Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

December 18, 2017

Smythe Library Renovation, at the Tonbridge School

A lighting renovation in Kent, England, takes advantage of daylight to create a 21st-century learning environment for this private boys’ boarding school.


Architecture, Articles, BDP, Colin Ball, Sarah Alsayed

To speak with lighting designer Colin Ball about the Smythe Library at Tonbridge School in Kent, England, is to discuss circadian rhythms, melatonin studies, and daylight differentials due to differences in latitude between Los Angeles and London.

“Let’s talk about the experience of light for the person,” he says, as he begins describing how the firm he works for, London-based BDP, approached the renovation of the 1962 library building originally designed by British architect Sir William Holford. “The natural hormonal balance of our brain affects our vision. Morning requires bright light. In the evening more candlelight or a single desk light environment is better, which allows you to concentrate.”

This sensitivity to the individual experience guides the design of the refurbished library. Tonbridge School leadership wanted to transform the building into a learning and study center for the 21st century. As a full-service architecture and engineering firm, BDP was able to take an integrated approach. The team conducted extensive interviews with teachers and students in order to understand the wide use of the spaces throughout the four-story building and the lighting needs. Faculty and students alike wanted more study and teaching areas.

The result is an open and flexible library that includes areas for collaborative learning and solo reading, as well as spaces for socializing and presentations. Internal walls and corridors were stripped out and lighting is carefully integrated into the architecture so that, at times, it seems to almost disappear.

The ground floor is a tech-rich experimental teaching space. Designed to be adaptable to six different uses in three different spaces, it is equipped with movable partitions and modular furniture. Ball used track-mounted, 28.9W-per-meter 3000K linear LED fixtures to create an ambient lighting scheme that allowed for multiple arrangements and functions. User interviews revealed when lighting needed to be specifically task oriented. “Where furniture was fixed, we wired into it,” Ball says.

BDP’s team also documented the need for natural light. “We asked people about what they are doing,” he says. “We wanted to know if they are working in the daylight or away from the daylight.” That information led them to a lighting design that favors daylight from both an experiential and energy-saving perspective. The goal was to produce harmonious, seamless lighting throughout the space. For example, the library’s central feature is a double-height space topped with a narrow, coffered arch. The lighting designers used two linear coves to illuminate the coffers. The cove luminaires have a wide beam angle (120 degrees by 120 degrees) to achieve the correct throw of light and are fitted with cool white 4000K lamps to match and balance the daylight in the space. Lighting controls are used to power down the fixtures when there is enough illumination in the space.

Welcoming a maximum amount of daylight into a building may seem odd in a city such as Los Angeles, for example, where sunlight is abundant throughout the year and, where natural light is carefully modulated due to its glare and heat gain, but the famously gloomy-weathered United Kingdom sits at a higher latitude, which takes the edge off the intensity. “In Britain, we have less daylight than nearly anywhere else on the planet,” Ball explains. “It’s damp and cloudy, with long gray periods. Daylight has a low, cold quality, so we use lighting to complement the daylighting.”

BDP’s approach is a counter position to what Ball sees as the overly bright, generic lighting that categorizes many midcentury buildings. “All of architecture was well day-lit,” he says, reflecting on the 1950s and 1960s, the same period as when Smythe Library opened. “The invention of [the] fluorescent lamp changed everything. Light became cheap to use.” By contrast, Ball looks to past examples from medieval times to the 1920s, eras that relied on localized lighting. To provide tasklighting for the reading desks that line each side of the central atrium, BDP used elegant custom built-in 18.9W 3000K desk lamps with a slim 32mm LED fitting, which cast a warm glow over the study surfaces. Individual 11W 2700K pendants are placed in each bay window reading nook, so at night the building has a warm, inviting glow.

BDP calls the new staircase on the south side of the library a “vertical cloister” in reference to the contemplative circulation courtyards of Gothic architecture. The glass stairwell provides lovely views of the school’s gardens and grounds, but the extensive glazing created two major intertwined lighting complications: Where to install the fixtures and how bright should the space be? The solution seems simple: integrate 10W-per-meter 3100K rope light into the handrail and only light as needed at night. This avoids reflections on the glass and keeps the space from being blindingly bright. Yet, this meant that the stair had to be classified as an external stair. (An internal stair requires higher light levels.) By challenging the building code interpretation, however, Ball was able to stay true to his mission to design a sensitive and integrated lighting scheme. “The comfort of the eye and the occupant come first,” he says.

Project: Smythe Library Renovation, Tonbridge School, Kent, England
Client: Tonbridge School, Kent, England
Architect: BDP, London
Lighting Design Team: Sarah Alsayed and Colin Ball of BDP, London
Project Size: 1,076 square feet
Project Cost: £3.6 million (approx. $4.74 million)
Lighting Cost: £90,000 (approx. $120,0004)
Watts per Square Foot: 0.60
Code Compliance: BREEAM Excellent

Manufacturers: Aktiva: Desk lamps at reading tables; iGuzzini: Linear LED ambient lighting throughout and pendants at window reading nooks; Lumenpulse: Main reading area cove luminaires; Lutron: Lighting controls

This story was originally published in Architectural Lighting.