Achieve your lighting goals answering 5 key questions

February 2, 2020

For lighting your home – whether at the new-construction phase or during a remodel – there are certain guidelines you can follow to bring you closer to success. Hint: It starts with planning! And that doesn’t have to be so hard.

The Lighting Research Center in Troy, NY, states the primary goal for home lighting is to be “comfortable, easily controlled and energy efficient.” Start there and the rest should follow. 

Lighting designer Stephen Blackman, president and chief design officer of Blackjack Lighting, suggests you ask yourself five important questions when planning the lighting for your home.

1) How do you plan to use the room?

This seems like an obvious question. In fact, it appears you’ll have the answer without even the need for the question. But think about this: One room can mean different things to different family members, and you might spend more time in one part of the room than another or than will someone else.

Now things look different, don’t they?

According to Blackman, the key to lighting a room based on its use is to realize that different activities require different types of lighting. And, consider the fact that a room can have multiple zones. Of course, there are the certainties: lighting over a table. Lighting over a reading space. Lighting over a food-preparation site. Lighting over the bathroom vanities. Remember, too, though, the spaces where dim lighting is best and, instead of leaving out the lighting, perhaps making that the best place for a dimmable fixture. Also, always be sure that any lighting over a wet area such as a tub or shower, or even in the garage where things can get humid, should be rated for damp locations.

2) What performance are you looking for from the lighting?

The best lighting design takes into account the fact that there are three basic lighting types, and it layers these types to avoid monotony and add interest to a room – not to mention functionality. Use a combination of all three types of lighting – task, general and ambient lighting – in a multi-purpose room. Short of a closet, most rooms have more than one purpose so more than one lighting type will maximize a room’s use.

Each of these types of lighting does exactly what its name suggests.

Task lighting is used for tasks. Desk lights, drop pendants over a sink or food-preparation area, a magnifying vanity light – all of these exist to facilitate a specific task, and should be carefully worked into a home-lighting plan based on the very specific living requirements of the homeowners. If you have a craft room, task lighting will be an integral part of the lighting plan for that room.

General lighting is just that – general. Generic. It includes natural lighting, too, from the sun, so don’t forget a room’s position to the rising or setting sun when planning for lighting, particularly that which might be placed by windows and doors. There’s nothing like energy savings than “off,” so incorporate the sun into a general-lighting scheme whenever possible. Otherwise, overhead lighting is the most typical form of general lighting and should be among the first elements placed a lighting plan.

Ambient lighting might best be considered the lighting that sets the personality of a room. Paired with dimmer switches, or even today’s color-changing technologies, ambient lighting can be anything from romantic and faint for a night of meditation and relaxation, to bright and energizing for a birthday party. Mix it up and have fun with ambient lighting, but do try to plan for it so you can maximize its functionality.

3) Just how much lighting does each room require?

When choosing traditional incandescent light bulbs, you note the wattage of the bulb and decide among certain numbers such as 40W, 60W, or 100W. For special lighting you might have even dropped to a mere 25W. Today, with LED lighting, it’s not wattage you’re watching for but, rather, another measurement: lumens.

As noted in our lighting glossary, lumens denote an light’s output (any light: incandescent, LED, fluorescent, whatever). Simple, right? But it’s a bit different from the wattage of an incandescent bulb. That’s because you’re thinking in terms of how far lumens can “go” (spatial reach) vs. how much energy is being burned (quantity). If you think of the heat output of an incandescent light bulb, you get an idea of why, with LED lighting, quantity isn’t as big of a concern as much as is the spatial distribution of light.

