The Austrian lighting company BLL leads the industry with its progressive thinking, installing life-enhancing systems at hospitals, airports and the new Cairo Museum. Soon it will focus its light-direction technologies on its biggest challenge yet: lighting up the benighted Alpine town of Rattenberg with huge mirrors positioned on a nearby mountain.
It was Sir Norman Foster’s Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (now HSBC) HQ that put Bartenbach LichtLabor (BLL) on the map in 1986: the Austrian lighting-design company was responsible for the ingenious aluminium reflectors that meant that everyone in the 11-storey bank hall could work in sunlight. And BLL’s continual innovation of glare-free technologies, daylight-redirection tools and sun-shades is keeping its profile high. Big-name architects such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Herzog & de Meuron and Zaha Hadid are seeing to that.
BLL claims that its early involvement in the building process can benefit both investors and users, bringing “enormous” cost reductions for air-conditioning and even the possibility of doing away with it altogether. The UBS building in Biel, Switzerland, is a good example, says Andreas Danler, BLL’s general manager. A prismatic panel on the façade reflects the sun’s rays straight off the building. “The diffused daylight goes in but not the heat. So we don’t need any cooling system at all, even though it’s a fully glazed façade,” he explains. “The investment in better planning and glare-control measures is easily balanced by cost savings for other services.” Investors respond to this sort of language, though they are not always so interested in the benefits to employees. “We know that office workers could be 30 per cent more productive in the right conditions. But the investor isn’t interested because often he’s selling the building on,” says Helmar Zangerl, BLL’s managing director.
Still, BLL is ideally positioned to take advantage of the EU’s push for sustainable development. Danler explains: “Fifteen years ago, our philosophy was to bring in natural daylight because it’s good for the health, and if you have enough daylight, you need less artificial light. But because you still need artificial light fittings, you’re only saving a small amount of electrical energy. It’s better to construct the argument around the incoming heat energy of the sunlight. For the past 10 years we have focused on this.” Zangerl describes the company’s activities as 75 per cent lighting design and 25 per cent research and development. In contrast to its peers, “many of which ask their clients and architects what they want, and then do it”, BLL starts with the premise that the clients do not know what they need, and then finds a solution.
Wilfried Pohl, the physicist who manages the r&d department, has been with the company since the 1980s. “We start by visualising the lighting potential for a host of different circumstances and then look for solutions. We define the best conditions for being able to see in, meaning the right degree of brightness. Then we ask how we can realise them.” Existing products rarely fit the bill, so Pohl and his team must come up with brand-new light fittings. A BLL solution doesn’t come cheap. Pohl puts the market value of a complex surface calculation at €50,000. Along with the lighting engineers and architects, the 45-strong company boasts visual psychologists, optical engineers, thermal physicists, radiation physicists and software programmers.
These bright sparks work in one of the two Bartenbach buildings in the dormitory town of Aldrans, just outside Innsbruck. The workplace is a remarkable cylindrical building designed by Josef Lackner. It is lit by natural light bounced from a heliostat designed by BLL and reflected down mirrored pipes to the subterranean rooms. Even the lift needs no artificial lighting: it is made of glass, and the mirrored lift shaft sends light down from outside.
Nearby, graduate students attend the Bartenbach Lighting Academy. Designed by Volker Giencke, it is a cross between the Alpine hideaway of a James Bond villain and the workshop of a fanatical puppeteer. Inside are banks of computers alongside MDF scale models of BLL projects. Markus Canazei, a visual psychologist, shows me a shoulder-high mock-up of two hospital rooms in the maternity ward at the University Clinic, Innsbruck where, in 2005, he conducted a study of 200 new mothers. He looked at the effect of light on the women’s circadian rhythms. “These young mothers lay in hospital for three to five days, getting very little natural light. We installed a system that mimics natural light, right down to simulations of dawn and dusk. The women were also given two hours of light therapy, with lights three times brighter than normal, to stabilise their circadian rhythms.” It worked. Women at the hospital tended to recover more quickly from labour and were able to leave earlier.
