Bridget Williams’ lighting design work for the Saint Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood, CA, spanned a decade, an economic downturn and a revolution in lighting. Initial designs for the 70 ft high sanctuary used twentieth-century incandescents, but the final installation uses primarily LEDs. Working closely with volunteers from the congregation throughout, Williams’ iterative lighting design followed the progress of LED technology: from small lumen packages with poor color properties, to highly functional form factors and color and controllability that emulate incandescent.

Bridget Williams Lighting Design was brought on board by Daniel D. White Architects, Hacienda Heights, CA, who guided the church through a major renovation. The lighting budget dwindled and energy codes tightened through the recession and recovery. LEDs were a controversial issue throughout.

“People on the committee kept asking, Do we have to go LED? Can we just go back to incandescent? Well, in 2008, 2009, 2010, the answer is, No. And, Why would you want to?” Williams recalled. She did numerous mockups in the sanctuary with multiple LED fixture manufacturers, often using straw-colored filters to mimic the innate warmth of incandescent. Ultimately, LED technology evolved to meet these demands in terms of color, most without filtering. Versatile lumen packages and form factors uplight the vault and downlight the altar from the 48 ft ceiling. Refurbished chandeliers combine LED and fluorescent to illuminate the pews.

St. Charles Borromeo Church
Refurbished chandeliers combine LED and fluorescent to illuminate the pews.

“When I illuminate a church, I start with the people first. I start with what the congregation needs for almost all services: a wedding, a mass, a baptism or whatever,” explained Williams. “Then I build myself up to the predella, or stage area. And then from there I light the altar area in terms of liturgical importance. That would be the altar, the ambo [also considered the lectern or pulpit] and the presider’s chair, which is on the other side of the altar. The altar is always the number one thing.”

Williams explained that she has designed the lighting for more than 100 churches, including many renovations. And with most, the problem in the sanctuary is not enough light. “Many churches were lit very darkly, softly, solemnly. Such that they literally have only 1 or 2 fc, generally speaking…. Since Vatican II in 1968, Catholic services have become much more spiritual. There’s a lot more music and a lot more reading, so most of the audience needs to be able to see. I need to bring the footcandles up from 2 to 20 for many of the services. And on top of that, we need to bring the electricity use down.”

Williams relit the statuary and the refurbished Stations of the Cross. In the choir loft, ample reading light is now provided. The baldachin, or baldacchino, is the bonneted structure housing the crucifix, above and behind the altar. The baldacchino was expanded and now features color-changing RGB-AW lighting.

“The baldacchino can go with white light or with amber, pink, blue or green. And that color relates to the liturgical seasons of the year. This church is also used a lot for musical concerts: they have quite an active musical calendar. Before they had to bring in secondary lighting for concerts,” explained Williams “But now they don’t need to.”

Lighting controls: keep it straightforward

High-end digital lighting controls improve the versatility of the space. Williams created an intuitive touchscreen control system especially for the sanctuary. Whether it’s a mass or wedding, funeral or lavish quinceañera, a button or custom series of buttons will guide congregants through the specifics of that service. Concerts and special services for Easter, Lent and Christmas/Advent are also accommodated; as well buttons for choir practice, cleaning, etc. A single button cycles through the preset colors in the baldacchino.

St. Charles Borromeo Church
High-end digital lighting controls improve the versatility of the space.

Advanced lighting controls programming can be incredibly time-intensive, according to Williams. “Some congregations just want to have a couple of buttons, and that’s OK. But I have found that when I’ve given them more to work with, they tend work with it. And they like it.

“You can always back off and just hit the ‘Mass’ button. But if all you have is one button that says ‘Service’ or ‘Mass,’ then it’s a lot harder to go back if you want some more complicated lighting for a concert or annual event. Then they’re stuck using manual controls and that’s tougher to deal with when it comes to some of these systems.”

Williams claims that programmable lighting controls systems, though expensive, can be highly cost-effective in terms of energy savings. A single “lights on” button is often more light than what’s required for choir practice or quick entry and egress lighting. A “meditation” or “adoration of the Eucharist” setting can facilitate extended times when the sanctuary is relatively dark. “If you give them that cue, that’s what they’ll turn on. The rest of the lights will stay off or very dim, and they’re saving a ton of electricity. So in the long run, providing an intuitive, comprehensive system – as long as it’s not crazy, you can go crazy – will save money.”

Even in primarily LED installations, energy savings can be significant in large spaces. “Sure, it’s not the 500 or 1000W incandescent fixtures we used to use. But if you take any fixture and turn it down or turn it off, you’re going to use less energy. So, not only are they using two-thirds less electricity than they used to; they’re using two-thirds less of that.”

Williams’ lighting design work on St. Charles Borromeo – actually about three different lighting designs over the course of 10 years – was recognized with an Illumination Award from the Illuminating Engineering Society and a Lumen West Award from the IES Los Angeles Section – both awards of merit. She was honored in the Professional category at the Cooper Lighting (now Eaton) Source Awards in May; taking home top prize. “My next set of churches that I’m working right now are all being built from the things that I’ve learned doing St. Charles – all of the energy I’ve invested and knowledge that I’ve gained from this larger building.”

Lois I. Hutchinson

About Lois I. Hutchinson

Lois I. Hutchinson is a freelance writer specializing in lighting and energy issues. She is also the content marketing mastermind behind Inverse Square LLC, a Los Angeles–based consultancy. Contact her via with your comments and any article ideas that concern the lighting community here in the Southwest.

Share This