three doors demonstrating three styles of porchlights. The first is a standard light, described as "Glare, Slip, & Waste." The second is a lantern with light shooting out the top and bottom, described as "Safe & Waste." The third is a modified version of the first with most of the light directed downwards to the path. This is described as "Glow, Safe, & Wonder."

1THING: New Build Front Porches

I go on a nightly neighborhood lighting patrol. Sort of.

When our family divvied up the dog duties, I drew the just-before-bed nightly walk. Albus, our 9-year-old cockapoo, gamely trots around the block while I curse the neighborhood porchlights.

Okay, I do not curse the porchlights. But I do wonder how my neighbors would react if I dropped a little note in their mailbox politely requesting that they update their outdoor lighting. I have even considered offering my immediate neighbors new lighting at no charge. Why? Because most porch lights are picked for style, not substance. And, as you can guess from reading other blog posts, most light fixtures are absolutely horrible at… light.

So today, in a continuation of my 1THING: New Build series, I make my choice for better front porch lighting. I considered recessed downlights, but those are best for sweeping the porch floor and I am highly unlikely to ever be found with a broom in my hand after dark. I considered lanterns that hang over the front door, but those are not as ubiquitous as the either-side-of-the-front-door porch lanterns found on nearly every home in my neighborhood.

Porch lanterns or sconces next to the front door go way back in time to when they served a purpose in announcing the location of a home and door and providing the best possible light for 1722. Our forbears had just one option for light: burn something. Since candles rarely burn well upside down, and were rather dim, clear-glass lanterns were the epitome of luxury at a time when glass was expensive.

We are still putting nearly identical lanterns on the fronts of our homes despite three hundred years of progress. There are quite a few technologies of the 1700’s that we are happy to give up (who goes to work on a horse these days?) but apparently outdated lighting is not among them.

Perhaps it is time for that to change.

Perhaps it is time for us to put lights on our porch that consider first what we need and only then what our ancestors used (and not the other way around). If I can only choose one hard-wired lighting solution for a front porch, I would choose a porch light that delivers glow over glare, safety over slipping, and wonder over waste.

Diagram demonstrating the three places a porch light projects to. Upwards, annotated as "Waste or Wonder;" direct or level, annotated as "Glow or Glare;" and downwards, annotated as "Safe or Slip."

Glow over Glare

When a candle flame softly illuminates the face of a loved one, the dim level of light could be considered a glow. When a car headlight shines into your eyes, the bright blinding light could be called glare. Guess which light many of us choose to welcome us home, to invite friends to our front door?

Most porch lanterns direct most of their light straight out and into your eyes. When that light is significantly brighter than everything else around, it becomes glare. A soft glow is preferred, something that communicates welcome without blinding light. The originators of the lantern did not have this problem – our electric candles burn far brighter than the wax and wick versions of yesterday.

A diagram depicting the light diffusion of a standard porchlight. The light directed upwards is labeled as WASTE, the direct light is labeled as GLARE and the light directed downwards is labeled as SLIP.

Safe over Slip

Perhaps the most important function of a porch light is to see where you are going so you don’t trip, slip, or stumble. Front doors are often preceded by stoops, steps, and porches that could become safety hazards if underlit (or if you are blinded by glare). This is not a particularly difficult concept to grasp, yet it is astounding how many porch lights actually have solid bottoms or candle-style bulbs on top that result in the least light going down towards the ground.

If I could only pick one light for my porch, I would look for a fixture that puts more light down to the ground than in any other direction.

Wonder over Waste

Let’s go back to the candle-style porch lantern, which you are by now realizing I must want to toss to the trash heap of history. Sure, they can look lovely and stylistically appropriate for a home, but if I want to use the light then traditional porch lanterns do just about everything wrong. Candle-style bulbs atop a fake candle put most of their light in your eyes – and a second large helping into the sky. That is called waste at best – energy and light that does absolutely nothing for us – and light pollution at worst.

A diagram depicting the light diffusion of a porch lamp without direct or level light. The light going upwards is described as WASTE. The light going downwards is described as SAFE.

We use a lot of cylinders on modern homes that dramatically cut down on glare. But the most popular versions shine light down at the floor (safety first!) and up into the air (for dramatic effect). The upwards facing light is wasted if there is no roof overhead, and the aggregate of thousands of these fixtures in our neighborhoods makes it hard for us to appreciate the stars. There is wonderful light over our heads many evenings, but our waste makes it impossible to see.

A diagram depicting the perfect porch light, presented as a series of circles overlapping each other in a box. The three directions of light are described as WONDER (upwards), GLOW (direct), and SAFE (downward).

The Perfect Porch Light

If I could only choose one light to install on my porch, I would choose a fixture that pushes most of its light to the ground to keep me, my family, and guests safe. I would choose a fixture that casts a soft glow outward, just a tiny amount of light that reaches out to the sidewalk to help us feel comfortable and welcome. And I would choose a fixture that puts absolutely no light upwards into the sky.

three doors demonstrating three styles of porchlights. The first is a standard light, described as "Glare, Slip, & Waste." The second is a lantern with light shooting out the top and bottom, described as "Safe & Waste." The third is a modified version of the first with most of the light directed downwards to the path. This is described as "Glow, Safe, & Wonder."

And one more thing…

I find it difficult to choose just one hard-wired lighting solution for each space, which is the point of this entire series. Why? Because great lighting needs to be the right light in the right place at the right time. That usually results in multiple layers of light, each serving a unique purpose. So if I had a chance to do one more layer of light on my porch, I would add in a series of steplights to illuminate the path to the front door and along the porch itself. These lights put light down for safety and the right step light can keep the sky darker so you can see the stars.

Read more on welcoming lighting.

Read more on outdoor sconces.

Need solutions that do not require an electrician? Check out my 1THING: Plug In series.

Light Can Help You