Falkirk Wheel Experience, UK

Image: Madeleine Gallacher Photography

One of the most iconic pieces of engineering and architecture in Scotland, the Falkirk Wheel is the only rotating boat lift in the world. To celebrate this remarkable piece of infrastructure, Lightalliance has created a dynamic, vibrant lighting scheme for the Falkirk Wheel Experience.

Connecting the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal in central Scotland, the Falkirk Wheel is an engineering marvel unlike any other.

Originally opened in 2002 as part of the Millennium Link project, the rotating boat lift is the only one of its kind in the world, and reconnects the two waterways for the first time since the 1930s, raising boats by 79ft in one fluid motion. The design of the wheel was a co-operative effort between the British Waterways Board, Arup, Butterley Engineering, and RMJM architects. Inspirations for the design included a double-headed Celtic axe, the propellor of a ship, and the ribcage of a whale.

Since its opening, the Falkirk Wheel has become one of the defining monuments of Scotland, appearing on a series of £50 notes issued by the Bank of Scotland; the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland has also described it as “a form of contemporary sculpture”.

To celebrate this unique structure, Scottish Canals wanted to upgrade the Wheel and surrounding site, to improve their asset, providing enhanced functionalities, and promoting increased visitor interactions.

Edinburgh-based Lightalliance was called upon to design a scheme that would accentuate the engineering and design, celebrate the unique forms of the structure and enhance its presence within the landscape. 

Kevin Grant, Founder and Director of Lightalliance, explained how the studio first got involved in the project: “We were asked if we would be interested in lighting the wheel, and informed that the opportunity would be listed on a Public Contracts portal. When we saw the brief, their targeted aspirations, timescales, and budgets all seemed very challenging – especially given how busy we were at the time. However, it’s such an iconic structure, and we saw the potential to have some fun with the site and add value, so were keen to get involved.

“We submitted a proposal with our own proposed strategy, highlighting our observations, anticipated risks and identifying some exciting opportunities, and were lucky enough to win the commission.”

Grant continued that the brief was “quite detailed and demanding”, with the client team providing several performance indicators to measure the success of the project. From here, he said that it was clear that the client wanted the project to “create a big impact, improve the value of this unique asset and also improve the visitor experience”.

He continued: “The lighting was to be discrete and sympathetic to the structure, environmentally conscious, with reduced energy, reduced light spill, and was to be delivered for a specific budget within very short timescales. There was also a desire to provide a future-proofed design, good controllability, to promote increased visitor numbers and more exposure (both physically and online).

“We are used to working on some very large and complex sites, and so we planned out these works using a similar approach, to ensure that we could deliver all of the brief requirements. We were keen to deliver enhanced value by addressing the brief, but also exploring more dynamic and immersive opportunities and potential offshoots that could be incorporated now, or introduced later to add real value to the site.”

Using the unique design of the wheel as a starting point, Lightalliance developed a lighting concept that transformed the structure into a beacon that would “enhance the sense of arrival and help extend the use of the site during the winter months and after dark, whilst maintaining the overall impact and composition”.

“Our aim was to improve the experience for the users and visitors,” Grant explained. “We explored opportunities to celebrate the organic flowing forms of the structure, by being able to visually separate each of the component parts – the wheel face, spindle, gondolas, aqueduct supports, hoops and also the tunnel – in ways that could relate to each other and also overlay different textures, patterns, effects, and sequences.”

It was also important, that the designs would provide flexibility, but also be very intuitive and easy to operate. Lightalliance worked with Adlib to develop a bespoke and tailored control system. Their focus was on providing a fully automatic and autonomous asset, with opportunities to extend the use of the site past operational hours, enhancing the seasonal events programme, and providing ability to interact with and support local/international light-up events, or branded commercialisation opportunities.

“Projection mapping products aren’t always affordable for smaller facilities, and a permanent video projection installation would have been prohibitively expensive,” Grant continued. “Therefore, a compromise of individually controllable DMX luminaires and image projectors were used to create opportunities for big visual impact within the budget available. We used a combination of RGBAW LED DMX controlled products, provided by Studio Due, and two Exterior 1000 image projectors from Martin Professional, and all components were installed by Adlib.

