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High Note: Illuminating Concepts

(Originally published in Green Building + Design, February 2011)
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One of the country's most spectacular lighting designers travels back in time to his music days to explain his "entertainment strategy" and why he wants to transform the way we light our world.

By Scott Heskes

Ron Harwood has spent the better part of his life in two worlds, one as an Electrical Engineer and President of Illuminating Concepts, and the other as the founder of American Music Research Foundation and recording artist and producer. The influence music has played in his day job as a lighting designer has been far reaching. One of the things Harwood says that distinguishes the Farmington Hills, Michigan Illuminating Concepts from competitors is a process he calls entertainment strategy. "It almost doesn't matter if it's a public library or City Center casino. The notion of making people happy when they walk into a space is the entertainment strategy. Sometimes its light, sometimes its sound and light, sometimes its sound and moving light with water features and other times it involves live entertainment but it's a strategy that evolves from being in show production. It's like a three-act play or a Sting concert. You take people through a music and lighting journey. By coming out of the music industry we are very different lighting designers."

As Executive Lighting Consultant for the MGM Grand City Center in Las Vegas, Illuminating Concepts has helped fuse the entertainment strategy on this high profile LEED Gold certified development with sustainable lighting design. Testing dozens of LED lights, IC was in a good position to break new ground in measuring quality along with energy efficiency. IC was careful to make sure that the lighting was used appropriately and tested for the human response to it. "Is it acceptable, transparent? Do you know it's LED? Does it matter because it looks good? Many of the LED companies didn't make it, "says Harwood. "We didn't use them. We have all been in spaces that had that old Jimmy Durante 'Goodnight Mrs. Calabasas' look to it." Finding the right look at City Center was important to the success of the total experience that the MGM Grand was trying to achieve. With a strong mandate from the owners to build green, IC was able to ultimately find the highest quality LED technologies and place the lighting in the right environment in which to use them.

IC Project Director for City Center Kelly Stechshulte relates that MGM took sustainable design and energy efficiency to new levels in the retail, hospitality and casino industry far exceeding governmental standards as well as any other projects in the area. IC's work ultimately shifted a long held paradigm that it was essential to use incandescent lighting throughout for this type of development. "The casino was exempt from the LEED portion of the project," says Stechshulte. So it was necessary to work with the surrounding spaces "all the while still maintaining a dramatic environment that is warm and welcoming. For cove lighting we were going to dimmable LED where we were getting instead of 13 watts per lineal foot 6 watts per lineal foot. With over a mile worth of cove lighting in public areas and restaurants that had a big impact."

The experience that a person has when entering a space is crucial to the success of the design explains Harwood. "We worked on Comerica Park, the new stadium for the Detroit Tigers and did the architectural lighting, theatrical lighting, water features, sound effects and video projection systems." The total environment created, Harwood terms The Immersion Experience and it can't happen with just media and technology. "There has to be people involved and architecture. People need to feel they are having an experience they can't have anywhere else. From the time you get out of the car you know you are going to the ball game. You can smell the ball game. You can see the ball game. You can eat the ballgame," says Harwood. "And you walk into the building, and the field opens up in front of you. I have never been to a ball field that didn't take my breath away when I walked into it. The crowd's there and some guy hits the ball and there's a great play and memorable times. The ultimate goal of an Immersion Experience in is to have people feel that they need to come back."

As Kelly explains, working at IC goes beyond the creative experience of working on exciting projects and describes the all-encompassing environment created by the owner, Ron Harwood. "There is enough technical [work] here to keep you on the cutting edge and keep you interested. From code writing to photometry to reviewing building codes it's a fully immersive experience in itself. I've been here 15 years and hit the ground running. You can learn as much as you want as fast as you want. Ron is always there to educate and encourage."

When Ron was 16 years old, hanging out at a record store where his friend worked, he discovered an appreciation for music. "I had heard about Sippie Wallace and Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Clare and Trixie Smith and Sarah Martin... all these great classic blues singers. Folkways and other labels were just coming out with reissues. In some cases I could borrow the demo record and take it home and make a recording of it with my reel to reel tape recorder. This was 1965. I read up a lot on Blues from the library so I knew about Sippie. My friend Sam, who worked at the record store, showed me an article that Sippie was alive and living in Detroit. She had just been visited by a mutual friend Victoria Spivey who lived in New York. I tried to reach Sippie through any number of ways, people who might know her including Victoria but no one wanted to give me her number so I just looked her up in the phone book."

