Shedding Light on Bruce

It was Le Corbusier who said, in the 1920s, “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” In retail, as in other architectural spaces, the role of lighting is not only to highlight the architectural and retail vision, but also to focus attention on the merchandise for sale.

A case in point is the hip new Bruce store located in Vancouver’s fashionable West End. Called an “anti-department store” by its owner, Bruce represents a new trend of modernist urban stores that offer a selection of designer fashions, shoes, housewares, gifts, eyewear, art, CDs and magazines to a targeted, sophisticated audience of trendsetters and “early adopters.”

Given the vision of the owner, the design team–led by McKinley Dang Burkart of Calgary–was faced with the challenge of creating a retail space unlike any other. Both the architecture and the lighting had to complement a two-storey open concept to showcase a wide assortment of merchandise that changes constantly with seasons and styles. It also had to mesh with the unique merchandising vision of the owner.

The retail space totals 11,000 square feet on two levels and features an exposed open web steel joist ceiling structure. The second level is connected to the ground floor by an open staircase and contains a bistro for customers to relax in while experiencing the store’s unique ambience. The front faade of the building, a two-storey glass wall, allows the entire store interior to be viewed from the street.

The lighting design challenge was twofold: provide a lighting system that would address the technical challenges of this high-ceiling retail space, and satisfy the concern of the designers and owner that the lighting concepts presented would effectively address their vision for the store. A complicating factor was that the lighting designer was located in a Calgary office separate from the architects, and that both were far removed from the owner in downtown Vancouver.

With a two-storey high open ceiling, a fundamental requirement for the store was a lighting system suspended from the uppermost level that would not only provide general illumination but would also highlight the merchandise and attract customers. Good colour rendition and elimination of harsh shadows was essential to creating an environment conducive to the sales process; people must look and feel good within the space, and the merchandise must be shown at its best. To achieve these goals, it was vital that direct and diffuse lighting systems be complementary.

A bell-shaped luminaire was selected by the store designers and modified by the lighting designer to provide the light levels required for the retail application. Two different sizes of fixture were chosen. Although all the luminaires were to be mounted at the same height, the second-level fixture had to be physically smaller in size due to the reduced floor-to-ceiling height on the upper level.

Given this lighting challenge, both the designers and the building owner were uncomfortable with how this proposed system might work. As many retail design experts know, display lighting has to have large contrast, or uniformity, ratios between circulation areas and the product–usually in the range of ten to one. The designers questioned whether the designed contrast ratios would be too low, thereby creating a flat space with no depth perception. It was clear that both the owner and designers needed visual support to illustrate the lighting effects and the size of the luminaire within the space.

In the past, hand-coloured renderings would be commissioned, or a full-colour photorealistic rendering software would be used to create a visual rendition of the end result. Unfortunately, both options are expensive and the rendering software requires high-powered computer hardware to produce results in a reasonable amount of time.

An alternative would be to use lighting design software that is less time-consuming and easier to manipulate. However, the downside of many programs targeted specifically at lighting design is that they cannot produce visual renderings quickly or accurately. The good news is that some of these programs have been greatly improved over the last few years.

The software that solved the dilemma for the Bruce project lighting calculations and renderings, AGI32, was developed by Lighting Analysts of Littleton, Colorado (see This design tool combines both colour rendering and the science of lighting calculations with the speed required for busy designers. One important benefit is that AGI32’s calculation engine produces colour renderings in seconds and minutes rather than hours or days. This feature allows the design team to review how early lighting concepts will look and to make changes on the fly.

The program also contains a library of luminaire distribution files called photometric files that are produced and distributed by most lighting manufacturers for their entire range of products. Any manufacturer’s files can be added to the database. The files are then incorporated into the model to calculate and produce renderings that predict how the design will look using the specified lighting product. Other lighting products can be substituted as required and the resulting images can be viewed on-screen, printed or transmitted by e-mail. Once created, renderings can be exported as bitmaps or complete 3D VRML worlds that can be easily e-mailed to the client or design consultant via the Internet. (VRML viewers are widely available on the Internet.)

In the case of Bruce, the software was used to create a three-dimensional colour computer model of the interior and exterior that could be viewed interactively from any angle. These renderings were integral to the Bruce design process and were sent by e-mail to both Bruce’s owner and the designers, enabling them to see how the proposed lighting system would achieve the desired results. They were also able to review early concepts, make comments and suggest changes. By way of this “Internet charrette,” the lighting system design was finalized between all parties with a high degree of certainty and client satisfaction.

In addition, the costs of client communication were greatly reduced. Where previously commissioned hand-drawn or software-generated renderings would have to be couriered back and forth across the city–or, in this case, from Calgary to Vancouver–this new system proved to be faster, cheaper and more efficient. Essentially, lighting design can be done from anywhere in the country or even the world, heralding an impressive improvement in customer service and quality control for this or any other lighting project.

Paul Mercier, LC, is a senior lighting designer with Stebnicki Robertson and Associates of Calgary and the lighting designer for the Bruce store. He can be contacted by email at or at 403-270-8833. Photographs by Kelly Fisher, Graphics Garage.