COLUMBIA - From her home at Fifth and Park streets, Mary Sandbothe can see the lights of the Fifth and Walnut parking garage a little too clearly.
“Upstairs in the kitchen, it’s like a nightlight at night,” she said. “It bothers me. It’s an annoying light.”
The Fifth and Walnut parking garage is currently the site of a demonstration of possible lighting solutions. Various photo corrective films have been applied to the garage’s lighting fixtures to modify intensity, glare and color. The public can drive through the structure in order to see the changes, ride up the northwestern elevator or approach from the north to get a view from street level. The second and third columns of windows from the right show the modifications most clearly from the unmodified second level to the blue-tinted eighth level. Due to the garage’s helical design, each display is located between two numbered levels of the garage. The level six display, for example, is actually located on the stretch of garage between level six and level seven. The building's first levels have not been modified.
Levels 3-5: Intensity – In these levels, the strength and intensity of the lights are lowered by corrective films gradually by one-eighth, one-fourth and one-half.
Level 6: Glare - The lights on this level have been covered with a corrective film that softens and diffuses the light produced, lessening harshness and glare without reducing intensity.
Level 7: Color Temperature - The corrective films used on this level create a warmer light with a yellow-orange tint more like that of the light bulbs used in personal homes, which is less hard on eyes.
Level 8: Decorative Possibilities - The blue film used on these lights shows the possibility of using bright colored films to make the garage lighting into a decorative display for holidays or other purposes.
Sustainability Manager Barbara Buffaloe says she is happy to receive comments from the public about what it thinks of the different levels of the demonstration. She can be reached at BaBuffal@gocolumbiamo.com
She’s not alone.
In response to complaints about the brightness and harsh nature of lighting in the nine-story garage that opened in March, the Columbia City Council asked the Environment and Energy Commission to explore solutions.
The engineers who designed the garage proposed switching to lower wattage bulbs or tilting or shielding the lighting fixtures, but that approach was deemed too expensive — commission chairman Karl Skala said testing alone would cost about $8,000.
Lighting consultant Eric Sax presented a much less expensive option. With the commission’s approval, Sax has set up a demonstration in the garage that uses different types of films on the light fixtures for the public and the commission to evaluate.
The films are similar to those used to change the color of lights on stage during performances and, according to Sax and filter manufacturer Rosco International, are cheap, durable and easy to apply.
Sax, a lighting designer for almost 30 years, said that using such filters is a common practice in theater, entertainment and industrial applications.
“It seemed obvious to me," he said. "If you need to change the quality and quantity of the light, it’s better than completely replacing the fixture. It makes more sense, economically speaking, to correct the fixture like that.”
The demonstration Sax set up cost $600, and he said the cost of filters for the entire garage would run about $1,000. The filters can be stacked, so if a combination of effects were desired, the price would increase.
LED lights such as those installed in the new garage are energy efficient but often are criticized for their aesthetics in comparison to other types of lights.
For the demonstration, the lights on different levels of the garage have been covered with different kinds of films.
According to a report Sax prepared for the commission, the lights on the first levels of the garage have not been modified. Films applied to the lights on levels three, four and five reduce the levels of intensity; films on lights at level six diffuse and soften the light without reducing intensity; and the films on level seven create a "warmer" light that's easier on the eye.
An altogether different possibility can be seen on level eight, where blue films showcase the richness and variety of colors that could be used in the structure while maintaining a safe level of illumination.
“The blue is just blue because I like blue,” Sax said. “It can be any color of the rainbow. It can be anything you want it to be, and that’s the best thing about it.”
Because the films are cheap and easy to change, Sax suggested the color of lights throughout the garage could be changed for decorative or promotional reasons — green and red for the holiday season, for example.
The films don't affect energy use from the LED lights, which were chosen because they consume less electricity than other kinds of bulbs. In addition, the filters themselves can be used for “years and years,” Sax said.
The films also afford flexibility and can be recycled, Sax said. "You can take the gels and donate them to schools and theater departments. You can take it down and store it, if you want to use it for seasonal stuff."
Other complaints about lighting in the garage have focused on fluorescent bulbs in the glassed-in stairwells that remain on day and night.
Barbara Buffaloe, Columbia's sustainability manager, said the city parking utility has decided to install sensors in the stairwell so the fluorescent lights will turn off automatically during the day. After a consultant checks to ensure the light levels meet federal guidelines, some of the stairwell lights may even be removed, Buffaloe said.
The public has at least two weeks to view the lighting demonstration and weigh in on what looks the best by e-mailing Buffaloe at BaBuffal@gocolumbiamo.com.
“We’ll give them — the public and the Environment and Energy Commission — at least two weeks to get out and see the demonstration and offer feedback,” she said. “The hope is that we’ll have a permanent plan within a month.”