Drive by downtown Tampa’s skyline on I-275 and there’s a certain building you’ll notice twinkling at night, the lights bright against the dark sky.
Hillsborough County teacher Donna Gaines passes by this building every night and wonders. She has lived in the area for about 15 years, but only recently moved to downtown. Now she sees its designs flash in the distance, sometimes a Lightning bolt before a hockey game or the American flag for Independence Day. So she wants to know: how?
“I like to know how things work,” Gaines said in a phone call with the Tampa Bay Times. “Do they switch the color panels out? Do they have a light in each panel? How do they do it? And how do they decide on Lightning game night? It’s kind of a curiosity because I see it every day.”
Gaines asked this question through the Times’ new series, Florida Wonders. Here, we turn the magnifying glass around to the readers. What do you all want to know about Florida or the Tampa Bay area? How can we answer your burning questions?
For this question, we started by calling Highwoods Properties, a Raleigh, N.C.-based real estate company that bought downtown Tampa’s iconic building for about $116 million in 2015. Although the building bears SunTrust’s name, Highwoods owns and manages the property.
A quick search through our archives will reveal that the Times has tackled this subject before. In 2010, columnist Sue Carlton wrote about the building’s lighting procedures and methodology.
But the view we’re offering readers now has a bit more multimedia—and yes, I mean drones. Last week, Highwoods managers took me and Times photojournalist Luis Santana to a sort of balcony that overlooks all of Tampa. It’s a long elevator ride and quite windy at the top, but the trip more than helped us answer Gaines’ question. Come along for our journey.
How do the lights work?
Call the top of the SunTrust building its “roof” and you’ll immediately be corrected by the building’s senior property manager, Steve Wigh.
The technical name is a ziggurat. If that recalls World History classes from high school, there’s a reason for that. Ziggurats hearken back to the days of ancient Mesopotamia, when these religious temples were built with a multi-stepped exterior. The name of the structure comes before Highwoods’ ownership of the building, Wigh said, but he and most of the staff on site last week have adopted it wholeheartedly.
On a recent afternoon, light engineers and electricians peered up at the ziggurat’s lights from a few feet away, examining their quality and looking for any inconsistencies.
Most of us look at the lights from a distance, walking by downtown or passing the skyline in our cars. From that far away, it’s hard to make out the configuration of the lights. The vision we’re seeing is not that of the actual lights, but the reflection of their glow on the ziggurat’s surface.
The roughly 300 LED lights that make up the SunTrust ziggurat are actually directed away from our view, shining onto the panels of the ziggurat’s structure.
“When you look at the lights from a distance, it looks like these giant panels that are illuminated, but the reality of it is that light is shining onto the backside of this piece of metal,” Wigh said.
He compares it to a flashlight shining onto a wall.
“You’re seeing the big illumination of the light beam on the panel."
The LED lights themselves are small enough and light enough that you can grab one in your hand.
And the same can be said for the system that controls the lights, a stunningly small machine that looks like a router from the early 2000s.
The Pharos controller, its brand name, is a machine used commonly for lighting systems in commercial buildings and museums, said Grant Haase, the Raleigh-based lighting engineer who maintains the building’s lights.
The controller pairs with a software that allows Haase to program designs for the ziggurat’s lights. He can set a timeline and create different patterns.
“This kind of technology is very robust. They stay online pretty much indefinitely,” Haase said. “They have a (light) show in them and they just do whatever they’re told.”
On New Year’s Eve, he can select the countdown pattern. On the Fourth of July, he can pick sparkling fireworks. Some designs, like the Lightning bolt, require more work, fine-tuning the various colors until they become a bolt-like pattern.
Haase has a background in theater lighting. He likens SunTrust’s lighting system to that of a light board at a rock 'n' roll show. ‘Channel 1, pan up. Channel 2, tilt right. Channel 3, get brighter.’ Just like during a concert, Haase’s system is sending commands to the ziggurat each night.
But the roof of a city skyscraper is not the same as a one-night concert experience, Haase notes.
“When you’re talking about a city-block-wide building, you can’t have the lights strobing. And you’re not going to have any music, so you need the building to speak for itself,” he said. “Finding that right balance — it’s not Las Vegas — means we’re trying to bring attention to the building without being overwhelming.”
The light patterns break up primarily into three colors: red, green and blue. But they can reflect many more.
“The sales guy will tell you that lighting fixture will create about 16 million colors,” Haase said of the color system.
“How many of those we can see is a different thing,” Wigh said, laughing. “I can see about 16.”
What the lights mean to Tampa
When Wigh tells his family members where he works, their faces flash with immediate recognition.
‘The building that lights up at the top,’ they tell him. ‘We all know that building.’
“Tampa does have a very pretty skyline,” Wigh said. “With the lighting of the ziggurat, it really stands out. It creates something that’s memorable to the public.”
The ziggurat’s standard color is known as Highwoods blue, that middling deep blue that you see many nights.
But staff is limited as to what they can portray on the building’s prominent ziggurat.
A list of guidelines provided by Highwoods communications staff shows that certain displays, like subjects that are political, religious, emotional or refer to an individual, are prohibited. Someone could not, for example, plaster their birthday on the ziggurat or endorse a political candidate.
Although charities are included on the list as a discouraged option for all Highwoods buildings, the company’s senior marketing coordinator, Ann Minick, said charities are allowed to have lighting events on the SunTrust building because the previous owners sanctioned their promotion.
Lighting displays are limited to 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organizations. They can only have one request per calendar year.
But one thing is clear from our interviews: Highwoods is invested in the ziggurat. They performed routine maintenance on the roof last week that required light fixture changes, a test and even drone footage of the area.
They know what this building means to the community, Haase said. And they know what it takes to keep it alive.
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