Make it Right—and Light

You can make all the best improvements in the world—remodeled kitchen and bathrooms, new deck, handsome hardwood flooring, chic hardware, and so on. But if there’s not enough lighting, nobody will see the great changes you’ve made, or enjoy reading, watching TV, and cooking.


The best planned lighting does more. It can make rooms look larger or more romantic and make residents feel safer by helping them be aware of a change in level or slippery surface. And it can keep intruders away.


These days installing the right lighting is so much easier because of the greater variety of products available, lower costs in many cases, greater longevity and higher energy efficiency. And there are more experts to help you buy wisely whether it’s for your home or an investment property. Some are very easy to install, in fact, since no wiring is required. They can even be DIY projects, another cost and time saver.


But it’s up to you to make lighting a priority rather than an afterthought when planning a new house from the ground up or remodeling an existing one. Installing recessed cans in a ceiling should be done before a room is painted. Adding some new smart bulbs or a programmable system throughout just may make the difference in attracting a renter or buyer, especially a hip millennial looking for the latest technology.


Joseph A. Rey-Barreau

Here are a dozen other essentials to consider to make your investment look and function better. Our information comes from lighting expert Joseph A. Rey-Barreau, Consulting Director of Education for the American Lighting Association and Associate Professor at the College of Design, University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY.


When is the best time to plan lighting? During construction—if it’s a new home—or before walls and ceilings are closed up and painted if a remodeling. Always be sure there are enough outlets, though that’s typically determined by an area’s building code, which requires a minimum number in each room and determines how far apart they should be spaced, especially for houses or apartments constructed in the last 30 to 40 years.


How much light does a room need? It depends on the size, color palette, amount of natural light and most important, the activities that will occur. To sit and converse requires a far lower level than a room where people are cooking or reading a long article or book. But there are also cultural differences, and outside the U.S., Rey-Barreau has found more home owners tend to use a lot more light in their rooms than Americans do.


Note the reference to lumens on the lower left corner.

How is light measured? The amount of light is measured in foot candles, which is difficult for home owners or builders to determine. So, another term and number are used—”lumens,” which has replaced wattage on a light bulb package and its “Lighting Facts” information. For example, a typical light bulb will be rated by the lumens it produces such as 1,600, which is the equivalent of 100-watts of incandescent light. If you need a small amount of light in a room, you might need 10-foot candles or 10 lumens per square foot. So, a 20-by-20-foot room where you want a low level for reading or conversing might call for 10 lumens per square foot or 4,000 lumens. For more light but still at a moderate level, you might want 20 lumens per square foot or 8,000 lumens. At this level, you could read and strain your eyes less, still converse, maybe watch TV and play some board games. For a higher light level, where you would read even more comfortably or perform tasks, you might want 30 lumens per square foot or 12,000 lumens.



What else should home owners and investors know when looking at a package label? Kelvins, referred to as K, tell the color of the light. A warm, white, yellow orange LED bulb is usually rated below 3,000 K—often between 2,700 and 3,000, while a cooler blue is usually above 3,500 K and sometimes 5,000 K. The color rendering index or CRI measures the accuracy of color on a scale of 0 to 100; higher numbers indicate better color rendering. Generally, we’ve been accustomed to warmer light. But LEDs come in a variety of colors and tend to be a bit bluer. When you go to buy a bulb, look for the light boxes that many stores have to see what the light really looks like when plugged in. Do your homework to create the right effect.


What if there’s more natural light, including skylights? Should that influence your choice? No, since lighting should be planned for night-time use.


Layered lighting is the key. Assess how natural light passes through a space throughout the day, then add foundation lighting, complemented by light sources that brighten areas where tasks are done such as reading or computer work. Finally, add some drama to spaces for welcoming ambiance. Photo courtesy of Mary Cook Associates.

Besides lumens, everyone seems to talk about the need for each room to have three layers of light? What layering does is introduce flexibility to a room since if you have only one fixture and source you only have one level. But multiple fixtures and sources add different layers to allow different levels throughout the space—perhaps a table or floor lamp here, a wall sconce there and a ceiling fixture or recessed can above. All help together to give you flexibility for different functions and moods. You want the three layers to offer general or overall lighting, ambient or mood lighting and task or accent lighting. Decide on the functions of each space and then see if those goals can be met. Some rooms may also require more sources than others if more functions are to take place. Be sure that light is evenly distributed throughout so there are no dark corners.



Having dimmers has become so popular but are they essential? It makes it easier to control the amount of light if they’re included. You may not spend a lot of time in a laundry but if you walk from a garage at night through the laundry and into the kitchen it may be wise to have lighting on a dimmer rather than have it brightly glowing. They allow you to control intensity. When you want more light, you can turn up the light. Almost all LED lighting, which is becoming the more popular choice, can be dimmed.



Are there some guidelines in deciding to go for recessed cans, pendants, floor or table lamps or a chandelier? It’s purely personal and a matter of aesthetics and functionality. Cans can work fine but if you want something more decorative, you might prefer to go with a big colorful pendant or wall sconces. Consider the style of the home and furnishings but nothing must match exactly. Go to showrooms and look and go to several since each may work with a limited number of suppliers. Be aware of industry changes, too. Ceiling-can diameters have gotten smaller, down from 6 inches to 3 to 4 inches, plus specialty cans as small as 1 inch.



Is there a recommended amount to spend in each room? For new construction, experts sometimes suggest spending 1 to 1 ½ percent of the home’s total construction cost on the cost of fixtures and bulbs, not wiring and installation which will be an additional expense. But so much depends on what you spend on a fixture—a chandelier can be several hundred or thousand dollars. LED bulbs have come way down from $20 a piece five to seven years ago to $2 or $3 now. And any LED bulb theoretically may outlive you since they’re guaranteed to last 10,000 to 20,000 hours. Of course, it depends on how much they’re used.


Do most well-equipped lighting stores have a lighting lab? Not necessarily but they may have a room or a few or an area with vignettes where you can see different lighting effects. Look online at the Association’s list of retailers for finding a store near you and ask. Many will also demonstrate what’s available for outside lighting since LEDs are transforming the look of fixtures for exterior use, too, including the old-style lanterns. Many lamps can be placed along paths and in trees for safety and decorative effects.


Technology continues to transform what we can do in our homes; what about with lighting? There are dozens of new companies that make turning on and off lights from your phone or tablet inside or outside your home possible or by speaking to a gadget or your phone such as asking, “Will you please turn on the kitchen pendants?” There are also smart bulbs that change color. And these systems now are typically wireless so they’re less costly to install. Many younger buyers are especially eager for such tech savviness, so if you are remodeling a house for resale or rental to that niche it may be worthwhile to put in a few.


Finally, what about choosing lighting that’s decorative but not dated looking? Again, visit several showrooms so you get a good handle on the variety available in the marketplace. Also, explore possibilities on the Internet by looking up words like “lighting fixtures” and “lighting showrooms.”

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