Night time view of Georgian building featuring Giant Corinthian Order which contains sash windows in architraves
Barluga, Newcastle-upon-Tyne © Historic England Archive AA040546
Barluga, Newcastle-upon-Tyne © Historic England Archive AA040546

External Lighting of Historic Buildings

This section covers the issues to be considered when designing and installing external lighting to illuminate a historic structure or building and its surroundings.

Our advice covers light fittings, types of lamps, differing control systems and their suitability, security, installation and maintenance. Guidance on light pollution issues and the associated impact on wildlife and the environment are also covered. Our Streets for All guidance covers street lighting.

Before installing external lighting to any structure or area, due consideration must be given to:

  • Where the building is located, whether it is rural or urban
  • How much of it should be lit
  • Any neighbouring properties and spaces that might be affected
  • The location of the lighting so as to reduce the visual impact the fittings have on the daytime view

General considerations

Light and architecture have always been important to each other. This has been so since before artificial lighting came into existence. Famous architects like Sir John Soane and G.E. Street used natural light to enhance their building interiors and architectural features. Some early-20th century architects took the view that artificial light was only an extension of daylight, some that it offered the opportunity to view the building in a unique and different way at night.

Historic buildings are increasingly jostling for space and acknowledgment in town and city centres against increasing numbers of new developments. The application of dedicated external lighting offers the opportunity for communities to showcase their building heritage and improve public places.

It has been established that lighting a historic building, such as a church for example, will elevate its presence in the community. Church of England research has shown that listing and lighting schemes can help the visibility and sustainability of the churches in the community.

It should be remembered that external lighting can not only augment the view of a historic building but if done badly can produce the opposite effect by enhancing the negative aspects. A building or location is like the face of an old friend, depending upon how the lighting is chosen and located it can produce either flattering or unflattering results.

Also because a building is listed or scheduled is not necessarily a good enough reason to proceed with installing external lighting. Any scheme must not only illuminate but make the building or place more interesting, assist in making visitors feel safe by putting people back at the centre of all public spaces, help tell a story, boost the building or area’s identity and assist visitors in appreciating the night by only using light where needed.

There are a number of issues that should be assessed before progressing with an external lighting design. The most important questions are:

  • Has a real need to install lighting been established?
  • What are we trying to achieve here?
  • Are we adding to people’s enjoyment of their local historic environment?

Any successful lighting design scheme must involve artistry as well as technical expertise. The main objectives of a good external lighting scheme should be:

  • To create the desired aesthetic presentation of the building and its surroundings
  • To give a building an added dimension and greater night time presence and which enhances its key architectural features as well as its social and heritage significance
  • To elevate the ‘after darkness’ experience and promote a more inclusive and safe night-time local economy with more people enjoying a vibrant cultural life
  • To improve and promote the observation and experience of the heritage building or setting against the night sky
  • To ensure that the right quality, quantity and colour of light is used to give the best lighting experience
  • To ensure that the daytime view of the building or space is not marred by poorly located electric light units (which are technically called ‘luminaires’)
  • That sufficient protection against potential vandalism to the installation has been taken
  • That the lighting scheme is reasonably easy to maintain and has the appropriate controls to allow suitable adjustment to time of day and potential incidents
  • Lastly that the environmental and wildlife impacts has been kept to an absolute minimum; that there is the least amount of light pollution or overspill and the energy efficiency of the installation has been maximised

Well-designed external lighting can, with care and sensitivity, bring added life and scope to our treasured heritage landmarks. It becomes an extension to the architecture or place, improving the visitor experience by complementing the building’s shape, colour and form. Its added dynamic can be compared to ‘painting with light’.

It is important that, before a design is completed, anyone thinking of externally lighting their heritage building or its environs should work through the key considerations below.

Design concept

Before embarking upon an external lighting project, a clear brief should be compiled by the client working with their lighting designer or engineer. This will help consolidate the parameters of any future design and will help limit the scope of works to what is necessary to achieve the stated aims. It will also help with controlling project creep which in turn will assist in controlling the associated design and installation costs.

It is the lighting designer’s duty to limit the amount of light and electric light units (luminaires) to the minimum that delivers all their client’s requirements and the building’s needs.

Does the entire building or area need to be lit?

It is rarely necessary to light all the elevations or features of a building or space. Some parts are often unsuitable or inaccessible for normal viewing so it makes no sense in lighting them to make them stand out. It is usually better to concentrate on the best nearby and/or distant night-time viewpoints. As part of the design process, the potential distance away, the angle and position of any visitor should always be taken into account.

Is there a pattern or arrangement which should be featured?

Rather than illuminating the whole building it is often better to select features such as pediments, columns, niches and cornices to light. Consider using your external lighting scheme to reinforce a building or area’s patterns and improve the night time appreciation of the architectural details or the space’s features, including public artworks.

Consider lighting techniques such as cross-lighting, up-lighting and back-lighting, although up-lighting should be limited and well controlled to avoid unnecessary and wasteful upward light spillage and pollution.

