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The building blocks for perfect architectural lighting

July 2017

1. Define your goal

Since time began, man has asked one question:


Why are we here?

Why is the sky blue? 

Why am I lighting this area?

Why is always the best place to start.


Consider the following questions:

What are you trying to achieve i.e. are you lighting for a functional purpose? To attract attention? Or to reveal the detail of a building that may have otherwise been missed? Where will the lit area be viewed from? Are there any nearby light sources that will affect your scheme?

Once you define your intent and know what you want to achieve, choosing the right products and strategy becomes simpler.

2. Lead the way

The right lighting will accentuate the aesthetics of a building, but its functional uses shouldn’t be overlooked. Lighting can be subtly used to guide people around.

Be sure to consider lighting a pathway directly using bollards, illuminated handrails or recessed wall lighting. Lighting the limits of a pathway, outlining it with points of light, like an airport runway, or up-lighting boundary walls should also be considered. Many architects cleverly use light and dark to delineate where people can and can’t go.

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3. Less is more


Trying to light everything is a common mistake.

Flooding a space with light requires wide beam optics and lots and lots of lumens. This will provide an even illumination but the lack of shadow will make it appear flat and undefined.

Other unpleasant side effects of this sledgehammer approach are light spill and, hefty energy bills – and nobody wants those!

Consider multiple narrow lines of light, which can add interest to an otherwise flat façade at a fraction of the energy required to evenly floodlight it. Narrow beams also emphasise texture and shape.

4. Don’t be afraid of the dark

Instead of fearing shadows, celebrate them! Another of the secrets to truly effective architectural lighting is where light ISN’T is just as important as where light IS.

Achieve this by using focused light from narrow or medium beam distributions that accentuate the 3D features of a building or feature. This is referred to as modelling.

The contrast between light and dark will guide the eye to areas of interest.

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5.  The cold (or warm) light of day

Colour Temperature and Colour Rendering Index, the colour characteristics of the light, are very important. Make sure to choose a colour temperature sympathetic to the lit subject.

For instance, a warmer colour temperature with an increased Colour Rendering Index can be used to complement and enhance natural materials such as stone and foliage.

Alternatively, use combinations of colour temperatures to create contrast. Highlight architectural features with 6000K cool white where ambient light is an otherwise warm 3000K.

6.  Light the vertical

When designing road lighting, horizontal illumination and uniformity are the most important considerations; drivers need to be able to see where they are going whilst travelling at speed. But when designing areas for pedestrians the vertical surface; buildings, monuments and trees, assume the greater importance.

There are many techniques:

  • Wall washing with floodlights or ground recessed luminaires.
  • Grazing – used to highlight.
  • Scalloping...

But as with any lighting, take care to control the light, avoiding glare and light spill.

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