EXIT sign in gold letters above a doorway
Grade I St George's Hall, Liverpool, Merseyside © Ken Biggs / Alamy Stock Photo See the St George's Hall entry on The List
Grade I St George's Hall, Liverpool, Merseyside © Ken Biggs / Alamy Stock Photo See the St George's Hall entry on The List

Emergency Lighting and Exit Signage

It's now common practice to consider emergency lighting and exit signs for any building used or visited by the public. Being unfamiliar with the internal space layout, visitors may need help to safely make their way out of the building in the case of mains failure or emergency.

Design considerations

When considering emergency lighting and exit signage for a historic building it's unlikely that a conventional approach will result in an acceptable design. Listed buildings can be very challenging. There is no 'one solution fits all' since there's no such thing as a typical heritage building.

When a listed building is used by the public and you've decided that emergency lighting is needed, first establish whether a permanent installation is necessary.

The answer to this is often 'no', especially when public events are only held sporadically at the building in question. Many listed churches are only occasionally used as musical or theatre venues. The associated cost, the physical intervention into the historic fabric or the visual impact of an emergency and exit signage installation, may not be justifiable.

It's perfectly legitimate to have simple free-standing, plug-in or solar-powered, floor-standing LED units providing the escape lighting. These can be brought in on an 'as-needed' basis. These units can also incorporate 'running man' exit signs if needed. They can be made as sophisticated as required to suit a highly ornate interior but they can also be a simple wooden frame.

Also, design decisions should take into account that some listed buildings have no electrical supply and still use gas lighting or candles. As an alternative these locations can use either:

  • solar-powered units, as described above, or
  • photo-luminescent safety signage which provides 24 hours of bright illumination within five minutes of a change in normal lighting conditions.

Alternatively, you can use trained staff who are familiar with the internal layout of the building, and who are on hand to guide visitors out. This approach is used in some large listed houses that open for night time events. This arrangement will only comply with health and safety regulations if you have sufficient numbers of staff, with the necessary knowledge, to provide the required ratio of staff to visitors. All hazards must be identified beforehand.

However where listed churches are regularly used for non-ecclesiastical events and the church’s aim is to make its building a centre for community events (an initiative which is on the increase), it may be cost effective and desirable to have a permanent installation. If this is the case then it's important in any listed building interior to make this installation as discreet as possible.

The best way of achieving this is to have integral emergency packs installed in the space lighting where ever possible. Use discreet locations such as placing the emergency lighting at low level or within door reveals and consider installing ‘building-specific’ exit signage. Installing a lot of standard green 'running man' exit signs creates visual clutter to a heritage interior, especially when that interior is highly ornate or decorated.

These ‘building-specific’ exit signs can take the form of a non-standard design that better suits the interior or an exit sign that only appears when there is a mains failure. The latter would be the ideal compromise, invisible when not needed and illuminating the exits when it is.

Listed building consent

When a decision to install emergency and exit signage has been made, before any work is carried out, permission for these works must be granted by the local authority conservation officer. In the case of Grade I and Grade II* buildings this must be in consultation with Historic England. In the case of churches a faculty must be applied for via the appropriate diocese.

Conservation principles

As well as getting the necessary permissions, there are other issues that must be considered when working within a listed building. When installing any lighting into a heritage structure you must stick to the principles of reversibility so that no part of the installation leaves a permanent scar. This means using methods like only fixing into mortar joints and not the brick or stone and using mounting pattresses where you need to locate fixing points.

Historic England supports the use of modern technology and contemporary fittings where appropriate. Wherever possible we encourage the use of low energy LED lamps.

Learn more

View the recording of the 2020 webinar: Building services: emergency lighting and exit signage.

This webinar provides a brief overview of the preferred approach to emergency lighting; where it should be located and what lighting levels should be aimed for. The webinar also covers the types of exit signs most compatible with heritage interiors and the use of non-standard illuminated signage.

For the best webinar experience, please use Google Chrome browser or download Adobe Connect.

There is also an article in the Institution of Lighting Professionals' Lighting Journal.