|INDOOR LIGHTING: THE BASICS
It’s All in the Design
Most of us are familiar with “interior design,” “fashion design” and even “landscape design,” but somehow “lighting design” is
always left out of the picture. Yet, design is exactly what you need when choosing fixtures for your home. Lighting design can
make all the difference in how your home functions and feels; it can dramatically alter the appearance of your décor and
transform a glare-filled, uniformly lit living space into a soothing and stunning showpiece.
Lighting design goes far beyond choosing appealing fixtures and plugging them in—and it certainly extends beyond direct
lighting. At its most basic, lighting design involves employing different light levels that work together to highlight unique features
of each room and address specific illumination requirements.
Visual Drama and Contrast
Creating contrast is the main goal of lighting design and is achieved by introducing varying degrees (also known as layers) of
light into each room: ambient, task and accent. For example, in a dining room a chandelier could provide the ambient light,
while a recessed halogen could serve as a task light that highlights a centerpiece, and wall sconces could provide accent
lighting for a buffet.
Though ambient light serves as the general room light, it should not be the primary source of illumination. Instead, ambient light
sources should be contrasted by brighter task and accent lights, which provide targeted, more powerful illumination for specific
purposes. Primary light sources should be task lights that are 6-10 times the ambient light level; secondary sources should be
accent lights that are 3-5 times the ambient level. These layers will vary depending on the individual and the unique attributes
of specific rooms, such as room size, ceiling height, architectural features, décor, bulb strength, the amount of natural light
available and space utilization.
A common mistake is using decorative fixtures, like chandeliers, as primary light sources. Used this way they burn too brightly,
become overpowering and all aesthetic value is lost .
Where to Begin
To create visual drama in your home, begin by determining each room’s function and composition. Ask these questions:
* How much ambient light do you need? * What unique features do you want to highlight? * What tasks are you performing in
that room? * What types of lights are feasible from an architectural point of view?
For the last question, you will need to determine whether or not the ceiling is insulated (this will determine what types of
recessed lights are possible, if you choose to use them), how high the ceilings are, and what the wall and room textures are
comprised of. For example, if you have a brick fireplace with a lot of depth and character, you may want to highlight its unique
texture by grazing it with an angled track or recessed light, rather than by pointing a light directly on it from a close distance, as
is commonly done. Direct lights will actually flatten and detract from highly textured surfaces, whereas lights that gently graze
the surface will bring out the contours and add contrast and dramatic effect.
Once you have determined which types of lighting you need, you can begin shopping to match your décor. Typical ambient,
task and accent lights break down as follows:
* Ambient Chandeliers, recessed lights, table lamps, ceiling lights, pendants * Task Reading lamps, spot lights, track lights,
recessed lights, table lamps * Accent Sconces, table lamps, recessed lights, rail lights, pendants
Clearly, most lighting forms can be used for a variety of applications. Room function will by and large determine which types of
fixtures are best suited for each layer but much is dependent upon the light bulbs used with them. Good lighting design
incorporates the best combination of light forms that will add contrast and create visual intrigue without producing overpowering
These days, recessed lights are one of the most common design elements in new and remodeled homes. The type of bulb,
beam spread, can and trim color and size all have an impact on the function of the light and overall lighting design.
The subject of recessed lighting is so complex and important that the topic must be addressed separately but, briefly, here are
some basic facts to keep in mind when using these lights in your design scheme:
Cans and Trim that are shiny actually produce less glare * Cans and trim that are matte and white produce the most glare *
Gold trim only works with a warm color palette * Black trim—known as “Alzak”—makes the light an inconspicuous background
light and enables all other light sources in the room to stand out * For non-insulated ceilings, cans can be deeper * For
insulated ceilings, use double-walled cans to prevent fire * Be sure all cans are safe yet deep enough to accommodate bulbs—
you don’t want bulbs flush with the opening or they will produce glare and defeat the purpose of having a recessed light.
As you think about creating contrast and visual drama with your lighting design, consider the most energy efficient and cost
effective ways to achieve your goals. As Your goal should be to have fewer fixtures and use ones that are more energy-
efficient. Although the initial cost of bulbs and housings may be more, by purchasing energy-efficient products, you will save
both time and money in the long run. First, you won’t have to change bulbs as often, and second, by having fewer fixtures that
produce as much light as their energy-devouring counterparts, you will save money.
According to a study in Home Energy magazine, 75% of residential energy costs are produced by less than 30% of the fixtures.
To reduce such disproportionate energy consumption, halogen and fluorescent lights are a great alternative to incandescent
bulbs. In California, fluorescents are now mandated under Title 24, and many states will soon follow suit. Therefore, making the
switch now to energy efficient bulbs and fixtures will save you the cost of replacing or retrofitting in the future.
Lumens vs. Watts
To find energy efficient light bulbs, look for the amount of lumens the bulb emits, as opposed to wattage. A lumen is a
measurement of light output, whereas a watt is a measurement of energy consumption. Today, manufacturers are required to
list lumens on the package so that you can compare bulbs more accurately. The most energy efficient offerings will be lower
watt, higher lumen bulbs—these will yield the greatest savings without sacrificing light output.
Once you’ve found the best bulbs, you can match them to the appropriate fixtures. This may seem counter-intuitive, but by
working backwards you will ensure that you install energy efficient light sources. You can also look for the Energy Star® seal,
which appears on fixtures that meet federal government efficiency standards.
As you’ve discovered so far, a little lighting design goes a long way. First, you add visual intrigue to your home which will
transform it into a comfortable, captivating showplace. Next, you save money and energy by using fewer, more efficient light
sources. And, finally, you can add value to your home which may give you a competitive advantage when you are selling or re-
According to a survey of realtors, home buyers respond positively to homes that are well lit—particularly remodels that are in
new housing markets. Some suggest that a well-designed lighting scheme could give you a competitive advantage and make
your home stand out in the crowd.