“Effective and reliable control was essential, so we could synchronise the fixtures to deliver dynamic effects and complex sequences. The bespoke front-end lighting controls interface developed by Adlib was based around the ETC EOS system to provide a great balance of flexibility, portability, and automation. Each light or projector, and each of the Wheel’s structural components, can be controlled in isolation, creating a dynamic canvas for different colour combinations, effects, or show sequences.”

The lighting designs take inspiration from the architectural forms and surrounding environment, using a combination of static and dynamic scenes, with rotating overlays to convey the movement of the wheel.

Lightalliance modelled all of the lighting layers, providing test calculations and simulation renders to review the lit appearance and intensity of each individual element. This allowed the team to review, refine, and optimise the lighting and layouts before any equipment was installed.

“This process helped to refine the specification details, which were then trialled on site before ordering, to ensure that all equipment was ordered correctly and no time was wasted, given the restricted timescales available for on-site works,” Grant added.

It was important for the lighting components to be as small and discrete as possible, to minimise the daytime appearance, but powerful enough to deliver useful light, and a rich palette of colours. All luminaires needed to be robust and suited to use in an exposed canal-side environment, especially those on the elevated aqueduct areas that can be exposed to some very extreme weather conditions. The luminaires were all provided with marine-grade corrosion resistant treatments, and a range of accessories to ensure good optical control. 

Sensors were introduced further along the canal to provide added automation: “We wanted to introduce enhanced capabilities and new immersive experiences for the visitors to the site during the day and after dark,” Grant explained. “The 180-metre long Roughcastle Tunnel links the Union Canal onto the aqueduct, providing a dramatic moment along the canal network. Naturally a dark space, the tunnel provides a truly immersive experience with dynamic and responsive lighting.

“The default ‘resting’ scene is deliberately subdued, with every second luminaire on the towpath side dimmed to around 20% and only white light; when a person approaches (by boat, foot or cycle), a vibrant wash of colour ripples across the full length of the tunnel in a rhythm that connects visually with the ribcage structure of the hoops further along the aqueduct.”

Tailored content has been curated and light/projection content is regenerative, within given parameters, to create unique images throughout the year. The design allows Lightalliance to frame and isolate each of the components to showcase this magnificent structure. “A nightly 30-minute show sequence animation, evolves and adapts to suit the time of year, theme, or occasion. Tailored content and show sequences can also be generated for specific events, increasing potential revenue streams and commercialisation opportunities. The control system allows for easy selection of any colour or combination of colours, onto any fixture, or surface.”

A key goal for the new lighting scheme was to minimise the impact on the local wildlife by reducing light spill to the surrounding environment. While reducing light spill was one particular area of focus for the design team, there was an overriding desire to be as environmentally minded and sustainable as possible. Grant explained further the measures taken to reduce the environmental impact of the lighting: “We wanted to create a more dynamic experience, but in more sustainable ways. This meant ensuring that the design minimised any negative impact on the surrounding areas, the neighbours and to wildlife, and helped to reduce the carbon footprint as much as was possible.

“Several of the luminaire types and projectors and are provided with glare shields, sculpture lenses and physical framing masks to reduce and minimise light spill. Some of the fixtures are also pre-set with top-set output values to reduce the light output and associated energy consumption. The new lighting scenes and sequences all use much less energy than the previous strategy of creating colours using gels and filters – the total wattage to illuminate the Wheel Experience is only 4.6kW, versus the original 13.6kW target, and was designed in compliance with BREEAM ENE 03 External Lighting Energy Efficient Luminaires.”

Despite the added challenges of the global pandemic, lockdown restrictions, new Brexit legislations and difficult weather conditions, the Falkirk Wheel Experience was designed and installed on budget within a very short timescale over the winter months. Since completion, the project has received a great deal of positive feedback from both the client and visitors – something that Grant is incredibly pleased about.

“It’s been amazing to see, and hear, the reactions of the visitors when the tunnel lighting appears, or when animated effects happen as they approach,” he said.

“The design exceeds all the performance indicators proposed in the original briefing pack. The client team is very happy with the new Falkirk Wheel Experience, and when our clients are happy, that makes us happy. The project has received some great feedback from visitors to the site, with lots of coverage online, on social media and TV. It’s been fantastic to see it get so much positive exposure and receive recognition among so many other great projects and design initiatives.

“We really enjoyed working on the project and are excited about the possibilities to evolve and enhance the events programme further during the darker winter months. Hopefully the Falkirk Wheel is now back where it belongs as a global icon, by day and by night.”

www.lightalliance.com