Key Principles in Architectural Lighting

From attracting new business in a city to entertaining backyard guests, architectural lighting serves a whole host of important purposes, and they all depend on the purpose of each particular space. Commercial and residential clients have different needs, and finding the right lighting solutions takes skill and finesse. When I’m allowed to exercise full creative freedom, I look forward to tackling architectural lighting challenges. It’s the most important finishing touch. 

Defining Architectural Lighting

This lighting category is a design umbrella that covers hundreds of outdoor lighting options. No matter what space they’re illuminating, architects, designers and contractors have to consider the same important principles when making lighting design decisions. Businesses that close at 5 in a hilly city have much different lighting requirements than beach-side bars that fill up under the moonlight. 

Some significant elements that determine the appropriate style, placement, and intensity of lights include:

  • Daylight – a dynamic variable that influences window and lighting design in different ways throughout the day 
  • Safety – avoiding invasive glares and bright, direct lights; illuminating outdoor spaces for nighttime navigation
  • Visibility – how much attention should be drawn to a space, whether nocturnal visibility is required for advertising or stylistic purposes
  • Background – scenery, other buildings, landscaping and other visible, external elements in the immediate area 

No detail is insignificant when it comes to efficient layout and design. From recessed bulbs to lanterns mounted on walls and planted in the ground, it’s important to choose fixtures that complement their surroundings and create a pleasant, symbiotic effect from the very first glance. 


Influencing Perception and Creating Visual Effects


Every picturesque skyline under the night sky represents an illuminating joint effort: the collective effect of thousands of individual lights. They differ wildly in color and intensity and placement, all of which were deliberately chosen and adjusted for specific reasons. There’s enormous style potential in architectural lighting, and sometimes it’s even part of a much larger picture, setting a certain atmosphere in a well-traveled business district or distinguishing one home from the others on its block. 

Just as wall color can determine how large a room feels, lighting placement can completely transform the exterior shape and style of a building. Some of the most clever lighting creates a very dramatic, Jekyll-and-Hyde effect, making angles more severe and even casting shadows that form deliberate shapes and sizes, based on the architecture around them. 


Transforming Each Space with Contrast 

Good architectural lighting design will maximize both aesthetic appeal and practical functionality. Every designer must balance these two design fundamentals in a unique way, and there’s nothing more integral to lighting than the contrast of extremes. The interaction between light and darkness is fascinating, and there are many different lighting options that can help harness that stylistic contrast. 

For example, many modern buildings cut sleek, angular, concrete silhouettes that become even bolder and more futuristic with the addition of ambient, colored neon lights around the perimeters. In residential spaces, this light must also meet certain safety requirements, illuminating walkways and entryways at night without placing unreasonable strain on electricity costs, and without disturbing neighbors or indoor activity. Meanwhile, modern architecture and lighting work together in commercial and public spaces, such as museums and office buildings, to achieve appropriate amounts of nighttime visibility. 

When buildings have a mix of different textures and angles, such as bricks and siding or multiple roofs and awnings, the right architectural lighting can keep the style consistent while highlighting the way that each texture complements the next one. Light can totally define a space, both physically and aesthetically, but its effect depends on the shape, size, style and texture of every surface it touches. Capitalizing on contrast means considering all of these elements, and deciding which ones will best enhance the existing architecture and landscaping. 

Today, it’s always a good idea to prioritize energy efficiency as well. Architectural lighting that incorporates LED lights and solar-powered energy is more cost-effective for clients. It can also make life easier during the design and construction process; eco-friendly lights tend to last much longer and maintain a reliable, consistent visual effect. When lights have the ability to burn out or gradually get dimmer that actually affects decisions about their placement, because we must anticipate the possible gaps and clashes that come from lighting of varying intensity levels, or incompatibility between fading or warped colors.


Architectural lighting should be a priority when creating or renovating any space. Daylight transforms architecture by changing the hues of walls and the apparent textures of surfaces; artificial light dramatizes (or softens) the lines and windows of a building, telling the eye exactly how to perceive it. Get creative with lighting. Borrow inspiration from famous skyscrapers and private mansions alike, combining different styles, intensities, colors and angles to create a one-of-a-kind way to illuminate each and every space.

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