Through a great deal of persistence on Ron's part he finally found her. "This guy answers the phone and says 'They're ain't no Sippie Wallace here.' Click. I called back and said now sir you have to understand I am working... this was a lie... for Wayne State University. I hadn't started school there but I had started working with the Folklore group. 'I told you there's no Sippie here' he said again. So I called a few more times. It took from midsummer to December before I was invited to come to the house. They had a very private life and she wanted to be left alone. When I got down there she was surprised to find that I had memorized most her songs. She did 48 and I knew the lyrics to most of them so that made us pretty friendly. And I could play guitar behind her. That was it. I became her manager. I got her to Newport Folk Festival in Philadelphia and got Columbia Records interested in her and Maria Muldaur. We had 2½ really successful years and then she got sick." Sippie suffered a massive stroke in 1969. "It was six months before she could walk or talk," recalls Harwood, "but the first thing she did was to play the piano."

As Sippie was recuperating Bonnie Raitt recorded two of Sippies tunes on her first album. The album was enormously successful. "Bonnie called me and said she'd like to meet Sippie. The rest is pretty fantastic because from 1972 to 1986 we toured all over with Bonnie." Raitt recalls Sippie's album cover photograph she discovered in a London record store: "I saw the rhinestone glasses and the tiger-striped vest and said to myself, 'This woman really knows how to dress.'" She was still in a wheelchair and recuperating in 1972 when Bonnie and Ron arranged a performance at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival to do a duet on Sippie's Women Be Wise.

Harwood recalls these early days like being raised by another set of parents. "The music industry teaches you about things that maybe mom and dad can't; everything from the lyrics to the people that sing them and write them. Human expression is a combination of what you think and what you say and what you do. Music plays into all that. It's had an effect on IC and a huge effect on me. A lot of folks here are musicians, music writers or aficionados. You can walk through on any given day at IC to see at least half the people tuned into their favorite artist."

One of the legacies of Harwood's early work is establishing the nonprofit American Music Research Foundation at Wayne State University where he ultimately went to college. Keeping his live skills tuned Harwood produces a show every year featuring legendary musicians. "Some folks working at IC come from the road show business. The AMRF gives the opportunity for people to volunteer their time to produce these festivals."

The AMRF is dedicated to the promotion, documentation, and preservation of American Music, particularly blues, ragtime, boogie woogie, jazz, and rhythm and blues. A major focus of the work is making the connection between music and the artists who create it. They do this primarily by capturing artists on video, both in performance and in extensive interviews in which they tell their stories. The primary venue for this mission is the annual Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival produced by Harwood with the help of his staff at IC and others totaling 80 volunteers each year. The raw footage is retained in the archives for historical purposes and also used to create programs for public television. The ultimate goal is to document and preserve American cultural and musical history so that future generations will not forget.

Harwood believes that the Music Festival provides an outlet for his IC designers to stay sharp for projects requiring entertainment strategies. "Doing a lot of Architectural lighting and amazing facilities like City Center, sometimes you will lose the opportunity to do live stuff. The Music festival allows for that opportunity."

Drawing on the similarities between lighting design and music, Harwood provides the insight that "It's implicit in our lives that sound and light are mirror images of each other." A student of the fine arts, Harwood believes that the work of great paintings provides a good analogy for the how the two come together. "I have always told the folks working here when asked what they can study to get better and I say study the painting masters because I think everything you need to know about design is there."

"You can look at a Dutch Master and see their use of light. They will place people in certain ways to help characterize the Deity or outdoor experience and when you see nature and humans interact you think of sound. Even if those are human sounds; you see people crying after Jesus or the birds in flight at the Resurrection, you hear what is going on in that painting. Humans all have a rhythm. Animals have a rhythm and there is a heartbeat to spaces."

"I think the one most difficult jobs when putting City Center together was in bringing all those buildings together and finding the heartbeat. There are places that work so beautifully that you are just arrested because there is too much to see and do at one time. The team tried very hard at City Center to find that rhythm and heartbeat to create the Immersion Experience."

One of Ron's significant achievements in bringing light and sound together to create an Immersion Experience is a product he has developed called Intellistreet, a wireless controlled streetlight, that combines a dimmable and programmable LED streetlight with the ability to instantly display images or words along with music and audio messages. Intellistreet operates on network server, providing communication among all light poles within the network. "If you add Intellistreets, you can tell when the fixtures are not working, when they are consuming too much energy, or when they are getting too hot. It's essentially like the computer in your car. It can make sure that engine lasts as long as it possibly can. The reason why Intellistreet popped up was it was an entertainment strategy. It came out of the theme park world. A good lighting system and sound system all built into one wireless street lighting system."

