The Challenges of a Low Ceiling - Part 3: Lighting

Posted on Jun 1, 2022 4:50:00 PM

Is your Church considering purchasing or renovating a space with low ceilings to use as a primary Worship Space? Here are some of the Lighting challenges involved along with the approaches we take to mitigate these factors during the Design Process. We hope this casts some light (get it??) and provides the resources that you and your team need to be informed during future conversations.

Whether you’re considering a New Construction or Full Renovation project, there are two primary Lighting Systems that work together to light the room - House Lighting and Stage Lighting.

House Lighting

In projects where the ceilings are low, house lighting can quickly become a challenge. In most scenarios, you start the design process by determining the square footage of the space and then determining how many fixtures are required to provide enough light to cover the room. In sanctuaries where fixtures are 20ft+ in the air, the “throw” of the light fixtures (the size/pattern of light that actually reaches the floor) overlaps with the adjacent fixtures, creating a nice blend of light throughout the space. 

When using cheaper, less powerful fixtures in a product line, the beams may need to overlap more so that any spot on the ground receives ample light from multiple sources. The alternative approach is to increase the power of each fixture in order to reduce the overall number of physical lights required. Generally, this is the most cost-effective route since it reduces the total number of fixtures as well as the wiring, control, etc. It’s not uncommon to use extremely bright fixtures overhead, but this approach only works when you have the vertical height necessary.

The Low-Ceiling Challenge

When the fixtures are much closer to the floor, the beams of light from the fixtures create much smaller patterns. For example, in a room where the roof is at 14ft,  and the low steel or drop ceiling is at 12ft, the bottom of the house lighting fixture would generally be hung as close to 12ft as possible. The higher the fixture, the larger the radius that can be covered. If the fixtures are installed with the same spacing and grid pattern as the example above, there would be massive dark spots because the fixtures are not high enough to overlap. In some cases, there are options to purchase a wide-throw lens for the lighting fixture that helps create a wider throw, but because the light is being spread further, the wider spread reduces the intensity of the light level across the circle. As a result, more powerful fixtures will be required to maintain an even lighting level. The second, and sometimes the only truly viable option, is to increase the number of fixtures. Unfortunately, there are occasions where the height simply doesn’t allow for uniform coverage and brightness without a large number of fixtures.

As an additional note, it is important to remember why proper House Lighting is critically important. In the event of an emergency, House Lighting allows everyone to exit quickly. If House Lighting at full, 100% brightness is underpowered or inconsistent, this can lead to tripping hazards. In fact, most Public Exhibition Spaces are required by code to provide house lighting systems capable of certain brightness levels for emergency situations.

Stage Lighting

The second lighting challenge for low ceilings is illuminating the Pastor, Band, and Worship Team on stage. Many of the issues are the same; however, instead of aiming down like House Lights, the fixtures are aimed more horizontally at the stage.

Mathematically, Stage Lighting is all about Throw Distance and Down Angle. Since the primary goal of a Stage Lighting plot is to create an even distribution of light where it is needed, we must balance fixture placement and quantity. The smaller the total Throw Distance (from fixture to subject), the more fixtures are required to distribute light evenly across the area. Wide-angle lenses can help, but when total distances are already small, the improvement is proportionately small as well.

The Down Angle is also critically important. If a fixture is pointed straight down at 90°, it only creates a “halo” effect on the head and shoulders and does not light the face at all. As angle is reduced, more light hits the face and the front of the torso. However, if the angle is reduced too much, the person on stage will be staring directly into a lighting fixture. To strike a balance, Front Wash Fixtures are generally hung with a down angle between 25° - 40°. This allows the light to cover the person on stage, keeps the fixture from being directly in his/her eyes, and reduces shadows cast onto the face by glasses, headset microphones, etc.

Stage Lighting Positions

With the target angle decided and the maximum mounting height known, there is a small range of where the fixture can be located physically. Realistically, there is very little wiggle room on fixture placement with a low ceiling. If a fixture is moved towards the stage, the angle becomes too steep. If it is moved farther away from the stage (perhaps to create a wider throw and reduce the number of fixtures), the angle becomes too low and is uncomfortable to look at/through.

Even when utilizing wide-angle lenses, the end result often requires more fixtures than would generally be required if there was additional vertical clearance. However, the cost of raising the roofline is always more expensive than a few more lighting fixtures

To find out how we can help your church redesign an existing space or begin planning for a new building, Contact Us. We would love to connect with you.