Space Design: Extreme Lighting

How do you design a lighting system for a 100,000-square-foot health care facility when the nearest electrical supply store is 500 miles away … and is only accessible by plane?


Welcome to Barrow, Alaska, located on the northern-most tip of the state.

Barrow is as far north as you can get in the United States. The only way to get closer to the North Pole and still have land under your feet is to travel to parts of Canada, Greenland or Siberia.

The new Barrow replacement hospital will serve the town’s population of 4,000 as well as approximately 3,000 people from additional villages within a 95,000-square-mile area. The facility will include all components of health care: building support, clinical engineering, diagnostic imaging, dietary, emergency department, facilities management, inpatient, laboratory, labor and delivery, morgue, medical supply, pharmacy, physical therapy, primary care, hospital administration, dental, optometry, and staff support.

The Arctic Slope Native Association (ASNA) wanted to construct a health care center that not only meets all their medical needs in one place, but creates an atmosphere that would encourage an otherwise reluctant population to come to Barrow and take advantage of the opportunity for proper health care. As a result, the challenge was to create design concepts that reflected the values of the local population, including the natural environment and the native culture, in one of the most remote and potentially inhospitable places in the world.

Lighting designers in particular were challenged to create a system that will meet all the needs of the facility without requiring a large variety of spare parts and different lamp types. A typical health care facility with these diverse needs might have 30 or more different lamp types in more than 100 different fixtures. Because of Barrow’s remote location, deliveries of supplies will be infrequent, which creates a need to minimize the variety of inventory. Consequently, designers narrowed fixtures to four linear fluorescent tubes, two compact fluorescents, two metal halides, one incandescent, and LED strips.

Initially, this may not seem that difficult an assignment. But then consider all the lighting tasks that must be accomplished: general lighting, office lighting, undercabinet lighting, patient exam lighting, trauma room lighting, exterior lighting in extreme cold, decorative lighting, radiology department lighting, cove lighting, and signage.

The design team’s architects, interior designers, and electrical engineer sought to find alternate solutions, which required everybody to bring their ideas to the table. Team members discussed each idea presented. Not every idea worked. Some ideas generated other ideas. In the end, the team found solutions that met the aesthetic requirements of the space while providing the illumination needed for its intended task.

A prime example of the challenges encountered is highlighted in the main two-story atrium lobby, which will serve as the centerpiece of the building. The exterior is clad in a translucent material so that the building will appear as a glowing beacon—drawing people to the facility. Inside, it will be a large gathering place for the native population, with some smaller, quieter waiting areas. The main lobby ceiling will soar to 24 feet.

Typically, the main purpose of a lobby is to serve as a point of entry and to provide access from point A to point B. In the Barrow facility, however, the main lobby will be a greeting destination … a place of social gathering … with services that will lead directly into the core care areas. In many cases, visitors will come here solely to be near loved ones during the care process. As a result, the design of the lobby needed to embrace a sense of warmth, encompass a good sense of scale, and create welcoming family spaces.
In order to prevent this large volume of space from feeling too imposing or artificial, the grand vestibule will be divided into smaller volumes of space, thus creating the family environment groupings that eventually lead into the clinic spaces. Lighting of all types, scale, and textures have been specified to give identity to the lobby. Large drum-shaped lights, for example, will be wrapped in seal or walrus skin, reminiscent of Umiak drums popular in the local culture. These custom fixtures will meet the design requirements of the space as well as meet lamp restrictions of the building. LED uplights, chosen for their small fixture size and longevity, will help illuminate the exterior glazing to give a nice glow to both the interior as well as the exterior façade.

For additional warmth, large amounts of acoustical-backed wood paneling are used with built-in light wells. Family spaces are defined by short partition walls that are clad in textured tile and warm wood and then reinforced with wall wash lighting in the floor to create the illusion of a defining space environment. Smaller volume spaces have similar decorative features at a much smaller scale to that of the main promenade’s large volume space. Cove lighting used in these spaces ensures these smaller waiting areas are properly illuminated without detracting from the soft, inviting environment.

A second lighting design challenge was to create a system that works in the extreme cold of Alaska’s arctic region. Most extreme cold weather fixtures are only rated to minus 40. LED controllers are only rated to minus 4.

Keeping in mind that minus 40 is the minimum start temperature—not operating temperature—a temperature sensor must be added to the lighting control panel for the metal halide lamps. The lamps are started before the temperature gets too cold; the internal heat created provides enough heat to maintain the fixture. Keeping fixtures on during the day for temperature reasons may seem counter intuitive to energy conservation, but daytime does not necessarily mean daylight this far north of the Arctic Circle. There are 68 days each year when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Not surprisingly, these days coincide with minus 50-degree temperatures.

Exit pathway lighting on the exterior posed its own design challenges. As one can imagine, the building will not be your standard structure. Buildings in Barrow are elevated on stilts to provide a 3- to 5-foot-tall blow-through under the building, which keeps wind-blown snow from drifting up on the sides of the building and protects the permafrost. As a result, though, all building entrances and exits must be accessed by a bridge.

Lighting these bridges has to meet code-required light levels for exit pathways, look good, and not create its own glowing beacon to detract from that of the lobby atrium. Two different types of lighting will be employed to illuminate and to help identify the use as either a public or staff area. Public bridges will be lit with continuous LED handrails to provide a ribbon of light to guide visitors to and from the building. Staff bridges will be lit with LED step lights located in the handrail posts.

The design team wanted to use RGB LEDs for an exterior accent feature. However, the controllers are not rated for such extreme temperatures. Designers were able to solve the problem by specifying remote mountings inside the building to keep the controllers warm. Fixtures will be kept on for the duration of a cold snap. The lighting output may be turned off during certain times of the day, but the fixture will continue to receive power for the duration. This will help the fixture start when needed.

All projects have their own set design problems. It is the designer’s responsibility to find a solution to all of these. How creative these solutions are depends on the circumstances and the designer. The Barrow project created circumstances beyond anything most designers will ever encounter. The solution required more than the thoughts of just one person—it required a team of architects, interior designers and lighting designers working together.

Jim McLellan is a project electrical engineer with HDR Architecture Inc., providing electrical design and coordination of multi-disciplinary projects for diverse clients. McLellan is responsible for total building electrical design, including power distribution, lighting, signal systems, and specifications for hospital, institutional and commercial buildings.

back to top


PO Box 1232
Barrow, Alaska 99723
(907) 852-2762 


RIM Architects
645 G St., Ste. 400
Anchorage, Alaska 99501
(907) 258-7777

HDR Architecture Inc.
8404 Indian Hills Dr.
Omaha, Nebraska 68114
(800) 366-4411

HDR Architecture

HDR Architecture

HDR Architecture

R&M Consultants Inc.

BBFM Engineers Inc.