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Illuminating a heritage building in Kingston

October 24, 2023 | By Tony Kovac

Exterior lighting project raises the tenant’s profile while showcasing the building’s historic aspects

October 24, 2023 – The area that forms present-day Kingston, Ont., began to be settled by Europeans in the 17th century. In 1841, it became the first capital of a United Canada. In short, there’s a lot of history here.

The Market Square Heritage Conservation District in the Limestone City forms a trapezoid in the heart of downtown. This area is bounded on three sides by a collection of commercial and institutional properties dating back to the early 19th century.

One of those heritage properties is the 100-year-old Bank of Montreal: a tall single-storey building (at a three-storey height) located at 297 King Street East. Constructed between 1923 and 1924 by the Montreal architecture firm of Lawson & Little, the flat-roofed building:

is symmetrical with a decorative roof cornice, rectilinear bays, large openings and a temple-influenced design at a monumental scale. Typical of the Beaux-Arts style—which was popularized by architects trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts—this building has a smooth-faced limestone exterior with stylized Ionic detailing. This style was a popular choice for banks of the period.

Because of the historic nature of both this building and the district in which it resides, any changes to the structure require rigorous planning, discussion, and permission. For example, when it comes to the exterior lighting scheme of any structure located in the heritage district, the Market Square Heritage Conservation District Plan dictates:

The intensity, colour and type of lighting shall be carefully selected in order to “wash” the façade of the building with light. If needed, assistance should be sought from a lighting consultant to develop a lighting plan that addresses the quality of light appropriate for older buildings.

Over the years, the building’s owner took steps to preserve the iconic structure. In 2009, repairs to the chimney were made and a new roof was added. A new accessible public entrance was added in 2010. The owner also undertook an interior LED lighting retrofit to enhance light levels and achieve greater energy efficiency.

“The interior was lit with old metal-halide technology that was, actually, an upgrade from the incandescents that had been installed in the early 1940s,” explains Eric Tordjman of Mercury Lighting, the lighting designer who oversaw the interior lighting retrofit.

“The challenge indoors was designing the lighting such that it would fit into a 3-ft deep ceiling structure while maintaining the historic look of the building. Keep in mind, this building was built prior to the availability of electricity!” Tordjman adds.

With the interior successfully completed, the owner then turned its attention to the building’s exterior lighting… or lack thereof.

“At night, the bank was practically invisible, blending into the darkness of the square,” notes Tordjman. As such, the bank wanted an exterior lighting design that would preserve and feature the historic aspect of the impressive building while raising its profile to complement the heritage district.

“After our proven performance on relighting the interior, the client was comfortable engaging us for the exterior,” Tordjman says.

Lighting: from zero to hero

Perhaps not-so surprisingly, the building’s exterior had never been lit because of its heritage status, so attempting any additions or alterations posed unique challenges for the tenant (Bank of Montreal), lighting designer (Mercury Lighting), and architect (Conor Sampson, DesignCS).

The team started the process by seeking out designers who were well-versed in the field of historic buildings.

“We then had to specify lighting material that was going to achieve the overall design, while withstanding cold weather, vandalism, etc., as well as fit within the requirements of the Kingston Heritage Properties Committee,” Tordjman says. “After quite a few lighting layouts and revisions, we were ready to submit to a plan to the committee for review.”

Conversations with the heritage committee started early on, as they needed to assign a contact person who was familiar with the scope of work, says Tordjman. “Then there was a series of presentations—all done during Covid, via Zoom—to explain our intent, the material that we were considering using, and so on. These were followed by the heritage committee’s questions and concerns.”

The next six to eight months saw more presentations, questions, and responses. “The process of receiving approvals from both the heritage committee and city council proved the most challenging aspect of the project, forcing the design team to deeply evaluate the design and effect they wanted to achieve,” Tordjman says.

“Once we satisfied the committee’s concerns, we were allowed to complete a temporary, sample installation where we could show them how the exterior would look on the actual building at night,” he says.

All the hard work paid off. “We were pleased to hear that both the heritage committee and City Council eventually passed our proposal for the exterior lighting project. We celebrated a bit, knowing that the hard work was about to begin.”

Work gets underway

“The heritage committee was very specific in the manner in which we lit the building, and just as specific when it came to how we attached any lighting to the limestone façade,” Tordjman remembers. To get over this hurdle, the team engaged a limestone specialist to undertake a complete building review. “We specified very specific drill bits and masonry screws to ensure that anything we attached to the building would not cause any further damage.”

Electrical contractor McClement Electric was given the task of executing the team’s project vision.

The exterior scheme involved luminaires from Color Kinetics/Signify. Mounted on a lower ledge and spaced 12 feet apart, eW Graze QLX Powercore fixtures graze light 25 feet up the lower portion of the façade’s columnar features, lighting the architectural detail at the top of the columns.

At the top of the building, the fixtures connect in a line and are placed on an upper ledge around the three sides of the building, illuminating 200 feet of linear roof line.

“We needed to be keenly aware of being Dark Sky-compliant all while aiming light upward next to a main thoroughfare,” Tordjman says.

Due to the project’s proximity to the street, the team also engaged an arborist to ensure none of the trees were harmed. Re-routing street traffic was equally an important part of the project, as large pieces of equipment were moved around the building.

Advice for heritage properties

Heritage properties are perhaps the furthest thing from a “cookie-cutter” job, as each presents its own distinct challenges; so what has Mercury Lighting learned from this experience?

“Hire people and consultants who are familiar with the process,” Tordjman says without hesitation. “Get to know the local experts and consult with them prior to going for approval. They can guide you when preparing your presentation, helping you address the heritage department’s concerns.”

He points to the limestone masonry expert they had retained: Edgewater Stone Masons. “The process moved along much quicker once they joined our team, and the heritage committee indicated it was pleased that we hired a local expert familiar with their concerns.”

Even then, it took 18 months later—from initial meetings with the client to completed installation and commissioning—for the exterior lighting work at 297 King Street East to be completed… but the results speak for themselves.

“Our intent was to pay homage to the bank and its stature in the community by bringing the heritage building to the forefront of the town square,” Tordjman concludes. “We achieved this in the most eloquent of manners.”

You’ll find all Back Issues of Electrical Business Magazine in our Digital Archive.

• City of Kingston.
• Market Square Heritage Conservation District Plan, ERA Architects Inc., June 5, 2013.

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