Lighting is something we take for granted. Flip a switch, the current flows, and a light turns on. If we think about lighting at all, it’s either wishing there was more in some dark corner of the garage or basement, or noticing that we like, or don’t, the style of a particular fixture.
But there’s a lot more to know about lighting, particularly for an aging population whose eyes need brighter and better directed light as time passes. In fact, for a large project, hiring a lighting designer is a smart move.
The most important aspect of lighting is safety. We need to be able to see to walk down steps to the basement, for guests to approach the house in the dark, or even to chop vegetables for dinner. The first layer of lighting in any house addresses these needs.
In utility spaces such as basements, garages, and attics, bare bulbs in a keyless base are likely all that are needed. Another utility space that often gets a light is a closet. In old houses, if there is a light, it’s often the same kind of bare bulb fixture found elsewhere. It’s been about 20 years since building codes changed, and bare bulbs are no longer allowed to be installed in closets because of the danger of some poorly balanced item on an upper shelf coming into contact with an incandescent bulb and starting a fire.
Codes also require lighting outside of exterior doors, and even on deck stairs.
From cooking to reading to workshops, task lighting is a critical consideration. That’s why kitchens usually have more than ceiling fixtures, which can cast a shadow from the cook over the task at hand. Undercabinet lighting, pendants over work-islands, and lighted exhaust hoods are all examples of kitchen task lighting.
In new homes, basements and garages usually get the minimum amount of light permitted by code. But if you do any kind of work in these spaces, more lighting is needed. Think about where you plan to set up a workbench, and make certain that area is well-lit.
Don’t forget bathrooms – Mirrors require light that comes in from both sides for personal grooming. Showers should be well-lit for safety, but special fixtures are required for use in wet areas.
In fact, any part of your house that’s dedicated to a task needs to have adequate lighting for that purpose.
Here’s where lighting design becomes fun. Got nice kitchen cabinets? Add cornice lighting on a dimmer switch that washes them with light, or light up that tile backsplash with undercabinet fixtures. Do you have a special piece of artwork? A shaded downlight will illuminate the piece without shining in the viewer’s eyes.
Sometimes, the light itself is the feature. Imagine a design style, from Arts and Crafts to Colonial to Victorian, and you can probably envision a fixture that fits the era. Changing out a fixture is one way to strengthen the style statement a room makes. One great approach is to find a period fixture at a flea market or tag sale and bring it up to modern standards by rewiring it.
Outdoors, lighting can extend the enjoyment of your landscaping well into the night. One thing to consider though is how that lighting affects the environment. Light pollution not only makes appreciation of the night sky impossible, it has an effect on plants and wildlife.
We’ve come a long way in reducing the amount of energy we use to brighten the dark. It wasn’t long ago that the standard bulb was an energy-hogging incandescent lamp. Fluorescent lights were a step-up in terms of energy use, but a lot of people dislike the quality of light they emit. Halogen and xenon lighting provided good color rendering, but their energy use was no better than incandescents.
How a light makes color look is a function of its color temperature. Incandescent lights have a lower, or cooler, color temperature, that tends to emphasize red and orange colors. We humans find this to be warm and relaxing, perhaps because of our long affinity for firelight. Fluorescent lighting’s color temperature is higher, and the light is more blue, like daylight. Office designers like this because it keeps people awake, but it can seem harsh in a home.
Modern lighting seems to be largely about LEDs (light-emitting diodes). Energy efficient and long lasting, they’ve taken the market by storm. LED lights are available in a variety of color temperatures, and many of the bulbs will have this information on the box.
No discussion of lighting would be complete without mention of controls. The most basic controls are simple on/off switches, but there are many other options.
Dimmer switches are probably the most common. By controlling the flow of electricity, dimmers control the brightness of lighting. They’re commonly used in places where lighting is used to set a mood, for example, in dining or living rooms. They can also be handy in cases when a night light is wanted, say in a kitchen. Not all light bulbs are dimmable. Fluorescents and LEDs in particular may not be, although dimmable versions of each are available. Read the packaging to be certain.
Motion sensing switches are commonly used in public spaces. For example, if the light in the bathroom of your local coffee shop comes on when you open the door, that light is on a motion sensor. After a time with no motion, the switch turns the light off to save energy when no one is in the room. The same switches are readily available for residential use and fit in a standard electrical box.
Another place where motion sensors are frequently used is in outdoor lighting. Usually combined with a light sensor to avoid burning the bulbs in the daylight, this combination switches on floods or pathway lighting when it’s needed. You can also buy dawn-to dusk controls, which run lights continuously during the hours of darkness.
Timers can be used to control lights for security purposes. These can be simple boxes that plug into a wall outlet and in turn receive the plug of a table lamp, or they can be wall switches with built-in timers. The newest technology is smart lighting. Several companies make switches that can be controlled with an app on your phone. You can set the app to turn the lights on and off at designated times, or you can turn them on and off at will, literally from the other side of the country.
The lighting options available today are tremendous, and the design opportunities are unlimited. Consulting with a lighting designer is definitely a good idea, but if that’s not in the budget, some time spent online can be a great help in making good choices.