Coming To Market

The transformation of the lighting for the Grade II* listed Covent Garden Market Hall had to be all about a slow and steady bringing together of client, council and heritage ‘custodians’. But the extensive testing, consultation and mock-ups all paid off , with the historic site even now having colour-changing capability

Unless you’re really into crowds or shopping – or both – braving London’s Covent Garden Market is not for the faint hearted, especially either side of Christmas. It is estimated some 44,000 people visit Covent Garden and the surrounding area a day, with many of them gravitating to the shops, pubs, restaurants and entertainments located around its piazzas and within the Grade II* listed historic market hall. However, even with the throngs, Covent Garden Market Hall is now well worth a visit by lighting professionals, thanks to the new lighting scheme by BDP, ably assisted by Studiotech, completed last August.

Unsurprisingly, with such an iconic and busy location, the ‘story’ of this project is anything but straightforward, as BDP lighting director Tom Niven explains. ‘We’d had a relationship with Covent Garden’s owner Shaftesbury Capital (previously Capital & Counties Properties) through our former head of lighting Mark Ridler,’ he tells Lighting Journal. ‘We had been engaged to look at some public realm lighting interventions within the area and started to have conversations about the Market Hall building back in 2021. At that time, of course, we were just starting to come out of the pandemic and, while things were slowly opening back up, retail across the board was still suffering.’

‘There had been previous attempts at lighting refreshes by other companies. After Covid the goalposts shifted and there was an impetus to rejuvenate both the retail and the look and feel of the heritage building – and there had been some general complaints about the site not feeling safe at night. From the marketing side people were becoming quite animated about wanting more contemporary lighting interventions,’ says Jono Redden, BDP senior lighting designer.

RIGOROUS CONSULTATION

Naturally, however, given the heritage location, any ‘contemporary’ lighting installations, let alone innovations such as colour-changing LED and control (which we’ll come back to) had to be approached with extreme caution. Other factors had to be considered, such as the impact of any new lighting scheme, or clash with, the nearby Royal Opera House’s scheme, designed by Studio Fractal a decade ago.

There was also the need to work with, and get agreement from, both the Covent Garden Area Trust (CGAT) which is the custodian and protector of the heritage of the Covent Garden area, and the equally rigorous and (and rightly so) demanding conservation team at Westminster City Council. ‘Our initial study was a palette of options. We floated a few more high- level conceptual ideas asking ‘what could it be?’.

But it was really about us all sitting down and agreeing ‘yes you can have this, but these are the implications’ or ‘if you do this, you might detract from this’ and so on,’ emphasises Jono. ‘We were able to manage a lot of expectations by a) walking people through all the different concepts and b) showing that it was, yes, all feasible but also what the issues might be,’ he adds.

One motivator for all parties was a general recognition that the existing building-mounted lanterns on all four sides of the building were no longer fi t for purpose. ‘If you imagine those early H4 car replacement lamps – corn-on- the-cob, multiple chips but much, much bigger. So straightaway it was, “we have to move on from these”. ‘But one of the issues from the beginning was the cabling.

Because of the listed nature of the building, we could not put new cabling in for existing lanterns – and therefore dimming was going to prove difficult to manage,’ Jono adds. BDP asked heritage lighting specialist William Sugg, manufacturer of the original lanterns, to refurbish them and produce replicas along with brackets, including filling in some gaps, so that there are now eight lanterns down each side of the building and 12 in the colonnades, located in a zig- zag formation.

Mirroring the Studio Fractal design on the Royal Opera House, each column at the market hall has been accented to increase vertical brightness, and create some welcome contrast at low level. Dimmable LED modules designed to replicate the special aesthetics of gas lighting engines were used to replace the outdated LED lamps. Because of the cabling restraints the team was unable to get a dimming signal to the fittings, so installed a potentiometer within each lantern to allow for manual dimming during the commissioning period. ‘Previously, there had been huge contrast and glare issues; we were up to 70-80 lux within the colonnades and then down to 3-4 lux on the piazza. We’ve brought levels down significantly because otherwise we were going to have to use larger and more power hungry equipment to light up the building,’ explains Jono. ‘By lowering the general brightness levels and smoothing it out, the perception of brightness has been maintained – and I would argue much improved – while creating a much softer platform for us to add layers of lighting on to. The colonnades are now down to 35 lux, and the piazza is more like 20 lux.’

‘In the original discussions, we were asked to light the piazzas, but they stretch 12m across, so you can’t reasonably do that. What we’ve done, however, is to demonstrate how much light can be projected, and as a result, vastly improve uniformity. ‘The market hall had to be a destination when approaching from all four directions, north, south, east and west. So we had to make sure those elevations were well lit. The portico buildings are located north and south. We used restraint on those, we didn’t want to over-light them; there’s not a huge amount of relief in the architecture. Same with the columns and the pediment on the top, again we didn’t want to over-light those; instead we accented them to show where there were changes in depth.’

‘If you over-light a building like the market hall, it becomes massively horizontal; this long building that becomes, in effect, a lit band. As an alternative we decided that the portico lighting would provide a break from the bottleneck balustrade. The balustrade would be uplit continuously to reveal the warmth of the stone and brick chimneys, while the corner buildings are also continuously lit,’ continues Jono.

INSTALLATION CHALLENGES

If getting agreement for the ‘what’ was hard enough, getting sign-off for the ‘how’ was equally challenging, and led to the BDP team calling in specialist lighting contractor Studiotech to work with them on how actually to fix the scheme to the building.

‘There was a precedent from other structures in the area that we could fix to the building; this wasn’t Grade I, but still needed a pretty good reason,’ explains Studiotech project manager Chris Little.

