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Boll Family YMCA


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Xululabs, Xululabs

Project Name

Boll Family YMCA

Project Status



100,000 sq. feet

Construction Cost



YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit


  • Lighting Designer: SmithGroup
  • Justin Maconochie



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Project Description

”I remember taking swimming lessons at the Y as a kid. It was an inward-facing, concrete block building—a purely functional box,” recalls lighting designer Jeff Gerwing, principal and co-leader along with Rodrigo Manriquez of the lighting team at SmithGroup's Detroit office. Stately, and occasionally heroic, YMCAs, unlike health clubs and spas, generally are thought of as historic fixtures of urban life, but the Boll Family YMCA, whose architecture also is designed by the SmithGroup Detroit office, is no stodgy throw-back. Glass curtain walls make the building's mission transparent: The YMCA provides fitness, creative arts, and child care to the community. Located in downtown Detroit, the luminous structure is bright and open, a symbol of the city's revitalization efforts (see image gallery).

Re-energizing downtown Detroit, the Boll Family YMCA acts as a beacon for the surrounding neighborhood and for the city. The new facility opens itself—literally and figuratively—to the community.
A LED system illuminates the structural glass rear wall of the lobby.
The aerobics studio is brought to life by T8 32W fluorescent tubes fitted with colored filters.
A light pipe was the solution in the swimming pool area providing access for maintenance along the perimeter of the pool deck (above and next image).

“Detroit has a stigma, but the city's been changing in the last decade,” Gerwing says. “From a lighting perspective, we responded to the Y's needs, but we wanted to infuse the building with energy, and have that energy read to the outside and impact the context.” Energy and motion are conceptual keywords that drive the project, taking both literal and abstract forms. For example, the building is adjacent to a stop on the “People Mover” (Detroit's light rail system) and riders have views into the lantern-like gymnasium. Industrial high-bay fixtures with 250- and 400W lamps provide general sports lighting in the space, but 39W metal halide track-mounted fixtures create pools of light along the suspended running track. For joggers the accent light breaks up the laps, but for transit riders it highlights the activity and creates a metaphoric link between bodies in motion and machines.

Streetside, the porch-like ground floor presented the lighting designers with both challenges and opportunities; because there is no traditional façade to wash with light, Gerwing and his team needed to consider the whole volume of the glazed lobby. The rear wall glows in a loop of pastel hues—an effect created by integrating the architecture and lighting. Backlit by a LED system, translucent, structural glass forms a scrim between the lobby and the YMCA's 200-seat black-box theater. The architects allowed for a space behind the glass to optimize the color rendering: The LED output lights the cavity wall, not the glass. Located near Detroit's Ford Stadium, the facility receives a lot of evening foot traffic, particularly on game days. Left on after hours, the LEDs animate the YMCA even when it is closed, bathing the lobby and the sidewalk in pink, blue, green, and yellow light.

Colored light is used to activate other spaces as well. In the lobby, two rows of spotlights with tinted filters enhance the earthy character of the climbing wall that rises from a mezzanine to the second floor fitness room. The wall is lit with a variety of wattages—39-, 70-, and 100W—with 20, 30, and 38 PAR lamps, so that each beam spread or wattage variation is obvious for future lamp replacement. The lighting designers wanted to accent its cliff-like texture and drew on the shades of the Southwest. “Red, yellows, and ochres layer on top of each other to look like red rock,” Gerwing explains. “The lighting gradually changes from warm tones to a cool, blue sky on top.”

In the aerobics room, vibrant orange and yellow lines dance across the ceiling, giving the space an energetic boost. Conscious of the YMCA's need for easy maintenance and functional performance, SmithGroup created the lively array using T8 32W fluorescent tubes (standard YMCA lamp stock) fitted with color filters. The design provides 30 footcandles illuminance in the studio without sacrificing a poetic approach. “It is not just about the lighting. It is how people feel in the space,” says lighting designer Rodrigo Manriquez. “It is about how all these principles work together—materials, volumes, lighting, color, and texture.”

The natatorium illustrates this exact marriage of architecture, lighting concept, and facility maintenance. The swimming pool is the biggest selling point for new Y membership, so a bright, aesthetic design was important, but in a wet and humid environment, upkeep is key. (The YMCA did not want to have to close and drain the pool each time a light bulb needed changing.) SmithGroup's solution was to use a light pipe. The system places the lighting components that need to be accessed for maintenance along the perimeter of the pool area, while optics efficiently direct light over the water. In this custom installation, the light pipe is placed above the ceiling and shines through linear slots. Viewed from a lobby window overlooking the pool, the design is an unfussy pattern of clean white lines reflected in the water's surface.

Interaction between each of the YMCA's recreational and creative arts areas is carefully built into the architecture: Floor plates are offset and volumes overlap, offering views of activity in each space. This arrangement makes for dynamic spaces, but is difficult to represent in a standard reflected ceiling plan. The lighting designers visualized the scheme by applying the computer program Lightscape to a three-dimensional digital model crafted by SmithGroup, which offers a nuanced way to understand how light, materials, and massing come together. “Ten years ago architects had a preconceived idea of the ceiling plan,” Gerwing reflects. “We've been able to break out of that mold and focus on lighting from a conceptual level, not simply fixture selection.” This mold-breaking approach freed the team to fully realize its energetic concept and let that vision enliven the YMCA and downtown Detroit.
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