According to a lighting handbook from the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), there are very specific measures of lighting you’ll want for specific areas in the home. Consider these guidelines:

  • About 20 lumens are required to light a single square foot of flooring in commercial spaces (which are typically lighter than the average home). For example, a 10-foot x 10-foot space would require 2,000 lumens. (20 lumens x 100 square feet). For reference, a standard, 100-watt traditional light bulb produces about 1,500 to 1,700 lumens.
  • To light higher surfaces, such as tables, estimate 30 lumens per square foot. A 6-foot x 3-foot dining table, for example, would require about 540 lumens (30 lumens x 18 square feet).
  • For most task lighting, calculate about 50 to 75 lumens per square foot. Such brightness, however, might not work in all situations; these are guidelines and lighting that’s too bright can actually create stark and shadowy environments. That’s why dimmer switches exist – to provide custom lighting levels when too much lighting is a problem.

4) What about the color ‘temperature’ of your lighting?

The most fun developments these days with LED lighting is the versatility in color temperature (which isn’t a measure of a bulb’s physical hotness but, rather, its color hue).

“Cool” lighting or “warm” lighting can make interesting plays on furniture and drapery fabrics, wall colors, artwork, ceilings, flooring – you name it. The right color in lighting can render the contents of a room beautifully; the wrong coloring can make you want to repaint a room and buy new furnishings. The key: choose the right color temperature – from cool to warm – for the specific space.

“When it comes to color, there are two key measurements to know: degrees Kelvin and the color-rendering index, or CRI,” Blackman states. “Both start with the concept of natural daylight, which can be bright and warm. Candle flames and incandescent light bulbs have this familiar warmth, which is also achievable with energy-efficient, long-lasting LEDs.”

In general, the lower the Kelvin temperature (in the 2700 to 3500 range), the warmer, or more yellow-toned, the light is; it’s also considered “soft-white” lighting. The higher the Kelvin temperature (in the 4500 to 6000 range), the cooler, or more blue-toned, the light is; it’s considered energizing lighting. Between 3500 and 4500 is considered a neutral-temperature lighting.

According to Blackman, designers recommend warm or soft lighting (in the lower Kelvin-temperature range) for living rooms and bedrooms, and more-energizing cool colors (in the higher Kelvin-temperature range) for kitchens and baths. “For best results, pair cool light with cool colors and warm light with warm tones to keep your colors true,” Blackman said.

Also from our lighting glossary, the CRI index refers to light’s ability to faithfully render color; the closer a light source gets to a CRI of 100, the closer it is to reaching a rendering of color like daylight does.

Here’s the rub, however, for LED lighting: While incandescent light sources have reached 100 CRI for many years, the highest-CRI LEDs have yet to reach that pinnacle, though their manufacturers’ marketing might tell you otherwise (for now, the closest boasts a CRI of 99).

5) Are you an early adopter of lighting technology?

If so, that’s hard to weave into a home-lighting plan because you don’t know what’s happening next, but consider, at least, what’s already happening in residential lighting while putting that plan together. We’re seeing high-functioning light fixtures, even some with built-in smart technology, integrate with LED lighting products to provide the kind of user experiences that traditional lighting could have never provided.

Want to open your garage and turn on its light simply by driving up? That’s smart-home lighting technology. Want to turn on, turn off or dim the lights in your home from 300 miles away? That’s smart-lighting technology.

Technology of LED lighting doesn’t even have to be “smart” to offer impressive features over traditional incandescent (or, particularly fluorescent) lighting. It’s already much more energy-efficient than both fluorescent or incandescent, and it’s available in more usable formats than other lighting sources have ever been. Imagine, for example, running a single strip of LEDs under your kitchen cabinets or in your closet by simply adhering the stipe to the wall and plugging it in.

Finally, LED lighting is more versatile in a home-lighting plan because of two more critical traits: their small profile and their physically cool feel. Using LED lighting in tight spaces is possible because they can go where the standard light bulb can’t go, and they can keep the space cooler because they don’t emit the same amount of heat as incandescent bulbs do.

Closer to your lighting goals

Like anything else, planning brings you one step (or several) closer to perfection. If nothing else, it reduces the chances of failure, and that’s saying a lot!