Technical Lighting Help

Switch Placement

Photo by Andrea Davis on

When my wife and I were first married back in the Paleolithic Age, we rented half of a duplex in Shaker Heights, OH. To turn on the light that illuminated the pantry area of the kitchen, you had to slide your hand sideways between the wall and the refrigerator side. The switch was located unusually high on the wall surface and access was only achieved via fingertips. Clearly, not the best placement, but in a century old home, light switches were often placed in peculiar, inconsistent spots.

I recalled this after publishing my last blog on sconce use. A friend dropped me a note after reading my comments about using them in bedrooms, rather than bed lamps. He didn’t mind the idea, but has always felt the switches are placed in inconvenient locations, requiring the skills of a contortionist to activate or reenergize the lighting from a lying position.

He is right. As designers we must design good lighting that performs well and functions in accordance with need. Part of that functionality is adequate access to switching. As a designer, do you plan the switch placement? Do you actively discuss switch placement and preference with clients? If not, you should.

In the midst of thinking about my friend’s input, I went to see the movie, “Living.” Aside from the incredible performance by Bill Nighy, I took note of the alternate light switch placement represented in English homes of the 1950s. English light switches are substantially higher up the wall than a typical North American home. As the actors moved through the movie, they effortlessly and with little conscious thought, engaged the controls. Regardless of who we are in the world, we must interact with lighting with the least amount of effort. That occurs when designers think about it first.

Switches? We Don’t Need No Stinking Switches!

Considering lighting controls moving into the future, it might actually be less of an issue. As home automation increases, I’m not really seeing a long-term need for wall-mounted controls and all of the extra wiring needed to connect them. Were I “Carnac the Magnificent” (look it up) I’d suggest the answer to, “Reduced new home construction, energy savings and increased convenience,” is, “Why will there be no more light switches in new homes?”

Think about it. A small module is connected in the outlet box between the house wires and the luminaire. It is assigned a digital name and voice activation takes over from there. “Google, turn off bedside sconce left.” Diming instructions and even establishing an activation time can be programed into the module. Walking into a dark room will no longer be needed. Lights left on in unoccupied spaced will no longer waste electricity. They will shut off once everyone leaves the area. Seniors will no longer fall on their way to the bathroom (a huge concern for an aging population.) In the future I expect light switches to go the way of iPods, the Blackberry and Flip Cameras. Like all of these antiquated pieces of tech, they will be replaced with your smart phone.

Until Then

Admittedly, switches still have a few more years of use and some people will nostalgically demand their use, despite their upcoming impotence. While we wait for the next trolley, think about switch placement:

  • Where is the best location for placement?
  • In a bank of switches, which switch is first, second and third, etc.?
  • Will standard height placement work, or should this particular switch be located in a different spot for better function?
  • Do I want or need a dimmer here?
  • Will the addition of a motion activated switch or an occupancy sensor switch improve function, user experience or performance here?

A few questions and the sound thoughts all good designers and engineers put into product application and the user will never think about it. That is, after all, the goal of every good designer and product engineer, effortless uncomplicated use.

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