What to Consider in Lighting Projects

Your home's age, ceiling conditions are a few factors to think about when redoing lighting


By: Jill Connors

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As with any renovation project, spending time on planning your lighting design early in the process pays big rewards at the end in terms of satisfaction.

"If I can get in early, I can integrate the lighting with the architecture," says lighting designer Lana Nathe, principal at Light Insight Design Studio in Boston and an International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) Associate Member. "The trend now is toward lighting that is more integrated," says Nathe, who works directly with architects, homeowners and builders.

Such techniques as cove, soffit and valance lighting—the most common forms of architectural lighting—make it possible to provide an even distribution of lighting while also concealing the source. "The problem with doing the lighting as an afterthought is you typically end up with just one light trying to do everything in a room, and inevitably that means shadows," she adds.

For a major renovation, the first step a homeowner should take is to have a lighting designer or building professional do an evaluation of the existing conditions.

Next, homeowners should do a little abstract thinking in terms of their expectations for the lighting in their home. Lighting designer Markus Earley, principal of earleylight in Providence, R.I., asks clients a series of questions during the first meeting.

  • What do you wish to see in the room? (For example, is there a fireplace or some other architectural feature to highlight? Do you prefer to focus on the view out the window, or make the center of the room the focal point?)
  • What don't you want to see?
  • What types of lighting do you usually like?
  • What don't you like?

Thinking through these questions will help homeowners zero in on the things that they want to achieve with their lighting plans and improvements.

In a renovation, the age of the home will be an important consideration given that homes pre-dating the 1970s typically were built with just one central lighting fixture (if that) in each room. To improve the lighting in older homes, the ceiling or walls in each renovated room will need to be accessed to install built-in fixtures, such as recessed downlights or architectural lighting, such as cove lighting.

"If you're putting in lots of new lighting, it may actually make sense to replace the entire ceiling in a room, rather than patch up sections," Nathe says. In a loft situation or an extremely old house, where beams are exposed, there will be additional considerations for adding new lighting.

In a newer home that already includes recessed lighting, the improvement may require a minimum of planning, and be as simple as replacing the type of recessed fixture to provide more flexibility in distributing the light. For example, a homeowner could do a one-on-one replacement, swapping out a recessed light that directs one narrow beam of light straight down, for a new fixture that can be directed to wash the walls with light.

"My number one bit of advice is usually 'Light the walls, hide the source,'" says Patricia Rizzo of the Lighting Research Center, who is also an adjunct professor of lighting design at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Another relatively straightforward improvement is to replace an on-off switch with a dimmer—a change that provides energy efficiency and flexibility, and is highly touted by many experts.

"Make sure everything is on a dimmer," says lighting designer Jody Pritchard, principal of Pritchard Lighting Group in San Francisco and an IALD Professional Member. "Not only do you save energy, a lamp dimmed down just 10 percent will double the life of your light bulb. And if you take all your lights down 25 to 30 percent, you create a totally different mood."

Whether a homeowner plans a major renovation and addition with all new lighting, or simply replaces a few key fixtures and switches, the improvement is well worth the effort. "Lighting is typically 1 percent of the cost of construction," says Nathe, "but the first thing you do when you step into a room is turn on the light. If a homeowner is on a limited budget, it's probably the best thing you can do to improve your home."

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