How To Guides

Creating a Lighting System for a House of Worship - Part 1

May 06, 2009

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EDWIN RAMBUSCHSt. Margaret Mary by Rambusch Company

The lighting of a house of worship is a critical process that can often lead to the success or failure of a liturgical environment, regardless of whether it is a new space or the renovation of an existing space. It is important to keep in mind that while a sacred space is used as a place for the faith community to gather, the building is also an architectural space – and each has different needs. The architecture of a building requires highlighting and support to enhance its beauty, but, at the same time, the liturgical element requires sufficient lighting so the worshipers can read in comfort and otherwise feel fully engaged in the experience. Certain areas of prominence need to be brought into focus and flexibility must be considered in order to accommodate the various liturgical needs.

When considering a lighting system for a house of worship, most important is that the space should radiate an inviting and spiritual atmosphere. The most difficult part of deciding on a good lighting system is that the evaluation process is a very personal one in that people’s response to light and lighting varies and difficult to articulate. The following suggestions are an effort to convey ideas that may assist in formulating lighting plans for a sacred space. What is described here is a lighting standard, followed by a closer examination of the elements that can aid in successfully reaching lighting goals.

Liturgy accent exampleOn entering the space…

Notice that the ceiling illumination is brighter than that over the staging area and/or the seats (whether pews or chairs), the altar, and the tabernacle. This scene invites the worshiper to come in for a moment of private reflection. It is peaceful and uplifting.

As the presiding minister and other liturgical ministers begin to process up the aisle, the lighting shifts smoothly to a higher level on the pews and in the sanctuary area but dims to a soft glow on the ceiling.

The congregation can now begin to participate actively in the celebration and can read from their hymnals without difficulty.

The celebration…

As the presiding minister and others lead the ceremonies/rituals from the presider’s chair, ambo, and altar, brighter pools of light accentuate the action so that the assembly can enter into the liturgical action.

The end of the celebration…

When the worship service ends, the presider and others process down the aisle and, after a few moments, the lighting dims over the sanctuary area, while the seating area and ceiling are once again enhanced, fostering contemplative, quiet prayer and reflection.

Basic Solution(s):

Flexible Lighting System…

The above description outlines the beginning of a study of a flexible lighting system intended to support the actions during a ritual celebration. A flexible lighting system not only enhances a space but also increases the interest of the members of the assembly to help them become more fully aware of the Liturgy decorative examplesacredness of the event.

Engineered Lighting Fixtures…

There are 5 types of engineered lighting fixtures to reach your goal: (1) downlights; (2) uplights; (3) accent lights; (4) wall washers; and (5) decorative lighting.

The Building…

A number of elements must be present within the building in order to create a successful, flexible lighting system: (1) The building itself must conform to the intent of the service; and (2) if the space is not suitable to the action, then revisions are necessary before planning a lighting program.

Lighting System…

Once the appropriate building is available and the client has an understanding of the types of fixtures that are available, one can begin to form a lighting plan. The greater the types of light in the plan, the greater will be the flexibility of the system and the capability of meeting the needs of the various and extensive events that will occur in the space.

Glare is the greatest challenge! Glare is not only a distraction, but it is expensive to eliminate or reduce because corrections required to offset the problem add to the expense of the program.

Dimming System…

As we proceed with this lighting process, we will discuss the importance of installing a dimming system that is useful for:

» Adjusting the amount of illumination emanating from the fixtures;
» Creating scenes for liturgical and special events;
» Supporting the mood you are trying to establish;
» Extending the life of the lamps, and
» Containing all the lighting switches within one box.

The specifics of a dimming system are outlined in Part 2 of this series under “Layers of Light” and “Channeling the Light.”

Balance the Lighting…Balanced lighting

In subsequent articles, we will also pursue the need to balance different types of light so that they harmonize with each other and the space itself. This balance affects the viewer’s visual response to the elements within the space and within the building itself. Also of importance are: (1) ratio of lighting; (2) layers of light; and (3) precognitive thinking.

Finally, stay tuned as we address some of the “green” questions that are emerging in today’s world. How can we create a lighting system for a house of worship that is guided by conservation but that may not satisfy our bodies and our minds? Also to be reviewed: (1) color; (2) lamp sources; (3) building systems; (4) campus designs; and (5) system efficiency.

Edwin P. Rambusch is a project manager at Rambusch Company, New York City, New York, with an emphasis in custom and restoration projects.


Creating a Lighting System for a House of Worship:  Part 2 and Part 3

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