Google+ House Revivals: L is for Lighting Design

Thursday, April 8, 2010

L is for Lighting Design

Have you ever tried to work at your kitchen sink, and been frustrated because the light source was behind you, and you were working in your own shadow?  Or lived in a house where a light source was placed too close to the thermostat, causing the heater to shut off before the space was actually warmed?

Have you ever gone out to eat, and had the pendant light over the table create such a bad glare that you shaded your eyes throughout dinner?  Or lived with poorly placed track lighting?  
Or not enough lighting? Or had so much light that you could 
perform brain surgery -- if you didn't pass out from heat stroke, first?  Oh, the sins of bad lighting design!

The lighting in this kitchen is pretty typical of what most of us grew up with.  Now days, we usually get a can light over the sink, and a lamp under the range hood.
Okay, let's try to avert our gaze from this poor kitchen's lack
of landing spaces, and focus on the One. Ceiling. Fixture.  No 
matter where you work in this kitchen, you will be working 
in your own shadow.  Who needs to see, anyway, when you're
dealing with sharp knives and boiling liquids? photo cbbain

Fortunately, standard kitchen lighting has improved somewhat in the last half-century (though not as much as you'd hope)!  Here is a case of good intentions gone awry.
 The owner of this home got some bad advice when it came
to updating their kitchen lighting.  This is a case of too much
light, in all the wrong places.  The fixture over the sink should
have been located slightly forward -- to light the work area 
instead of the worker.  The fixtures over the counter, however, 
are placed a little too close to the cabinets --this is going 
to cause "hot spots" and glare, as the light reflects off the 
white cabinets. Fewer and more carefully placed cans and 
layered lighting would have made this kitchen a much more 
comfortable space to work in. photo estately website

Alright, I know it seems like I'm picking on kitchens in this post!
  But, I could not resist showing this poorly placed track lighting.
  Sadly, we have the very same fixture over the dining area in our 
temporary-while-we house-hunt-or-maybe-get-transferred-again
-corporate-apartment!  I'm not picking on track lighting -- when 
used properly, it can be an excellent solution-- but in this application,
it will only serve to light the back of the head of the person working
in the kitchen  or shine a glaring light in their eyes.   Rule #1 
of good lighting:  know which surface you want to light, and
light it.  One of the lamps in the above picture seems to be 
lighting nothing but air....  photo cbbain

Most of us live in builder grade homes, with builder grade lighting.  Nothing special. Just the bare basics.  Most builder homes have lighting in hallways, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and kitchens, and no lighting at all in living rooms and bedrooms.
This living room is pretty typical of homes built in the last half-
century (ironically, earlier homes often had ceiling fixtures and/
or sconces in their public spaces). photo cbbain 

So, someone moves into their new home and quickly realizes they want more hardwired lighting.  They are tired of living in the dark.  And they call a contractor and have him install several recessed cans in every room, and some trendy looking track lighting from the local home improvement store.  They've suddenly spent a ton of money, and now they have too much light in some places, and lots of glare, and they've still haven't solved the problem!
 Wow!  There are a lot of recessed cans in this ceiling!  This is 
the gift that keeps on giving -- after living with migraines from the
glare, you'll get another headache when you get your electricity
bill!  Not only will the lamps use a lot of energy, but they will
increase the cooling load on your AC.  photo DecorPad via ShelterPop

Lighting a space properly isn't easy. That's why so many people get it wrong. Most people who update their lighting are just trying to fix inadequate lighting they inherited when they bought the house.  Unfortunately, they often rely on their contractor to help them design the new lighting-- and most contractors don't have any lighting design training (actually, many architectural programs don't require lighting design classes, either)!   So, they end up with a grid of can lighting, or trendy looking track lighting that shines in people's eyes or that lights nothing but air, and lights that overheat the space, and so on.

Although fixture finishes and styles have
changed in the last couple of decades, the
lighting "design" of most new homes today 
has remained the same-- inadequate.  
When the owner of this house sees himself
in the mirror in the morning, he's going
to look like he had a bad night. photo cbbain

Your builder is probably going to install the minimum number of fixtures he can get away with installing according to local building codes.  He's likely to give you one multi-lamp fixture over your bathroom mirror, because it's cheaper to install than sconces that flank the mirror.  He's not concerned that your face is not evenly lit, and the first image you have of yourself in the morning is of unnaturally shadowed eye sockets.  He's concerned about the bottom line.  It's not personal -- your builder is a businessman, not a lighting designer.

Here is an example of a remodel that was almost exceptional, except for awkwardly placed lighting.  If you notice the picture, most of the light is hitting the wall next to the sconce.  If the sconce had been properly placed, it would have lit the face of the person standing at the vanity -- not the wall next to the ceiling.
This bathroom breaks my heart.  The fixtures and 
finishes are stunning.  Just beautiful.  But the vanity
would have been more functional, and the lighting
more flattering, if the sconces had been placed 
at"face level".  It kills me to see someone put 
significant resources into a project like this, and 
get something as essential as good lighting so 

One trick your interior designer or lighting designer may use is "coloring", using yellow pencil, exactly how a light fixture will light a surface.  This can be done on elevations, axonometric drawings, or in perspective drawings.

