing Girls Inc. building was a 55,000-sq ft masonry structure “designed like a donut, and there was a gym/cafeteria in the middle and classrooms around it,” says Randy Palandri, an architect also with Architectural Offices. “Girls Inc. wants to attract and keep teenagers,” he says. “They’ve found that the longer they can keep a girl in their program, the better the outcome. That’s not just by years, but by activities and the time they spend in the center. They didn’t just want to expand numbers, but also to expand services to girls for a longer time period.
“They’re also in an area of town where the services’ needs are the greatest,” says Palandri. “There was talk of building an entire new facility, replacing everything and building an addition for health and wellness.” However, that would have been too expensive, and it may have also meant moving to a different location, which was problematic because the current location is the most under-served. Subsequently, “we ended up staying on the same site,” Palandri says.
The main question was how to make the transition from an older, “racetrack” building into a new project where the main spaces are gymnasiums, work-out facilities and teen centers. “Our main concept was what we’d call a nodal space, so we’d have the old building, the new 61,650 sq ft building and the space in between—a nodal space we call the Girl Hub,” Palandri says. “It’s the transition space. That’s where everyone comes into the building. We make all our level changes between the two buildings in the Girl Hub. It’s kind of an interstitial space, and it turned into sort of a quasi-activity space.”
Regarding the lighting of the project, “We came up with a way to light the building so it would not be obvious from inside or outside. We would let the light follow and enhance the lines of the architecture and use that as our lighting system,” says Palandri.
Adds Lang: “We wanted the new building to look like it was bursting with light at the seams—that embodies smart, strong and bold.” Lighting was integrated into many building elements such as window mullions to create the illusion of architectural elements emitting light on their own.
One place this “burst” of illumimation is especially notable is on the stair in the Girl Hub that leads to a skylight in the ceiling. “We integrated the lighting fixture [from Moda Light] into the stairs so that it symbolized the girls being lifted up as well,” says Lang. “It was a linear line of light integrated into the stair assembly. The stairs are steel panels, and the acrylics make up the line of the stairs that you see. The actual light was LED tapelight.”
The architects chose to laser-cut the names of donors into the steel stair panels. The stairwell culminates at the central skylight with the ideals of Girls Inc. laser-cut into the steel-wrapped opening. The donor stair symbolizes the donors lifting the girls up to the ideals of the organization.
Lighting is integrated into the stringer on the inner side of the stair. Custom-bent acrylic panels on both sides of the stringer not only illuminate the stair treads, but create a line of light reinforcing the concept of the path upwards. No two pieces of acrylic in the stair are identical, making the integration of the acrylic and the stringer both a lighting and a geometric challenge. Sizing calculations and mitering details had to be precise to ensure a tight fit.
Another interior area where lighting was critical, but had to be hidden, was the Girl Hub, i.e, the lobby itself, where all luminaires (from Wila) are LED. To hide the fixtures, 8-in.-diameter cylindrical acoustic baffles were hung from the ceiling at different heights to create a slope. Smaller cylindrical light fixtures were placed between the baffles so they can’t be seen.
Designing what’s known as the “educational kitchen” also required nuance. Morrissey’s Katie Owens designed the kitchen lighting, coordinating it with the existing building and the kitchen hood. “It needed to be very bright. Color rendering [81 CRI] needs to be there, too, for the right colors of meat, for example,” says Owens.
Media and classrooms are part of the new addition. “When there is daylight in the room, we dim some of the lights to save energy—the rows nearest the windows,” Owens notes. “A photosensor automatically dims the lights.”
Fluorescent fixtures light the gym, new health and wellness clinic, and classrooms. The gym fluorescents are 54 watts and the fluorescents in the classrooms and kitchen are 32 watts. In addition, LEDs are used above the kitchen cooking area where fluorescents would not fit. “They tied in thematically with the linear lighting,” says Owens. A neutral 3500K was used throughout the interior.
Another goal for the project was to build a health and wellness clinic in the Girls Inc. building because there were no other clinics in the surrounding area. “We worked with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to get a clinic in the building,” Owens says, “which helps the community in ways beyond just Girls Inc.”
A primary challenge for both the building and the lighting design was that the project had to be designed for 50-plus years. “We were looking at lighting systems that would work for that time, but we were also forward-thinking in terms of technology and how do you make it a design factor and how does the lighting design complement the architecture and vice versa,” says Palandri. “We didn’t want to use a bunch of downlights everywhere. We didn’t want lighting to be the obvious element in key spaces, so we came up with a way for how the lighting was not to be obvious from inside or outside: let the light follow and enhance the lines of the architecture. We used that as our lighting system.”
A “really good example,” he adds, is on the north side of the building where there is a lot of patterned precast concrete. “We wanted to illuminate that concrete. The easiest way to do that was to use ground-mounted light that shines on the building, but this wouldn’t complement the architecture of the building. Also, anything mounted on the ground is prone to vandalism. So we raised the lights up to the bottom of the precast concrete, made them linear and then shielded them in a trough so they’d be uplights. When you see the building during the day, you never saw the light fixtures, and at night, you’d just get this glow up the precast concrete.”
Morrissey’s Steve Gollehon adds that “every light fixture [Traxon and Lumenpulse for the façade] was coordinated with the architectural design. We were concerned about how we were going to light surfaces—mainly the textured precast concrete panels. The architects had designed the surface to have a custom fluted pattern. Andy and I came up with the idea of grazing the fluted pattern with light at night. The pattern is lit by sunlight during the day time. The texture sparkles at night with the way the light catches the reveals in the concrete. We used a form to create the patterns.”