Lighting Apartment Corridors

Five ways to solve a common area conundrum.

Residents race from the sidewalk through the lobby and past mailboxes, dog walkers and neighbors to their apartments, giving little thought to the lighting that guides them from door to door, helps to keep them secure, and creates a sense of identity for the building. Developers and property managers, on the other hand, are increasingly aware of the value of quality lighting for the public spaces in their properties.

In competitive multifamily markets, the public space programs for top new developments are remarkably similar: lobby, amenity space, roof deck, fire pit and pool. These are well lit, signature spaces that reinforce brand identity and help to attract and keep tenants.

The other public space that is attracting fresh attention is the corridor. Expectations for the corridors are high, as they are the natural extension of the lobby and can be as important in representing the image and quality of the property. Yet these small spaces present design and maintenance challenges.

First, there is the simple physical limitation of the space—long, relatively narrow, often with low ceiling heights and exacerbated by the need to house dense mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Using the space above the corridor ceiling to house the building infrastructure may allow for higher ceilings in the residences, but this approach constrains heights in the halls which, in turn, limits lighting choices.

From a technical standpoint, energy consumption and lamp life are concerns with corridor lighting on a 24-hour demand.  New building codes limit wattage allowed on a square foot basis, and as the corridor is a relatively small area, the wattage allowance at 0.5 watts per square foot is less than the other public areas.

Maintaining the lighting is also a concern for the property management team. How easily can a fixture be cleaned and the lamp changed, and how will it wear with passage of people and their belongings over time? Lighting layouts are typically planned to meet minimal requirements so that if one light source burns out, it is very obvious that making quick and easy replacement is a priority.

Unlike most spaces, the light in corridors is experienced vertically rather than horizontally. Illuminating walls, door entrances and artwork yields a much better perception of light as measured on the vertical surfaces. In addition, consider that corridor sconces are appreciated from the side so the profile of a fixture is an important view.

While lighting designers speak of light levels in foot-candles and watts per square foot, what matters are the ratios of the bright areas and dark areas. Uniform lighting levels are associated with offices or institutional spaces. One way to upgrade or de-institutionalize a space with light is to create contrast.

Accenting features such as doors and art or using lighting fixtures that have a visible brightness will create contrast. In fact, “art” doesn’t need to be actual art; it can be a feature material, even painted drywall that holds interest on a vertical plane.

With lots of options to choose from, potential tenants are taking a hard look at the quality and ambience of the entire property right down to the halls. Thoughtful, well-planned lighting can brighten the prospects of winning and keeping a happy resident.

Five ways to improve corridor lighting

Light unit doors. The door is the resident’s destination. Lighting at the door is important to help establish individuality of the unit entry and create a personalized sense of space for the resident. This principle is true especially if the budget allows for handsome wood doors and quality hardware—light it for effect.

Mix it up. Use at least two light source types: a ceiling mounted fixture and sconces or linear lighting cove. Two types will automatically create interest and contrast.

Mock it up. Photometric numbers on a sheet don’t always make sense to the non-designer. Sconce lights will always tell more when illuminated than in a drawing.  Test the lighting design solution using the proposed finishes in a sample bay with a mock-up. Compare color temperature, shading or lenses with the actual materials—wallpaper, paint or wood paneling, as all will read differently with the same light source.

Go vertical. Downlights light the floor, which makes them an ineffective choice for a corridor unless they are lighting the door. It is more important to illuminate walls and ceilings. This can be accomplished by using coves, sconces and glowing ceiling mounted fixtures.

Think long-term. Pricing for decorative fixtures can vary greatly, and it can be tempting to cut costs in the corridor. What are the longer-term trade-offs? Less expensive fixtures can result in a lower quality of internal components that are not visible such as ballasts, drivers and transformers. If these elements fail or have a poor warranty, replacement can be costly especially with multiple fixtures.

Maureen Moran is the owner and managing principal of MCLA Architectural Lighting Design based in Washington, D.C. The firm works with developers and property owners on a range of projects from multifamily residential to historic preservation.