Lighting Controls

Westminster Abbey is relit in wireless LED scheme

The interior of a stone cathedral looking down the main aisle
Speirs + Major’s new lighting at Westminster Abbey delivers the flexibility to support all the important functions of the building and allows the magnificent architecture to be appreciated © James Newton

THE FIRST phase of a re-lighting project at Westminster Abbey in London has been unveiled to the public. 

This lighting scheme – designed by top design practice Speirs + Major –  included the refurbishment of 16 Waterford crystal chandeliers, and spotlighting from high-level. 

Both of these elements required a substantive testing, mock-up and approvals process, before being designed in detail and implemented by the abbey’s works department in a phased process. 

For more than 40 years, the Waterford lead crystal chandeliers provided the majority of the electric lighting to the main body of the abbey, becoming ever brighter over the years to try to maximise the amount of light in the space. 

In replacing the light sources within the chandeliers with dimmable, colour temperature tuneable LED modules, their role has evolved into one of supplementing the newly provided functional lighting at high level. 

The LED modules enable the light from the chandeliers to adapt to complement changes in natural light throughout the day, while the reduced brightness overall makes the beauty of the crystal more readily appreciated. 

A new adjustable spotlighting system added at triforium level now provides the principle functional light to the abbey floor, and accent to areas and objects of liturgical significance including the high altar and nave altar (the latter being removable). 

The Waterford crystal chandeliers. a gift from the Guinness family, each have 500 ‘feathers’ of mouth-blown, hand-cut crystal arranged in three tiers. In total, 56 tuneable white LED modules were fitted into each chandelier, and each tier is separately controllable so that both the colour and brightness of each pendant may be gradated.

The system also allows the form and detailing of the roof vaulting to be fully revealed after dark for the first time in the building’s history. 

Comprised of spotlights mounted onto custom-designed vertical poles, the system is designed to minimise the number of attachment points to the historic fabric of the building while optimising flexibility in positioning. 

The poles are mounted on the western face of the structural columns, so that the spotlights are largely concealed from view when seen from the west. 

All of the spotlighting is dimmable and controlled wirelessly using a Bluetooth based control system. 

This technology was selected to reduce the amount of cabling, thereby minimising adverse impact to the historic building fabric. 

The lighting is programmed to provide numerous scenes to respond to various liturgies and for other uses, including tourism. 

The maximum lighting levels are now considerably brighter if required, so television crews will not necessarily require as much supplementary lighting for broadcast and filming. 

The Waterford crystal chandeliers were a gift from the Guinness family in 1965. They are 3m high and 0.9m wide and hang in the nave and north and south transepts. 

Each glittering pendant is a cluster of 500 ‘feathers’ of mouth-blown, hand-cut crystal arranged in three tiers. 

In total, 56 tuneable white LED modules were fitted into the ‘exo-skeleton’ of each chandelier, a grand total of 896 LED modules.

High level spotlighting mounted on custom made vertical poles allows a huge amount of flexibility for functional and architectural lighting with minimal impact to the building fabric © Speirs + Major 

The largest and most ambitious part of the scheme were the nave, quire, and transepts re-lit with a LED installation operated by a largely wireless control system. 

The design delivers much-needed flexibility through multiple scenes for the various church services as well as other functions such as music recitals, events and tourism. 

Brightness levels have been balanced, functional lighting improved, and the architecture celebrated in a manner that remains sensitive to the use of the sacred spaces. 

‘Undertaking the re-lighting of such an important, historic and iconic building is both an immense privilege and a huge responsibility. studio principal Mark Major told the press.

As is customary for our work, this project began with a good deal of in-depth research. 

‘We were primarily interested in two things: gaining a deep understanding of the many facets and functions that the abbey serves as both a living working church and a World Heritage Site and the rich heritage of the building and how that might influence our interpretation of the spaces and their detail. 

‘Our wide-ranging consultation included all stakeholders, beginning with Dean and Chapter, and involving those responsible for music, conservators, educational outreach, tourism and events. 

’In common with all liturgical buildings, our main aim has been to use light to support worship. 

‘In the case of the abbey, we were very aware of the importance of the visitor experience for the million-plus people that come each year to explore over ten centuries of history. 

‘Over three thousand persons of note including kings, queens, poets and scientists are interred or memorialised in Westminster Abbey, and it has been Britain’s coronation church since 1066. The mainly Anglo- French Gothic style architecture, much of which dates from the 13th Century, provided another vital strand of narrative. 

“One of the other challenges is that the abbey is to remain fully in use throughout the removal and replacement of the existing lighting systems, adding even more complexity to an already incredibly detailed project.’ 

Each tier is separately controllable so that both the colour and brightness of each pendant may be gradated. 

As the chandeliers are designed to raise and lower, no additional cabling was possible, so the control of these is by a mains voltage wireless system. 

The lighting installed at triforium level entails a total of 60 custom designed poles, each holding between four and eight adjustable spotlights. 

In total 338 spotlights were installed, taking a full two weeks to focus. The spotlights are individually addressable and controlled by a Bluetooth wireless system. 

Project credits:

Client: Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey
Surveyor to the Fabric: Ptolemy Dean
Clerk of the Works: Ian Bartlett/ Jim Vincent (ret.)
Lighting Designer: Speirs + Major
Electrical Engineering: Deputy Clerk of the Works, Iain McDonald
|Installation: Westminster Abbey Clerk of the Works Department / DFB Electrical
Speirs + Major team: 
Lighting Strategy: Mark Major, Clementine Fletcher-Smith, Philip Rose, Ewan Parsons, Jessica Zanotto. Phase One: Mark Major, Philip Ros,e Iain Ruxton, Ewan Parsons, Sam Tuck 
Equipment: 
Spotlights and bracketry: MSL
Chandeliers: MSL
Colour-tunable modules: ERP Power
Control: Pharos, Xicato