Extensive 1:1 mock-ups were a key part of this slow-and-steady approach. ‘We tested everything, we reviewed with multiple stakeholders, with CGAT, with Westminster Council,’ Chris emphasises. ‘Doing those mock-ups was difficult because of very limited access. You couldn’t be there at certain times and when you were you had to be in and out. As soon as you put something up, you had to take it back down,’ he adds. ‘We identified the best ways for things to be mounted. We spent a lot of time considering the bespoke fabrication of the channel that runs round the top of the building, a process that included surveying the whole building.’

‘We wanted especially to ensure that when you’re on James Street looking down at Covent Garden, you can’t see the fittings, that there isn’t any glare and reflection. We even had to consider its colour, which had to be right so as not to stand out too much from the stone of the building, which is quite weathered,’ Chris continues. ‘We also looked at how we would cable it, how we were going to get data in around the building. Data was one of the big issues; you can’t obviously just drill big holes through the building. We utilised our channelling as a wire-way as well as the conduit for the cabling.

‘Various data control panels had to be situated around the building, especially on the roof; we had to find ways to fit the main control panels and satellite power supply panels. And then we had to work out how we were going to link all our data panels, some of which were quite a distance apart.

‘We looked at doing it wirelessly, creating a Wi Fi network, but that proved too congested. So, we ended up using fibre, utilising the bespoke channel and running a fibre network around. We spent quite a bit of time to tailor the control panel enclosures to the client’s requirements, as they had to be narrow enough to be sited on the walkway,’ Chris adds.

Some of this work did involve drilling into the building and actually making holes but, as Jono explains, the approach taken was to be as minimally invasive as possible, with even different ‘KEM’ fixings for different parts of the building.

‘When you measure the design against the previous consented-but- not-delivered schemes for the number of fixings, we were able to make a huge reduction in the overall quantity of fixings; I think by about 75%, which made everyone happy’ he tells Lighting Journal. ‘All of the existing DB boards we now control via contacters, which our system switches on and off . So that is all time- controlled, astronomically,’ says Chris. ‘There are DMX controls for the colour- change lighting, DALI control for the portico building lighting, spotlights and entrance. Then main-switch relays control the colonnade lighting.’

COLOUR-CHANGE CONTROVERSY

All of which brings us to the somewhat contentious question of colour-change lighting. The new lighting scheme includes dynamic RGBW lighting for special events which, as the scheme’s marketing explains, ‘creates a sequence of experiences for this cosmopolitan and fun urban environment to appeal to a larger target audience and increase footfall in the area’. From the off , the team at Shaftesbury Capital were keen on the idea of colour- change lighting being part of the scheme, emphasises Jono.

The site’s heritage custodians such as CGAT and Westminster Council, however, took some convincing. ‘They [Westminster] were really worried about the suitability of projecting colour lighting on to the building. They were concerned it would look like a theme park’ he recalls. ‘We talked them through the process very carefully. We showed that we’d not only selected a colour palette, but that we’d tuned that palette to the stone. The colour is only as good as the surface you put it on. We reviewed the colours and got instant sign-off ,’ he adds.

‘It’s a beautiful building so our natural inclination was simply to use a very classical white-light scheme. Being able to include RGBW within the same kit adds another layer of playfulness, which the client really liked,’ agrees Tom Niven. The next stage of the project is to move into the interior retail spaces. This is likely to be a more zonal lighting scheme to emphasise, for example, the busking area, the Apple Market and the various restaurant areas. But getting from drawing board to reality is still some way off . ‘It will be like an interior retail development, but for a classical building, so we are very excited about that. But it will also need lots of consultation and permissions’ says Jono.

KEY LEARNING POINTS

Finally, what have we learned from such a project? ‘For me, it is the fact we’ve got so much control and power distributed across that building,’ says Chris Little. ‘But, when you look at it, you can’t see where we’ve put it. The placement of control panels was really critical. We’ve got 800 x 600 panels up on the roof; you’ve got to look hard to try to see where they are. And then how we’ve managed all the cabling; that was really big, key stuff for us. ‘The devil really was in the detail.

The time, detail and effort spent on mock-ups paid off 100%. The amount of metalwork we fabricated on site was amazing. I think we spent three nights surveying the building to get that right. We kitted it out with all of the channel and media tube in just under two weeks.

‘When we switched it on, it worked first time, which was just brilliant, given the amount of connections we had to install, the amount of cables we pulled in, all of the mains relay switching. For all those little bits the planning was immense,’ he adds. ‘For me, working backwards, the construction phase was really stress free,’ says Jono. ‘But, like Chris says, that was because we planned it all so well.

We covered so many eventualities, we couldn’t have provided the level of information for the planning report without doing the mock-ups. And we couldn’t have got the mock-ups right without having everyone round the table.

‘Obviously, you always want full engagement with your client, engagement with the people you’re working with; that enables a successful end result. But the main learning point, at least from my perspective, was the importance of asking a lot of questions and taking an overview of the entire project, not just the lighting design, from the beginning. It is the Covent Garden Market Building.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your lighting concept is for a project like this if you don’t adopt a considered logistical approach. ‘We didn’t want to propose anything we thought would be unrealistic. For example, on day one we were asked “oh can we have video projection?”

And we said “well you can, but you’ll need this little power station here.” ‘We examined every detail, however tiny, and took it through to its natural conclusion. Ultimately, as a lighting designer, the lesson learned from a building of this importance is that you need to talk to people who know a lot more than you do; become as well informed as possible. We couldn’t have achieved it without help from others, collaboration was crucial to the project’s success’ Jono concludes.

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