An Architect’s Guide To: Recessed Lighting

Discover the subtle science of recessed lighting.

Architizer Editors Architizer Editors

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Emanating out from a hollow opening in a ceiling, wall or floor, recessed lighting is a popular form of architectural lighting that can be specified across a wide range of typologies. However, from selecting the fixture all the way to positioning it on-site, it is both a subtle and complicated aspect of design for architects to perfect.

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Recessed Lighting

Auditorium AZ Groeninge by Dehullu Architecten features exterior recessed wall lighting by Delta Light

This week, Architizer spoke with Matt Schroeder and Ethan Gordon of Delta Light, who work with architects to harness impeccable lighting throughout the entire lifecycle of their projects. “Lighting is one of those things that is very noticeable when done well, but can really wreck a project when it isn’t,” said Schroeder. “What we do is help architects lay out lighting based on their floor plan and make sure that they have the correct spacing, output and color temperature.”

“It’s important to remember that recessed lighting is just one portion of the broader spectrum of architectural lighting,” said Schroeder. In most cases, you will want to specify a variety of different lighting types and fixtures, as this will result in multiple layers of light. By doing so, you can create contrast and visual interest, and avoid a space that looks bland or stark.

Recessed Lighting

Private residence by features recessed lighting by Delta Light; image via Delta Light

Recessed Lighting Components

While there are many types of recessed lighting on the market, “today it’s most appropriate to talk exclusively about integrated LED recessed lighting. There are still territories that will allow you to use non-LED lights, but they are dwindling very quickly.”

With that in mind, “there are three portions to any recessed lighting product; however, the nomenclature isn’t always good or consistent,” said Schroeder. “There is the driver or power supply, the structural component called the housing and finally, the light engine or trim — the portion of the product that is visible and actually creates light. With integrated LEDs there are no longer bulbs; that becomes an antiquated term. Now, LED boards are completely integral to the product itself, which allows for a much more minimalistic installation.”

Although this makes replacing the light source a bit more challenging, integrated LED lights last about 20 times the length of a classic A9 lamp. With a minimum of 50,000 hour rating, integrated LEDs will typically have a lifespan of over 20 years in any primary residence.

Power Supply: Sometimes referred to as the driver, the power supply is the “magic box that transforms electricity from main voltage into whatever the fixture itself requires.” Lighting manufacturers will be able to direct you towards an appropriate power supply, depending on the fixture that you select.

Housing: Sometimes referred to as the rough-in, the housing is the portion of the light fixture that lives behind the ceiling and holds the trim or the light engine in place. The appropriate housing type can be a little difficult to parse out, but is largely dependent on the amount and nature of the space that is available around where the light fixture will be installed; lighting manufacturers will be well versed in guiding this selection.

One important aspect to note is that the clearance required for a traditional, non-LED recessed light can be 6 inches or more while an integrated-LED often requires only 3 inches. With architects constantly looking to maximize space, this detail serves as an additional motive for harnessing integrated LEDs.

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M by Stefano Lorusso features recessed lighting by Delta Light; image via Delta Light

Trim: The trim is the visible portion of the light and therefore possesses some of the greatest potential for harnessing aesthetics. “Some manufacturers work with brass, stainless steel and even plastic, but the majority of the higher-end products — about 90% — are aluminum.” Some of the most common trim styles are:

  • Baffle Trims: Baffle trims are the most popular among recessed lighting and perform very well in residential spaces. Baffle trims feature large uniform grooves that are specially designed to absorb any excess light and effectively reduce glare. Commonly available in black and white, black baffles greatly reduce the amount of glare from the light while white baffles eliminate the appearance of having dark holes in the ceiling, wall or floor.
  • Reflector Trims: Reflector trims harness a highly polished smooth interior in order to maximize the amount of light emitted by the fixture. As a result, reflector trims are very common in kitchens and as well as commercial spaces where there are very high ceilings.
  • Wall Washed Trims: Wall washed trims combine reflector trims with a “scoop” that directs light towards the wall. Wall washers are typically placed 18 to 24-inches from the wall and are used to spread light across a large vertical surface. When light bounces off a vertical surface and into a room, it creates a beautiful sense of illumination general illumination. 


