Illuminating history

Lighting historic structures requires that the designer create a balance between the architecture and the landscape.
historic building electric lighting

Throughout the world there are many historic buildings and monuments that require illumination. Many have been in place even before electric lighting was invented. I am sure you can think of several not far from your area or some you have visited over the years.

Historic structures always have unique facets reflecting the time of their construction. Many have been designed by famous architects. Much of the focus should be on its theatrical qualities. Just like any lighting job, we must always ask the question, “Why light?” Lighting historic structures requires that the designer create a balance between the architecture and the landscape. Here are a few things to consider in the design scheme.

Location. Historic structures can be in both rural and urban areas. In rural areas, ambient light levels could be nonexistent. This means light levels must not overwhelm the structure or the surrounding areas. In urban areas, high levels of ambient light could pose a challenge. Both lighting scenarios require the use of precision beam angles and shielding. Doing this limits the potential for light trespass to neighboring areas.

Condition of the structure. The physical condition of the structure also needs to be taken into consideration in the lighting design. Some properties are constantly maintained and restored. This allows the visitors to experience the structure as it was in the period in which it was built. Some historic structures continue aging, revealing a rich patina. Consider the main focal points of the structure. What is the most important feature to illuminate? Identify the ideal Kelvin temperature or color to complement the structure and its surroundings.

Hours of operation & fixture placement. The hours of operation of a historic site have a lot to do with fixture placement. If the structure is closed during the evening hours, the lighting sources could be placed in a way to create focus on the structure. This might include the use of mounting poles and flood lights. To create the right effect, the fixtures may need to be positioned in a visible area. If the area is closed to the public in the evening, no one will see the light source and will take in the view from a distance.

Take an alternative design approach when a facility is open during evening hours. The fixtures illuminating the structure need to be hidden to avoid glare. Louvered well lights recessed in the concrete can be used to graze the structure. You could try positioning higher light output fixtures from neighboring structures on the same property. Be sure to include area and path lighting in the design to allow visitors to travel safely.

Natural areas with wildlife. Historic structures can often be surrounded by natural areas, like open land, forests or wetlands. Conduct research to ensure the lighting is friendly to the natural environment. The wildlife that resides there can be directly affected by certain colors and Kelvin temperatures. Visit the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service at to find details for your state.

Additionally, these areas may need to comply with dark-sky requirements. You can learn more from the International Dark-Sky Association at

Working with planning departments. It is a good idea to work closely with the planning department for a historic site, should one exist. Discuss their wish list, budget and the lighting that the scenario requires. As we all know, the sky is the limit on what can be done. The overall goals for lighting and budget give you proper direction to design and implement a plan that meets the client’s expectations.

Giving back. Do you have a local historic monument that needs illumination? Perhaps it is a memorial to the veterans from your town or another spot that is meaningful to you. A good way to give back is to provide illumination to this area at little or no charge. Perhaps you could include a small plaque listing your company name. Maybe the organization could acknowledge you regarding the new lighting in a newsletter or social media post.

All historic properties have a story to tell. Help bring that story to life with the right lighting.

This column originally appeared in Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.
Kevin Smith is the national technical support and trainer at Brilliance LED LLC, Carefree, Arizona, and can be reached at

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