Lighting the way

Richard McLane of Bisca Staircases discusses various lighting options to bear in mind when designing a feature staircase, and why you should consult a specialist lighting designer as well as an architect to get it right.

Astaircase is the central spine of your home, linking spaces and .people together. It should be functional, and fit perfectly in its environment. Even the best and most beautiful designs, showcased in a poorly lit space, can become featureless.

Light is key to how a space looks and feels, when designed and executed carefully artificial lighting creates an ambience but done badly, it can be stark, gloomy and unwelcoming.

Today’s open plan living has rendered single room lighting schemes redundant to a degree. Contemporary properties with double or triple height spaces and large glazed areas really benefit from the experience of a professional lighting designer who can create schemes based on focal points, sight lines, features and functions.

Lighting on a staircase can dramatically change the aesthetics not only of a staircase itself, but also of the area surrounding the staircase. It is worth exploring all options and ensuring it works with the overall lighting scheme in a property before fully committing.

The main question to ask when considering the options is what are you trying to achieve with light? Your answer will most likely fall into one or more of the following categories.


Area light should blend in with light levels in the surrounding area and provide safe, ‘navigable’ lighting levels on the staircase itself. This will also enable the staircase to be visible when its surroundings are dark – something to consider if the property is open plan.

Area light can be achieved using halogen or LED lights, either on or in the walls, ceiling or soffit above to illuminate the entire stairwell. A large number of small units give a more even light and allows the light fittings themselves to be unobtrusively recessed, emphasising the light rather than its source. Artificial light can make a big difference even in an area with an abundance of natural light.

Where light is limited in the stairwell artificial light is even more important and can totally change the look and feel of the hallway.


Feature lighting can be in the form of a chandelier or stylish drop pendant light, which looks fantastic hung down the centre of the stairwell. This can create a ‘wow’ factor as well as illuminating the whole area.

You can create or continue a mood with washes of colour to complement the decor or the ambient light. Use small lamps set into the walls beside the treads, LED strips set into the undersides of the tread noses or even use of bold colours to make a statement.


To light a glass staircase, LED strips can be set under glass treads or fibre optics can be positioned from the side. Treads themselves can be grit-blasted or acid- etched so that they scatter and diffuse the light and take on an overall glow. Colour-changing LEDs are available, with adjustable light intensity to achieve the desired effect.

Small lights can also be set into the wall beside glass treads, shining into and through the glass, and being reflected around the inside to make the entire tread shine.


It’s a good idea to use recessed LED strip lights if timber or stone treads are hard up to a wall, or cantilevered from it. The LED strips can be recessed into the wall to emphasise the line of the steps and diffuse light across the treads and risers. However, a note of caution: this type of LED strip should not take the place of area lighting as the effects are not spread evenly across the treads and will not enable the user to see what they need to for safe navigation.


Spotlights can be recessed into the wall or stringer alongside the stair to highlight individual treads. This effect is often more about the light itself than about illuminating the staircase. This option must be considered carefully, as any light that uses a reflector can dazzle people walking up the stairs or passing by with the light at eye level.


As well as being decorative wall lights can add warmth and a welcoming touch to a hallway, for a more dramatic impact create a series of niches and sit miniature lights within.

Embedding LED lighting in a recessed handrail provides a feature both upstairs and down.


The underside of stairs can be a dark forgotten space, so it’s advisable to focus on adding lighting here too. Uplighters can create interesting shapes and patterns on the walls.

Maintenance should also be considered as part of the design. Today’s LEDs, in the main, are durable and long lasting; however, it’s worth thinking about access to how bulbs/units will be changed if and when they fail. If incorrectly designed and wrongly specified, then the whole staircase can become live when units fail. Glare and angle of light are important to consider as if they are too bright lights can become a safety hazard.

Also don’t forget about utilising as much natural light as is available. Specifying open treads, glass balustrades and even setting a staircase slightly away from the wall all help to facilitate the maximum flow of light throughout the stairwell. Done properly and safely, staircase lighting can be extremely effective and like staircases – it’s always better to enlist the advice of a specialist.

Richard McLane is design director of Bisca Staircases