Much of BLL’s research gets external funding from the Austrian Federal Government. As Zangerl tells it, five years ago, the Austrian government wanted to help out small enterprises. Clusters of companies were formed and competence centres set up. BLL leads the Kompetenzzentrum Licht, or Expert Network Light, with three other shareholders, Osram (Austria), the Zumtobel Group, and Wo und Wo, which makes sun-shading systems. About 50 per cent of the costs of the Kompetenzzentrum’s activities are subsidised by the Austrian government, to the tune of €1.5m a year, with the remainder funded by shareholders.
The group has already undertaken 30 research projects. One involved building road-tunnel mock-ups to find out whether altering the lighting could reduce accidents. Varying the lighting, they found, helped drivers to stay more alert.
The next project is to explore the effect of light on people’s wellbeing and productivity. To this end, BLL has set up cabins for light therapy research. The Kompetenzzentrum will also explore people’s productivity working night shifts under different lighting conditions.
At 76, Professor Christian Bartenbach is still heavily involved in the company he started. He trained as an electrical engineer and joined his family’s lamp manufacturing company in 1954. In 1964 he founded a lighting design consultancy in Munich, Licht-planung Christian Bartenbach, which eventually became BLL. He spent most of the 1970s in Munich, designing lighting for offices and skyscrapers during Germany’s economic boom.
In 2003 the Professor founded Bartenbach Lighting Academy, offering a two-year Masters to German-speaking students with electrical, architectural, photography and film backgrounds. While Bartenbach has always had a missionary zeal about lighting – “He doesn’t mind if we make money or not,” says Zangerl, adding that the company, which is privately owned, is in profit – the academy is not purely altruistic. “The more people understand lighting, the more they will demand good lighting, and that expands the market,” says Zangerl. BLL now employs five of the academy’s graduates.
Professor Bartenbach’s pet project is to bring light to Rattenberg, a charming 1,000-year-old town in the Tyrol that spends almost four months of the year in the shadow of Rat mountain. In December, under bright, cloudless skies, everything was still covered in frost at midday. The only way its residents could see the sun was by climbing the winding footpath to the crumbling castle. There picnic tables and benches are positioned to allow the Rattenbergers to take in the view over their town’s gloomy streets to Kramsach, on the other side of the river Inn. It must be galling for them to watch the frost thaw on their neighbours’ roofs, and ponder the sun’s effect on house prices. Residents’ numbers are dwindling and tourism drops to almost nothing between November and February.
BLL’s answer is to create an elaborate system of heliostats and fixed mirrors that could bounce sunlight from a nearby mountaintop on to a hill opposite and into the main street’s gift shops and cafés. A model of Rattenberg’s high street currently sits under BLL’s “artificial sky” – the ultimate toy for a lighting geek. Under the high dome of tight parachute material, packed with fluorescent lamps, translucent lamps and LEDs, many of the company’s projects literally come to light. At the flick of a switch, the sky recreates the effect of the sun at different times of day and year. The scale-model façades are all painted in Rattenberg’s muted shades, and one or two of the buildings even have drainpipes and windowsills to show how shadows would fall from them.
The idea of projecting sunlight into shady settlements has exercised minds beyond BLL’s lab. The Italian village of Viganella has already installed a mirror on a nearby Alpine peak to reflect sunlight into its central piazza during winter; but this is not on the scale of Rattenberg. Viganella uses a single computer-controlled mirror of just 8m by 5m, costing €100,000. Current estimates put the Rattenberg plan at €3.5m to €5m, plus another €500,000 to fold away the secondary mirrors in the summer so that they do not obstruct the view. The plan is awaiting final approval.
Rattenberg has garnered BLL plenty of publicity, but the company does not need any more enquiries from couples wanting to get light from their balcony into their lounge. Its current projects include the Royal Terminal for Jeddah airport, and Terminal Three of Singapore’s Changi airport, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. By 2008, passengers at the latter will look up to see specially designed skylights that change according to the weather. Translucent covers will automatically adjust to give the desired lighting level. And Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum, which is now being designed, will exhibit its artefacts in natural light reflected down pipes.
BLL’s challenge seems to be to juggle its business commitments with its research projects, many of which are the direct inspiration of Professor Bartenbach. As Pohl the physicist puts it: “We have too many ideas.”