A Light Touch

Lighting design is an essential part of mood-setting and d├ęcor in hotels, but is hard to pull off. Neil Knowles, founder and director of Elektra Lighting, explains how to get it right.


Words by Neil Knowles, Founder and Director, Elektra Lighting

Nothing sets the scene like lighting.
A space can be transformed by good lighting -- think candlelit restaurant -- or it can be ruined by poor lighting. Although this is true of a lot of projects, the hotel industry requires a lot more out of its lighting, and it is a lot more complicated.

Here, I explore the top five problems of hotel lighting, and how we've solved them in the past. These are problems we get in every hotel, and there are as many solutions as there are projects. I don't want you to think our solutions are the only answers, but I am proud of them. These case studies are drawn from the 100-plus hotel projects that I've worked on in the past 20 years, giving us a large database to draw on.

24-Hour Spaces
Hotels are open all day, every day. This is a stark contrast to most offices and shops, which are daytime only, or even restaurants that are only open for lunch and dinner. A hotel restaurant may be open from 6am for breakfast until 2am when the last dinner guest leaves. Typically, we'd use a control system with a minimum of eight scenes to accommodate this, from somewhere like iLight or Rako. But this is only half the story: it's not just to control, but what to control. We'd normally install at least two sets of overlapping lighting in many areas, for day and for night.

For example, at the Intercontinental Westminster we used a cool white Linear LED tape in the daytime, the blue tint triggering hormones to kick start guests' circadian rhythms and wake them up. This fades nicely into a candlelit yellow by night time, providing a sexy, welcoming mood for the evening and fitting the food offering nicely.

 For the Skybar at the Hilton Baku there was no lux requirement nor no uniformity requirement
For the Skybar at the Hilton Baku there was no lux requirement nor no uniformity requirement

Different Users
A hotel is large and this means lot of different lighting solutions: businesses hiring meeting spaces; a young couple on a date in the restaurant; colleagues in the bar after work; an out-of-town tourist in the gym. These people have greatly differing needs and have their own challenges.

The lobby needs to be well lit, with clear wayfinding; but it also sets the tone for the rest of the hotel -- and first impressions matter. By contrast, the bar needs to be darker, moodier, more conducive to relaxing and unwinding. One set of lighting solutions will not work in all spaces. Similarly, a Hyatt resort hotel is different from a Hyatt City centre business hotel. When we put a fee proposal together for a hotel the first question is: 'How many different spaces?'

So, spaces need to be different, but crucially they need to be consistent. Lighting needs to be recognisably the same in both spaces, in all those ways that would be subliminally noticed if they were not. For example, we tend to use a consistent LED chip for the entire project -- using Xicato throughout for example, or Cree chips in all fittings. We might vary the uniformity -- so more even lighting in one space, more drama accenting in another -- but it will recognisably be the same fittings and the same light quality coming out.

This is equally important in guest rooms where there is enormous pressure to make savings. For instance if we have plaster-in trimless downlights in all public areas, then we'd want to continue this theme. The problem is that adding a single trimless downlight to a guest room means you need to add it to all 300 rooms -- so 300 jobs for the plasterer to come along and skim. A similar problem is that hotels need to be consistent across sites -- Hilton Paris is consistent with Hilton Bogota, even though the budget, site, users and client expectations are different.

A hotel is a big project, and a big project has a big design team. Even a fairly small hotel will have the normal complement of fellow professionals (architect, M+E, QS, and so on) but larger ones add on a whole other set of people -- food and beverage consultants, kitchen designers, branding, signage, way-finding, vertical transportation, water features, and more. We usually end up coordinating with all of them closely.

Lifts need lighting and if we don't take charge it'll end up being a fluorescent batten on the ceiling; this won't be consistent with the rest of the project. Kitchen hoods need lighting, and if they are front-of-house in a display kitchen this means that they need to be integrated with the control system. Needless to say they must be consistent with other lighting, not the standard solution the manufacturer provides.

Sometimes, the team gets extended late in the day. On a number of projects I've worked on signage gets added at the end, and everyone is surprised when I tell them that its now very expensive to add integral lighting to the lovely new sign, as the walls are now marble finished and there is no provision for power in this location.

The Intercontinental hotel Moscow, where the lighting was heavily themed
The Intercontinental hotel Moscow, where the lighting was heavily themed

Downward pressures
Money is always tight on a project and there is always a downward pressure on lighting. Neither is lighting unique in this respect, nor are hotels. What is different is the way that lighting cannot be quantified easily as it can in other projects. For example, in an office there are basic requirements for lighting levels -- 300 lux, uniformity, ceiling illumination, and so on that are required. Any extra lighting is precisely that -- extra. And by 'extra' in this context I mean 'excess fat that can be cut out when we run out of money'.

Hotel lighting doesn't work like this. Do we really need the internally lit shelves? No! Do we really need the in-ground uplights? No! Do we really need the picture lighting? No! But take it all out and what you are left with is a very poor scheme indeed. Unfortunately, many hotels have brand standards which say things like 'Lobby - 200 lux'. As a result of this, many project managers tend to treat it like office lighting, assuming everything which does not contribute to the 200 lux figure is extra. And by 'extra' in this context I mean that 'excess fat that can be cut out when we run out of money'.

Hotel lighting is a curious mix. It wants to be new and innovative yet reassuring and consistent. It has multiple uses, but it's all one space. It wants to look fabulous, but we have no money. It needs to be new and unique, but it wants to conform to brand standards. Everyone in the 20-strong design team has to be happy with it, and you either make friends or enemies with them all. No wonder when it opens up, we need a good strong team drink in the new bar.

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2021, All rights reserved.