This can also be done using 2-D and 3-D software.  For more complicated lighting problems, and light commercial projects, your interior designer will probably do a little algebra, to determine exactly how much light is needed in a space, and which fixtures and lamps to use, and where best to put them.  For seriously complicated lighting design (think shopping malls, hospitals, and schools), there are computer programs that will do the algebra for you!
Once again, I hope I haven't confused you -- or worse, bored you.  There is just so much to know about good lighting--types of lamps, colors of light, intensity of light, types of lighting (ambient, accent, etc.), dimming characteristics, color rendering, heat, cooling loads, glare, safety, building codes -- the list goes on.  In the design industry, good lighting is considered "jewelry" for the home!

This article has only scratched the surface of what is involved in creating beautiful, exceptional, functional, and safe lighting plans.  If you are considering a remodel, building a new home, or planning on doing some updating, you might consider having an interior designer or qualified lighting designer work with you to find the best solutions for your lifestyle.

This post is being linked to Jenny Matlock's Alphabe-Thursday.


  1. Another great post, Amanda! Lighting can make such a difference in the ambience and function in a room.

    I'm enjoying it here at your place. :)

  2. I know what you mean about poor lighting. I would say every room in our home has poor lighting ;-( Thanks for the lesson though.

  3. My kitchen, along with updated cabinets, having the popcorn ceiling removed, and the walls painted a buttery yellow, needs better light. No problem during the day with the opposing windows, but at night the fluorescent lights The Engineer so thoughtfully installed under the cabinets hummm and drive me NUTS. I'd rather use my sharp knives and pour my boiling hot liquids in the dark :-) GREAT post. You should write for a magazine, or write a textbook...

  4. Thanks for the insight. Wish I knew you when I was building my house...

  5. Another great post. Lighting is definitely the "jewels" of the home. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Tina, I know what you mean about buzzing fluorescent lighting. I'm very sensitive to it, as well. It's usually a sign that the ballast needs to be replaced. Or you could have The Engineer install low voltage xenon pucks (keep in mind that they get hot), OR have him install some of the LED lighting he's working on (for those who don't know this, The Engineer is an inventor)!

  7. My house is one poor lighting disaster after another. But otherwise I love it! I can hardly believe some of the pics you posted.

  8. I think my brother is law is the perfect example of someone who just put in too many pot lights. Oh dear.
    I am always standing in my shadow in the my kitchen. I do have a light over the sink, and under the range hood, so I can wash the dishes and stir a hot pot in the light. But my countertops are in shadow. We have a fairly old house and not a lot of thought went into the lighting.

  9. I always feel like i am getting an education in design for free when i visit here ... so thank you ... for so many interesting and informative posts ... i do enjoy them are really do learn things :)

  10. What another wonderful post! so much wonderful information! Although I visit here often, this time I hopped over from Alphabe-Thursday and am so happy that I did! I am the new kid in class, and learning my way around. Please accept my invitation to drop in at my place one day this week when you get a moment. ntil later...

  11. Quite a lot of info on lighting. I know where to come when we need a change.

  12. Oh, I so need you to come to my house and tell my how to fix our lighting issues here!

    I keep thinking there must be people to call that do this for real.

    Cuz I am at a loss.

    I think I see about 1/2 of the errors that you posted about and they always, always, always bother me!

    Sorry, didn't mean to be so vehement.

    This was a wonderfully informative post.

    I enjoyed this stop on Alphabe-Thursdays Letter "L"!


  13. I lived with that lighting in my kitchen for 25 years. You'll love this one: contractor was a framer type guy, not a finisher when the house was built. It was the time of flourescents boxed into the ceiling....except.....he made the box too short for the lights. It was all taped and textured before he noticed it, so.....tada..his solution: he angled one flourescent in this box area. Looked dumb, was dumb lighting. But I lived with it for those 25 years.

    Ah, ripped out that kitchen 3 years ago. Lighting is good now. And on several different switches.

  14. Great post! I've lived in so many houses over the course of The Great Dane's military career and I think I experienced every one of those lighting horrors. We have a lot of recessed lighting here at Pondside - we put 12 in the great room when we added it to the house, because I didn't want dinky tables with task lighting all over the place. There's a discreet panel of switches that controls every one of the lights, each on a dimmer. I love it!

  15. nothing worse than bad bathroom lighting :D

  16. I have to have good lighting in the my art/ sewing room and my bathroom......

  17. Such great information. Lighting is such an overlooked part of designing a room. We recently painted our daughter's room, and I love the color. Until she replaced her lamp bulbs with energy saving fluorescent bulbs. EEK - those gorgeous blue/gray walls turned periwinkle! I changed those quick! Kathy

  18. Very informative. You've given me some things to think about when it comes to lighting.

  19. I think most of us don't consider lighting until we move in and realize the lack or misplacement there of (unless, of course, we had a great interior designer like you). I like the yellow pencil idea.


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