Tips for Lighting Stairwells
Stairs may need plenty of light, but they also present precarious places for changing bulbs.
Randall, I still see electricians and architects placing recessed cans in the middle of stairways. It is very difficult for homeowners to replace the lamps once they burn out, even using long poles designed for that purpose. On a number of occasions, I have seen the base of a lamp broken off in the socket after using one of these devices. As a lighting designer and electrician myself, I always recommend that a hanging fixture be used instead or to use a can or two at the landing of the stairway for ease of lamp replacement. Is this the best way to light these areas?
This is a very good question that hasn’t been asked before in this column. I do see this situation all the time, and it is not the best way to light the stairs. Just as they do in hallways, recessed downlight fixtures tend to make the space seem narrower than it actually is. Like you have suggested, I prefer hanging fixtures or wall sconces, which are much easier to reach for maintenance purposes. If the stairway is narrow, use an ADA-approved wall sconce (there are plenty out there, and all project 4 inches or fewer from the wall) or one that is actually recessed into the wall, such as Belfer Lighting’s Reflex Series. Pendants hanging from chains or cords work well for sloped ceilings. You could also use step lights, although I do feel that they can be too commercial looking. But if your customers prefer this option, install them at 12 to 18 inches on center above the stair tread and 3 to 4 feet apart. A few recessed adjustable fixtures (located above the landing for easier relamping) could be directed toward art and add visual interest to what is normally a pass-through area. In fact, the stairway is a great spot for illuminated family photos. I would start with the baby pictures at the bottom of the stairs and then work your way up chronologically to the present day: Maybe people won’t be so surprised by what you look like now once they have seen all that you have been through.
Randall Whitehead lighting designer
Randall Whitehead, IALD

Randall Whitehead, IALD, is a professional lighting designer and author. His books include "Residential Lighting, A Practical Guide." Whitehead has worked on projects worldwide, appeared on the Discovery Channel, HGTV and CNN, and he is regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Visit his website for more information on books, upcoming seminars and the latest lighting trends.

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