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Lighting Listed Buildings

Britain abounds with listed properties and lighting the interiors of these spaces is a challenge.

It is exacerbated by our desire to preserve our houses at some particular point in history, which of course hampers the updating of these buildings so that they can be enjoyed with the benefits that technology can bring. This is not to suggest that we should recklessly damage the fabric of our buildings but merely to suggest that we adapt them to the 21st century.

The Italians, who have probably more historical buildings per square mile than we do in Britain, have few inhibitions about blending the old and new. Hence seeing a Floss or Artemide fitting in a Palazzo would be seen as a natural design decision. I should of course note that dealing with the Italian equivalent of our planning departments is every bit as difficult as in the UK.

That brings me in particular to the aspect of lighting within listed buildings and here I have to generalise as there are many different types of buildings of different architectural styles.

In general, however, the planning officer will wish to maintain the fabric of the building and the historical context of the building. So if a room has no ceiling lights they are unlikely to approve the installation of such lighting. (There are exceptions mainly relating to kitchens and bathrooms.) On the other hand, if there is a central pendant this can be maintained and it is the client's choice as to what to install.

Similarly there are listed buildings that have electric wall lights - presumably added before the property was listed. These too can be maintained. However the ability to design from scratch such that new fittings are installed so as not to disturb the fabric of the building is severely curtailed.

This is not all bad news. It is a challenge worth rising to meet and the development of LED has increased the possibilities enormously. LED, being available in a variety of forms from strip to tiny spotlights as well as of course replacing GLS bulbs, can be used in a variety of ways to provide lighting effects that are beautiful and add interest to any interior.


So, where can light come from?

First it is important not to neglect daylight. This seems obvious but I suspect that it is easily overlooked when considering the type, quantity and positioning of artificial lighting. The orientation of the room is a critical factor here as rooms facing south will have much more natural light which itself will need to be controlled. Conversely, north facing rooms may be gloomy and will require additional artificial light particularly in the depths of winter.

Silent Gliss Roller Blinds
Roller Blinds from Silent Gliss

Whilst not strictly relevant to this article, sunlight is ruinous to fabrics, carpets and furniture and should ideally be excluded completely when a room is not in use. The Georgians understood this and closed their rooms when not in use which is why we have wonderfully preserved paintings and furniture from this period. We favour roller blinds to control the amount of sunlight in the room and to protect the furnishings.

Artificial light can come broadly from three distinct areas - ceiling, walls or floor. It can also come from portable table lamps or spotlights. If all possibility of light from the ceiling is ruled out in terms of installed fittings, we can still use the ceiling to reflect light downwards.

Lancia LED Light Egoluce
Lancia wall or ceiling light from Egoluce

We can either bounce light from the floor or walls depending upon the possibilities. The Lancia wall light from Egoluce of Italy can be used for this purpose. Such lighting needs to be done with care as it can have a "flattening" effect if applied uniformly. Whilst this type of fitting appears very modern, its primary purpose is to deliver light.

LED Candle Lamp Girard Sudron

If the ceiling already has a pendant point this can be reused. Care in selecting the correct fitting is critical. We are not great lovers of exposed lamps but in the case of chandeliers we make an exception provided they are fitted with the smallest LED "candle" lamp available such as those from Girard Sudron. There is no place, in our

view, for lamps bigger than this in a decorative chandelier.

Whether a traditional or modern fitting is selected it should be of appropriate size and scale for the room into which it is being placed. Something that is too small will get lost within the space whilst something that is too large may dominate and detract.

Fil de Fer Catellani & Smith
Fil de Fer from Catellani & Smith

If the walls are to be used, there is a myriad of fittings available from the traditional through to the very modern. We would prefer wall light points to be utilised for picture lights where possible, assuming of course that there are pictures worth lighting. This not only highlights the art but provides background light as the starting point for the overall scheme.

Francesca Wall Light Catellani & Smith
Francesca Wall Light from Catellani & Smith

As a further alternative to conventional wall lights, why not combine light with sculpture? A perfect example of this are some of the fittings from Catellani and Smith of Italy. Using small LED fittings set into an object, light appears to shimmer. Their use of gold or silver leaf adds to the impact, creating a fabulous effect. If this approach is taken, care must be exercised such that the fittings are placed so as to be a feature in their own right.

Light from the floor can be provided in a number of ways. A freestanding uplight is one of the best options as this enables light to be placed where it is needed and has the flexibility of being moveable. The drawback is trailing cables. An alternative is to use miniature spotlights fixed to skirtings or walls behind furniture.

Palco spotlight iGuzzini
Palco spotlight from iGuzzini

So for example, the application of tiny spot lights at floor level could put a narrow beam of light behind furniture where the fitting can not be seen but allows a gentle wash of light to illuminate the walls.

LED strip can also be used to great effect within bookcases and shelves as can tiny cabinet lights that will light objects and provide additional background lighting within the room.


Flexible Elements

So far we have looked at fixed light fittings . We can of course add a myriad of different light fittings that are flexible. There are numerous options available - far too many to list - that will provide the finishing touches of lighting to a room.


Making it work

There are therefore a number of ways of dealing with listed spaces. Most of what has been suggested so far is aimed at dealing with the existing fabric of the space such that damage is not done to lath and plaster ceilings or walls. It is in these respects that the listing officer may be particularly critical. So if we can where possible avoid extra cabling we will save cost and keep the listing officer happy.

Unfortunately this does not solve the problem of control. If no new cables are added to control the various circuits and if we do not wish to have to switch on individual light fittings one by one then a solution must be found. Fortunately wifi and Bluetooth control systems exist such that all of the fittings in the room may be controlled from a suitable switch by the door or indeed an iOS or Android device. The lighting can then be treated as layers and a number of different scenes can be set to achieve differing moods or for different occasions.



With imagination and some technical application listed buildings may not be the challenge that they appear to be at first. Thinking beyond the purely traditional will provide a rich catalogue of possibilities and the results will be far from mundane.


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