The concept can transform a city street, park or district into a multimedia entertainment complex.

"You look at Branson Landing in Branson, Missouri, playing music from the country act that you cannot get close enough to see but now you can hear and see from multiple streetlight locations." Set within one of the Midwest's leading tourist destination, Branson Landing is a mixed-use waterfront development that occupies 95 acres, including 1.5 miles of waterfront on Lake Taneycomo and incorporates a rich mixture of retail. Branson Landing is the first project to use IC's Intellistreets. Intellistreets offers digital video signage in the form of a LED display on the light standard replacing vinyl banners and utilizing a wide variety of changing content for income generating advertising, as well as local public service announcements. Intellistreet can also be adapted for parking-meter capabilities and recharging stations for electric cars. IC provided the entertainment strategy, all exterior architectural lighting, theatrical lighting & show lighting design, light tower design, audio integration, control systems, implementation, project management, procurement and logistics.

Ron believes there is clearly a movement, induced by the Federal Government, to have communities relight their streets with LED light sources. The problem he says is the federal inducement has come in front of LED lighting systems vetted with their ability to produce light over long periods of time. "The real test for how LED's are working is quite difficult right now because if they are really meant to last 10 years or more they need to be tested for 10 years to see how they do. LED's are cool light in the sense that they do not project heat but they do get hot and the heat goes to the back of the LED. Reducing the heat of the LED is a premier issue on its life." Intellistreets, explains Harwood, has a processor in every streetlight that allows the testing to be done in real time. "So at least from an energy management point of view it monitors the temperature of the LED's and many other aspects to see how our street lighting systems are going to do."

An equal benefit Ron postulates is: "Do we need all of our outdoor lighting running at 100% brightness all of the time? After looking at use case scenarios we have determined that Intellistreets can save up to 50% more than could be saved by just going to an LED light source." A current metal halide streetlight source that uses 150 watts of energy, for example, can be reduced to 90 watts using LED with a similar lighting effect. A further reduction in wattage can be achieved because at some point during the evening in many applications the light does not need to be as bright and Intellistreets will automatically dim or turn off the lights.

"That," says Harwood, "is the equivalent of extending the life of the lamp from 20 to 40 years." The problem is that the power supply or transformer is only rated for 7 years. "All that glitters for LED is not gold because the power supply would need to be replaced about 3 times anyway over the normal life of the LED." The discussion Ron believes is somewhat academic. "Who's going to be around in 20 or 40 years to guarantee that fixture is going to last that long. We are drilling very deeply into what these warranties really are because major cities across the country want to know what the real benefit will be."

Ron understands the need to create jobs in this economy, but he believes that more money should be spent on research. "I kind of think the feds are doing it backwards. What I am seeing is far less on research and far more on 'just do it.' For the past 20 years clients have become aware that the quality of lighting is important and the behavioral science of lighting has matured dramatically in that time. We have built paradigms to an acceptable level and quantified those in the Illuminating Engineers Society Handbook. It's been an evolutionary process and every year hundreds of people get together to decide how to improve the quality of light."

As a result of the rush to do the work, Ron does not see the same level of due diligence for LED. "In the process of producing all of these LED components, manufacturers are not notifying us when they have product failures. We are not seeing the statistics we would normally get on products. That would never work in the auto industry, would it? In the end it will all settle out to something acceptable. Too much emphasis" says Ron "is being made on making every light source LED and not making the LED source appropriate."

"There are currently a number of excellent uses for the new LED lamps and fixtures. Some are great outdoors for landscape lighting; they are wonderful as night lights in offices and some stores where we just need to see for safety; and they are surprisingly good for task lighting in office environments on your desk or under counters. LEDs are now a very good alternative to neon in signs and for decoration on buildings."

"LEDs may well be the great light source of the near future. The color and strength of the source will improve dramatically in the coming years. We simply need to use common sense in how we deploy LEDs with hard-to-come-by federal funds and our own hard earned dollars. It is a concern that, in the years to come, our hasty and perhaps unschooled deployment of LED light sources will have us all in the new Dark Ages with little or no money left to use LEDs when they are mature."

Despite the contradictions, Ron Harwood, from his two separate worlds, manages to create the environments where the practical application of light merges with the heartbeat and the rhythm of architecture and the sounds of human experience. "I am not trying to become my own super nova," he muses. "And I don't want to be accused of being a black hole, although I have been confused with one at times. But we are good at this interstitial piece between those that use it and those that make it."

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