Scottish Parliament Debating Chamber, UK

7th March 2019

KSLD’s work on the Scottish Parliament Debating Chamber has earned the Scottish firm a lot of plaudits. We spoke with Kevan Shaw, founder of KSLD, to learn more about the new lighting scheme.

In the heart of the Scottish Parliament building in Holyrood, Edinburgh is the Debating Chamber. Located directly above the Main Hall, it is purpose-built to meet the needs of the Parliament, the public and the media.

The modern space, finished in oak, sycamore and glass, provides an impressive centrepiece for Enric Miralles’ vision for the new Scottish Parliament.

The chamber is dominated by an impressive roof structure. Made from reinforced steel and oak laminated beams, the roof beams are held in place by 112 unique stainless steel nodes or connecting joints, made in Aberdeen. This means that there is no need for supporting columns in the 1,200sqm space.

A huge window, made up of 1,000sqm of laminated glass panels, spans across the west wall of the chamber. Each panel has a sycamore veneer layer, sandwiched in horizontal strips between two layers of glass, and features distinctive cut-out shapes that were intended by the architect to signify people and as such, give a human scale to the chamber.

Despite being a relatively recent building – it was officially inaugurated in October 2004 – the existing lighting in the Debating Chamber was reaching the end of its life and, because of the use of metal halide lamps, was now obsolete.

As a result of this, Kevan Shaw Lighting Design (KSLD) was brought in to replace the previous lighting and create a new scheme. The Edinburgh-based designers’ aspiration for the project was to “create a lighting design solution as rare in concept as the architecture itself, while achieving all possible innovations to support parliamentary business.”

Because Scottish Parliamentarians cannot sit without being broadcast continuously, the chamber is effectively a TV studio during parliamentary business. Such demands, combined with the architectural features within the chamber, meant that the previous lighting arrangement was not fit for purpose as Kevan Shaw, founder of KSLD, explained: “The idea in the original scheme was to use three-point lighting across all the seats, but there were limitations in this because of the balcony in the back; people at the back who were speaking looked like cardboard cut-outs because they were front lit against a dark background.

“It was also a pain to maintain; you couldn’t get to the fittings, and because they were metal halide lamps, they were only getting a year out of them before they lost output.

“The way the lighting worked was pretty poor as well. Because of the large, west-facing window, there were real problems with sunlight coming in, casting shadows everywhere, blinding everyone and making the cameras go doolally.”

KSLD’s brief, therefore, was to review the former metal-halide lighting and daylight ingress to improve glare and uniformity for the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and the broadcasting team. The introduction of new HDTV cameras also meant that the lighting had to be upgraded to fulfil broadcasting standards. Because of the demands of the space, the only window to complete the work was during the summer recess – a period of just six weeks.

This meant that Shaw and his team were faced with three options: install LEDs into the existing fixtures, replace point for point what was already in place, or create an entirely new scheme. After a series of site trials and time-lapse daylight studies, in which KSLD mapped out exactly how sunlight passed through the chamber, Shaw determined that a radical concept would better suit the parliamentarians, the broadcasting team and Miralles’ original architecture, rather than an LED retrofit.

A key facet of this “radical” concept was the introduction of custom-made suspended luminaires, created in collaboration with Mike Stoane Lighting, that cast soft but high light levels of light, suitable for broadcasting, while simultaneously celebrating the architectural structure previously obscured by hundreds of pole-mounted spotlights.

The leaf-like shape of the bespoke fittings not only connects the interior of the chamber to the nature outside, but it also reflects the plan-form of the chamber itself, therefore locking it into the architecture. The leaf motif gives the fixtures an additional, distributive sense, as they appear to float across the ceiling of the chamber, as if caught on a passing breeze. However, despite the apparent random configuration of the fixtures within the complex ceiling structure, in both layout and height, they achieve the required lighting distribution. The additional uplighting provided by the new fixtures means that, where previously only the parliamentarians were lit, the new scheme now illuminates the whole volume of the space.

The fittings are further connected to the architecture of the chamber through light guide extractors within the stepped acrylic wings of the ‘leaves’. These extractors appear as abstracted figures, each representing the number of sitting MSPs, and are derived from the recurring graphic silhouette that features elsewhere in the architectural language of the chamber.

