Schenectady County

Lighting project to ‘breathe’ life into vacant Schenectady houses

Vacant homes in Albany, Schenectady and Troy will be brought to life — with a pulse — thanks to the
RPI student Zachary Pearson helped design the control panel for each window to be illuminated.
RPI student Zachary Pearson helped design the control panel for each window to be illuminated.

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Vacant homes in Albany, Schenectady and Troy will be brought to life — with a pulse — thanks to the creativity of Troy residents Adam Frelin and Barbara Nelson.

About 300 vacant homes in the Capital Region’s three cities will “breathe” on their own and light up the streets of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The buildings will be illuminated in the fall of 2016.

“This will give people a sense that there is a breathing life force and that there is still life in these buildings,” said Nelson, 58, the project’s architect. “We think they are very much worth the attention.”

The project — called Breathing Lights — was one of four in the nation to be selected to receive up to $1 million as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge.

Frelin, 41, the project’s artist, said the grant is for a temporary public art challenge and he was looking to create something with a strong visual impact that’s easily digestible.

“We’re borrowing from breathing, which is well known,” he joked. “It will be an evocative visual experience. We’re hoping it will also be catalytic in other ways toward issues of vacancy and revitalizing neighborhoods.”

Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said on Tuesday he is looking at the project as a way to market neighborhoods and spur future development.

Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center in Troy already built a prototype of breathing lights.

RPI student Zachary Pearson, 20, said a strip of LED lights would be installed around the perimeter of street-facing windows. They run on power now, but the goal is to make them battery operated.

The lights would not be a fire hazard because they don’t get hot like halogen bulbs, he said.

“I think from this point there will be 20 prototypes,” Frelin joked.

Nelson said the cities and local land banks would have to identify the vacant homes that would be best to feature the lights. In Schenectady, homes in Hamilton Hill and Mont Pleasant would be targeted.

“We want there to be a neighborhood hub in each of the three cities,” Frelin said. “It depends on which buildings would be available.”

Butcher paper will cover windows from the inside with blue, green and red LED lights pulsating around the paper, creating a breathing effect with the lights dimming and intensifying.

“With the geometry of the human body and lung, we will develop a ratio and take the size and volume of the building,” Nelson said. “The intensity of light will have a strong relationship to human life.”

Larger buildings will breathe slowly, while smaller buildings will pulse more rapidly, she said. The lights would probably be displayed from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for about two months, Frelin said.

He added that the windows would all pulsate in unison at each house, but every house would have a different unique pulse.

Frelin and Nelson have been in discussions with General Electric and Quirky. General Electric has been a consultant on the project, and Frelin is hoping that Quirky would help to manufacture the hundreds of lights.

“It’s going to take a long time to install and launch,” Frelin said. “GE has been helpful with ideas and solutions.”

Frelin and Nelson did not know each other before Breathing Lights. They both submitted a proposal as part of the public art challenge and later decided to team up to win.

Albany, Schenectady and Troy were chosen among 230 cities that submitted proposals. Cities with 30,000 residents or more were eligible to apply for funding. The three cities ultimately decided to partner on the project.

“The mayors said ‘let’s compete as one project’ and the three cities put out a local, regional proposal,” Nelson said. “The three cities have a lot in common, especially vacant homes.”

Frelin teaches art at the University at Albany and Nelson works with RPI on major capital projects.

The two are also partnering with Judie Gilmore, the project’s manager, who teaches art at Skidmore College.

In addition to General Electric and Quirky, other local companies helping with the project include the Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady, the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp., Proctors and the Schenectady Foundation.

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