Lighting Design Basics

What builders need to know to shed better light on the homes they build.

By Meghan Stromberg, Senior Editor | July 31, 2003


A living room calls for variable mounts of lighting for different activities such as entertaining, reading and listening to music and for making a welcoming first impression. Recessed lights are a natural for the general lighting requirements of the living room. Place fixtures in a symmetrical pattern around the room for balanced lighting.

Good lighting falls into that vague "I can't tell you exactly what it is, but I know it when I see it" category, but lighting need not be a hit-or-miss proposition. Although a sophisticated lighting plan can get fairly complicated and technical, some basic rules illuminate the process for builders.

Lighting designers, architects, interior designers and builders alike stress the importance of a good lighting scheme. "You can have the finest accoutrements one can purchase in a home, but without good lighting, it doesn't show up," says Rick Ortega of The Lighting Studio, a lighting design firm in Aspen, Colo.

Unfortunately, lighting often takes a back seat to other details. "Out of everything that a builder purchases to go into a home, I think lighting is one of the last things they spend money on," says Jennifer Stephens, a designer at Faro Lighting in the St. Louis area. She says home buyers' degree of lighting savvy can vary greatly, too, so it's up to builders - and their lighting designers and architects - to steer buyers to good decisions.

Whether you're a production or custom builder, working with clients or planning standard and upgrade packages, keep the following three things in mind.

Determine Lighting Needs

Stairways need proper lighting to ensure the safety of residents and guests. Relatively high levels of light also illuminate pictures and art objects often placed on these large walls. Using recessed fixtures keeps a clean appearance, and high wattage trims, such as a high-wattage baffle or reflector using a 150W PAR38 or 150W R40 lamp (a Halo 410 baffle is pictured here), provide a high light level.

Lighting fits into three main categories - general or ambient, task and accent - although a variety of techniques can be used to achieve everything from a simple design to an elaborate display. See the glossary [at right] for more detail.

For each room or area to be lighted, consider the activities that will take place there. If the dining room acts only as a place for eating, lighting sufficient for eating and entertaining is essential, but it need not be high illumination. Setting a mood is just as important.

Usually, the dining room table pitches in as a homework station and hobby surface, so the lighting choices need to focus on those roles, too. That means a builder might choose several lighting options - the traditional center chandelier (preferably on a dimmer) but also wall sconces and probably recessed cans for brighter task lighting.

In a workout room, the needs might be quite different. "Here you want general lighting and wall washing so it's a comfortable environment with a more diffuse kind of light," says Glenn Siegel, director of marketing for Cooper Lighting.

If someone is on the floor doing sit-ups, the last thing she wants is overhead lights in her eyes. Cove lighting and track lighting along the perimeter work well, bathing the walls in light to gently reflect and amplify the light.

Think about the objects and art, architectural features and display areas that crave attention. In living rooms and family rooms, accent lighting likely takes precedence over task lighting and does much of the ambient lighting. Sea Gull Lighting designers recommend spotlights or wall washing for accent.


Selected Lighting Terms

Accent: More intense and precise than ambient lighting, accent lighting highlights individual features in a room.

Ambient or general: Uniform lighting throughout an area.

Grazing: Light directed on a wall so it strikes at a sharp angle. Good for emphasizing texture, such as exposed brick.

Lamp: Another word for the bulb (not a portable fixture).

Task: Illumination directed to a relatively small area for specific tasks associated with day-to-day life.

Uplighting: Illuminating an object from below, which can be highly desirable or very undesirable, with effects ranging from intimate to eerie.

Wall washing: Light directed on walls at a wide angle to bathe wall surfaces with light and prevent the cavelike effect that results when lights don't reach the edges of a room.

Source: Sea Gull Lighting

For tasks, bringing the light to the task works best, with hanging or portable fixtures, track lights or spotlights. Sea Gull warns builders to look out for possible glare with spotlights and take care when using recessed lights for tasks as they can be inflexible if furniture layouts and room activities change.

A builder working with clients, or even a model home with an interior designer, has an advantage here, as clients can be asked about needs, activities and furniture layout. But even production builders and spec builders can make educated guesses. Areas above a fireplace generally showcase art, as do long walls in entryways; home offices require good focused lighting; and so on.

Think about who will live there, too. Do they entertain often? If so, they might want lighting options for everyday use but also subtle lighting effects that play up architectural features, help zone a large room into conversation and activity areas and set the mood. If they collect art, accent lighting provides not only proper illumination but also the correct angles, shadows and other effects. In addition, older people often require brighter light as their vision diminishes.

Choose Fixture Types
"It is incumbent that the right type of lighting is first chosen based on the construction," Siegel says. Consider the joist spacing, where ductwork runs, the ceiling height and whether the fixture will come in contact with insulation (requiring an insulated ceiling-rated, or IC-rated, fixture). The scope of options available makes construction limitations fairly easy to overcome, but check with your lighting supplier or manufacturer if you are unsure about using a fixture correctly.

Generally, a room works best when a mix of lighting is used. By far the most popular choice, recessed can lights work in all situations because they are fairly inconspicuous and quite flexible. Siegel notes they have improved dramatically over the years and are often smaller and designed with white instead of black baffles so homeowners see the light, not the fixture.


Hidden lights add depth and drama to the ceiling, as well as provide ambient light. Spotlights and a recessed can (in the niche) highlight the homeowner's art.

Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based architect Dominick Tringali, however, says he has seen a decrease in the use of cans during the past few years, with a greater emphasis on surface lighting with decorative fixtures. Every year, manufacturers create new collections of surface lighting - chandeliers, sconces, ceiling fixtures and even floor and table lamps - that suit any budget. Expect to see new ones soon - a twice-annual lighting show took place in Dallas in late June.

Another top pick, the pendant light, shows up a lot in the kitchen, especially over islands, to deliver stylish task lighting. Builder Bill Berry of Fischer & Frichtel in Chesterfield, Mo., likes smaller pendant lights that ride on a narrow, flexible wire because they manipulate easily and are very airy and open.

"There are just so many types of lights now," Berry adds. "Where before you only used the big track lights, now that's like putting a '57 Chevy hubcap on the ceiling." In addition to the finishes popular everywhere in the house - brushed and antiqued metals especially - glass shades in cobalt blue and other bright colors are big.

Shorten the Learning Curve
"A lot more builders are getting serious about lighting," Tringali says. "The right lighting just makes a house look better." Builders have a lot of opportunities to bone up on it, some of which are right under their noses.

Many manufacturers, including Cooper, Sea Gull and Juno, offer lighting courses on the basics and beyond and often have large learning facilities at corporate headquarters. Sea Gull's "designer tips" section on contains plenty of free information and ideas, too.

Siegel adds that builders can find real benefits in working with a skilled lighting designer at least once - and paying very close attention. Builders can locate designers in their area by contacting local showrooms or the International Association of Lighting Designers.



Tips for Selecting Kitchen Lighting


Photo courtesy of Progress Lighting

The key to kitchen lighting is to provide sufficient task lighting while also creating a warm, inviting atmosphere.





  • Mount decorative fluorescent fixtures in the center of a work space.





  • Create additional general lighting with downlights, mounted 18 inches off the edge of cabinets, and spaced 3 to 4 feet on centers.





  • Use under-cabinet lighting in valances and toe spaces to create drama while creating light for safe navigation through the kitchen late in the evening.





  • Mount lighting below cabinets to reduce shadows while adding critical light to work spaces.





  • Mount recessed downlights in open areas over sinks.





  • Light up a breakfast bar or counter with mini-pendants mounted approximately 18 to 24 inches above the work surface.





  • Use a pendant on a dimmer, hanging 24 to 30 inches above dining tables and sized to roughly 12 inches less in diameter than the table.





  • Wash an entire dining area with light from a glass or plastic pendant.

    Source: Progress Lighting



    Tips for Selecting Bath and Vanity Lighting


    Photo courtesy of Progress Lighting
    The key lighting task in the bath area is at the mirror to provide shadow-free lighting on the face.





  • Select lighting fixtures that match the size and scope of a bath. Areas of more than 100 square feet require several recessed downlights or decorative surface-mounted fixtures.





  • Mount one main fixture over the mirror, as well as additional recessed downlights, mounted 24 to 36 inches on centers between the face and the mirror, to prevent shadows.





  • Add wall brackets to the sides of the mirror to further eliminate shadows on the face. For mirrors less than 48 inches wide, use vertically mounted wall brackets.





  • Use proper wattage to ensure proper lighting. If the fixture uses exposed lamps, do not use more than 40 watts. For fixtures with clear or well-diffused glass, use no more than 75 watts. Etched or white glass should be used with no more than 100 watts.





  • Use color-corrected fluorescent lamps with all-fluorescent fixtures for warm lighting effects.





  • Use recessed shower lights or a ceiling-mounted plastic unit in the shower.





  • Consider adding a recessed unit over the commode as a functional lighting detail.

    Source: Progress Lighting



    Energy-Efficient Alternatives


    Photo courtesy of Barley + Pfeiffer Architects
    Incandescent bulbs account for the bulk of lighting used in residential construction but are inefficient and expensive to operate. Luckily, a number of alternatives perform more efficiently, and although they cost a little more upfront, they can save homeowners a bundle in utility bills.

    "From an energy-efficiency standpoint, fluorescent is much better than halogen or incandescent because you get more lumens [light] per watt," says Peter Pfeiffer, principal of Barley & Pfeiffer Architects in Austin, Texas. Fluorescents can last 10 times longer than incandescents and reduce energy use by 50-70%. Still, they battle a bad rap - people falsely assume they shed an unflattering light, flicker and hum - but they have improved dramatically.

    Halogen lighting is 30-50% more efficient than incandescents and performs best as focused light, as in wall fixtures or accents, as opposed to indirect lighting.

    According to Green Building Guidelines, published by the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council, energy-efficient lighting suits highly trafficked and continually used areas such as kitchens and family rooms especially well.

    Pfeiffer warns against overuse of one of the most popular types of fixtures, recessed cans. "They tend to let a lot of heat out in the winter and humidity in the summer, even the so-called airtight ones. We really try to reduce their use in houses where people are concerned with energy efficiency or indoor air quality." Excess humidity, even just a little bit, invites mold growth.

    Last but certainly not least, consider the "free" light that comes from the sun. Clerestory windows provide reflected light without glare. Skylights and plenty of standard windows are options, but the heat gains and losses might offset their lighting-efficiency benefits, according to Green Building Guidelines. Consider shading windows with overhangs and using low-E window glass.

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