Lighting designs can be refined by using tightly controlled narrow beam, asymmetric fittings sometimes supplied with baffles and shutters to help reduce night-time light spill as well as highly responsive, remote management and control of light installations via such systems as 4G/5G mobile telephone networks.

However, any physical lighting control solution can cause issues for daytime viewing unless the luminaires are carefully and discreetly located.

Can the external lights be discreetly located?

It is important to position as many external electric light fittings (luminaires) as possible where they are inconspicuous while still being relatively easy to access for maintenance. It's also crucial that the luminaire fixing locations are respectful of the historic fabric and will leave no permanent scarring. A particular lighting layout may give the desired effect at night but if the floodlights cannot be hidden or suitably disguised for daytime viewing, the scheme has ultimately failed.

Potential solutions include:

  • Positioning the light fittings on neighbouring street furniture
  • Disguising a remote location with planting or trees
  • Installing luminaires on another suitably located nearby building but this can be difficult if it is not your property

How big and clean is the building?

As well as considering the existing ambient light levels coming from street lighting, shops and offices, you should also think about the reflectivity of the building surfaces when designing your lighting scheme.

Reflectivity is affected by the colour of the building materials and/or how clean they are. The lighter the colour or cleaner the material, the more light will be reflected back into the space and the fewer or less powerful electric light units/ luminaires you will need. The colour of the surfaces being lit will also likely help determine the colour temperature of the lamps used in the scheme.

External lighting schemes gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

What adverse issues could result from the proposed lighting?

The following issues are very important and need to be considered carefully:

  • Light pollution, sky glow and wildlife issues
  • Over-lighting areas and timing

Light pollution, sky glow and wildlife issues

Light pollution from a badly designed lighting scheme can be a major problem and is also a waste of energy.

Annoying light spillage into neighbouring properties and the surrounding area can have adverse health effects for residents too.

External lighting can be extremely disturbing to a variety of plants, birds, fish and other animals. Excessive light can impact on the lives of nocturnal species such as bats, owls, and insects, confusing their patterns of sleep, feeding, hibernation and thus endangering them. For example, a reduction in the number of insects will reduce the food supply for birds and mammals. It is an offence to disturb protected species such as bats. The Bat Conservation Trust and the Institution of Lighting Professionals provides detailed advice.

Badly designed external lighting schemes can also interfere with important astronomical observation and research as well as those who merely want to enjoy and study the night sky.

There is a network of national and local astronomy and environmental organisations supporting the establishment of more places where dark skies can be re-established or developed. They want to create an awareness of these places and encourage tourism so that more people can enjoy the night sky.

To address these concerns, local planning authorities are now required to have planning policies to ‘limit the impact of light pollution from artificial light on local amenity, intrinsically dark landscapes and nature conservation’ (National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) paragraph 185).

Any light generated should be used only where it's needed, and we should think of it as a valuable commodity which should be used sparingly. In rural locations it's even more essential that any potential external lighting scheme is extremely well controlled and not allowed to operate all night.

Over-lighting areas, and timing

Also, when it comes to rural areas, with lower ambient light levels, there are frequent issues with over-lighting that can produce the effects outlined above. This can happen when designers forget to adjust their approach to external lighting when their schemes do not have to compete with high levels of other lighting such as those found in town and city centres.

In urban locations heritage buildings often find themselves competing with other lighting such as including:

  • Large corporate and high-rise buildings that tend to be lit at night
  • High levels of street and amenity lighting
  • Restaurant and retail lighting
  • Illuminated advertising panels and signs

This has become more common as we increasingly become a 24-hour society, especially in the larger conurbations. There is a temptation to compete with these high levels of lighting when in fact we should be looking to reduce them. What we need is a different approach and many inner-city authorities are coordinating local initiatives to reduce corporate lighting and improve the street presence of their heritage building stock after dark.

It's important that future lighting designs, and the way in which we illuminate buildings and public spaces at night, rise to the challenge of using less energy and reducing light pollution without compromising perceived safety and security. Such pared-down schemes are not looking to drive people away after dark but instead encouraging them to experience their local public places and spaces in a new and exciting way that includes local history and culture.

It's also important to have suitable controls for any external lighting scheme that not only allow for remote adjustment if suitably sophisticated, but that also prevent external lighting being on all night. This one aspect can be achieved with a relatively simple timer or photocell. In reality after 01:00 hours there is very little to be gained in continuing to illuminate any building especially in more rural areas where the impact of too much light will be felt more keenly.

Read Towards a Dark Sky Standard, by the UK Dark Skies Partnership, available on the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) website.

What is the most suitable light source?

In the past, floodlighting schemes could have used a variety of different lamps, a lot of which are being, or have been, phased out of use due to their poor efficacy and non-compliance with European Directives EC244/2009 and EC245/2009. The most frequently used lamp type is now LED (Light Emitting Diode).

Learn more

View the recording of the 2020 webinar: External lighting for historic buildings and churches.

This webinar gives a brief overview of the new Historic England guidance on external lighting. This guidance gives advice on how best to approach an external lighting project, the equipment to use and other issues to consider before starting a project.

For the best webinar experience, please use Google Chrome browser or download Adobe Connect.