Size: Traditionally, 3-inch and 5-inch recessed lights are some of the most common dimensions. However, this standard was historically tied to the fact that lighting manufacturers were relying on halogen bulbs. While LEDs have mimicked that standard, “you can actually achieve any dimension under the sun,” said Schroeder.

Today, many manufacturers also offer one inch pinhole lights. This is because at the high-end level, architects and homeowners are looking for architectural lighting to disappear. “They want to see light illuminate from nowhere,” said Schroeder.

Shape: Square and round profiles are the most common shapes among recessed lighting, though endless custom profiles are also possible. For further inspiration on recessed linear profiles, check out Architizer’s collection, On Track: 5 Stunning Projects Built With Linear Lighting.

Finish: Whether you are working with a baffle or reflector trim, some of the most common finishing options are antique, satin, polished, chrome, brushed, painted and stained.


One of the most common misconceptions associated with recessed lighting is that if a light isn’t performing properly, it’s a problem with the fixture itself. According to Schroeder, “that’s not always true. When you’re installing LED lights with a dimmer, for example, the power supply must communicate with the dimmer and the dimmer must communicate with a larger control system. If those components speak two different languages, they are never going to be able to work together.”

The problem is that “LEDs have used all sorts of grandfathered dimming styles that were created for different technologies, like fluorescent, halogen and incandescent bulbs.” When LEDs became popular, “there was no standardization,” with regards to matching an appropriate power supply with the housing and trim. From an architect’s point of view, it’s important to pay attention to these different technologies; otherwise, “the lights are going to flicker, strobe and be very slow to turn on. They’re going to act very strangely” Therefore, when you are thinking about the performance of your lighting, make sure that you are facilitating proper communication between all of the different parts.

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Guy Pieters Gallery features Superdome, Grid In Trimless and You-Turn recessed lighting by Delta Light; image via Delta Light

Dimmers: Dimmers can be used with the majority of recessed lighting products and can also contribute to lower energy usage throughout the day.

Energy Efficiency: “Energy efficiency wise, you can’t really get more cutting edge than LED,” said Schroeder. “Every year for the past four years, Delta Light fixtures have boosted in output by about 20% and dropped in consumption by 20%. If you just look at downlights, Delta Light can now offer 950 lumens per 10 watts when three years ago, we were only at 300 lumens per 8 watts. Manufacturers of LED boards are constantly making new advancements in terms of efficiency.”

IC-Rated or Non-IC-Rated: An insulation contact (IC) rating indicates whether or not a fixture can come in direct contact with the building’s thermal insulation. IC-rated recessed lighting can withstand heat buildup and therefore, be freely installed in insulated ceilings. Non-IC-rated fixtures can be installed in areas where a ceiling does not contain insulation and should always be kept at least 3-inches away from any insulation.

According to Schroeder, “the greatest enemy of a lighting designer is not another lighting designer; it’s no lighting designer at all. What we hope to see in the future is advancement in education as far as specifying architectural lighting. It’s a very subtle science, and a very important one” that deeply affects the end result of a project.

Case Studies

Zaha Hadid Architects: Masters of Recessed Lighting

The late Zaha Hadid, founder of the world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects, was a revolutionary designer who was often decades ahead of her contemporaries. Once dubbed the “Queen of the Curve,” she developed an extraordinarily expressive style of architecture, distinguished by its sculptural façades and sinuous interiors. Although typically constructed of concrete, steel and glass, it was her masterful handling of light that ultimately brought these otherworldly buildings to life.

On Track: 5 Stunning Projects Built With Linear Lighting

Lighting solutions come in many shapes and sizes, from the traditionally surface mounted solutions to pendant or sconce fixtures. The projects included in this collection each call for crisp lines and smooth planes achieved through recessed linear lights.

Search for Recessed Lighting Manufacturers

Our esteemed jury is now reviewing the submissions for this year's A+Product Awards. Stay tuned for the winner's announcement later this summer. 

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