KSLD has a long history of working with Mike Stoane Lighting, and Shaw was delighted at the lengths to which the Scottish manufacturers went to ensure the highest quality in the bespoke fixtures.

“We have worked with Mike Stoane Lighting since they started, so we know them all very, very well, and they went above and beyond the call of duty, under some very trying conditions, especially the time-frame,” he said.

“This was a super picky project, and there were things that came up in the construction of the fixtures such as blemishes in anodising, blemishes in the acrylic finish, as they were all engineered in pieces, that weren’t acceptable. And there seemed to be one thing after another that caused these quality issues, but these issues, instead of landing at me, were being caught by Mike Stoane – they were telling me about it and they were sorting it, whereas a lot of manufacturers don’t do that.”

The fittings were also created with a degree of robustness, factoring in a redundancy, should any aspect of them fail during parliamentary proceedings. “Each fitting has two strips each side, four strips in total, and each line has a power supply, control gear and an LED strip. There are four of these in each fitting, so there’s a redundancy in place,” Shaw explained.

“Essentially, it means that if you lose one of them, it’s actually very difficult to tell. Although you’ve taken 25% of the light out of the fitting, it’s not visually apparent. So if they lost a section, or even a couple of sections in the course of a week, then over the weekend when the parliamentarians are not sitting, they can get up to fix it.”

Additional backlighting was also added, with spotlights and linear fittings from Mike Stoane Lighting, Alpha LED, Lightnet and LightGraphix carefully installed into the existing timberwork, removing the “cardboard cut-out” appearance of the backbenchers.

Control-wise, KSLD replaced the original scheme with Lutron-controlled DALI lines, as Shaw elaborated: “The original scheme was just switched. We had all the power lines in the ceiling, and we repurposed these to become DALI lines with minimal re-wiring, because in six weeks, we couldn’t rewire the whole thing.”

Further redundancy measures were implemented into the DALI controls as well. “Everything is programmed so that if the system fails, if the wiring fails, instead of failing to off, everything fails to on, so every step of the process of what could fail has been thought through, to prevent failure causing disruption to the chamber,” Shaw explained.

The need for scene setting or dimming within the chamber was paramount, and detailed examination of thermal performance and pre-programmed timed operating states through DALI dimming control, on the basis of planned patterns of use, allowed KSLD to calculate the LED and fitting life of 25 years – a target that they were aiming for.

Further to the new lighting scheme, KSLD designed and installed a series of louvres on the window. Constructed of sand-etched acrylic, these simple, fixed louvres are the end result of extensive tests and trials where Shaw and his team created a digital mock-up of the chamber and, using a time-lapse study of the way that sunlight interacts with the space, were able to create a system that reduces the problematic additional glare, while still allowing natural light to enter the chamber.

While KSLD worked with the parliamentary corporate body, a committee of employees and parliamentarians, and Lee Boyd Architects, who have a continuing role in managing the architectural issues and the work that has to go on within the building, the lighting designers were given a free rein in creating the new scheme – after an extensive consultation process, but the results have been greatly received by all involved, as Shaw elucidated.

“We had the parliamentarians, represented by the corporate body, the broadcasting department, the events team – when there’s nobody sitting in the chamber they do walkthrough tours – and we had the tourism team to keep happy. But it has been really exceptionally well accepted by everybody, to the point where tour guides now actually talk about the light fittings; they tell the story of the shape of it, the story of the parliamentarians.”

Indeed the chamber has also garnered a lot of attention on the industry award circuit, getting shortlisted for the 2018 [d]arc awards / architectural, and winning first prize at the Codega Awards. However, Shaw remained humble about the awards success, instead saying that he prefers a different sort of praise.

“It’s nice to get awards and external recognition, they’re not the most important things.

“I actually got an email from an MSP saying how much they love the new lighting. Most of the time, people notice lighting because they don’t like it, but to get to the point where people notice what’s not a really in your face scheme, it’s quite a major thing. And the fact that it’s become part of the story of the chamber, that to me is more valuable than getting awards.”

Pic: David Barbour