Here we offer practical guidance for home lighting based on 12 years of designing home lighting schemes for clients in Bath and Bristol.
For good lighting, take a hint from a commercial setting. A common feature of a stylish shop, top restaurant, or gallery, is that they all have lighting to excite the senses. The same is true of an interior set on TV; look beyond the action to see how the set-designers have illuminated the scene. With some thought about your lighting design, you can experience a similar sensation in your own home.
Principles of Home Lighting Design
The principles of home lighting design boil down to what you want from light in each space. First we’ll look at this in general terms, then show you how to choose your specific lighting in more detail.
Your aim should be to produce a simple electrical and lighting overlay for your floorplan, showing the location and type of each light, circuit and switch, plus new sockets for table and floor lamps. We’ll guide you through this.
Note: You may hear lighting specialists refer to lights as lumieres; whilst strictly correct, we’ll refer to them as lights, to keep it simple.
So, first, get out your pencil, tape measure and a sketch pad and draw each room that needs new lighting, showing location of furniture and positions of key items.
Then mark how the family uses each space. What sort of light does each need? What effects do you want to create? What problems do you have with the current lighting. If mum always sits in the armchair with her pipe and slippers and reads the paper in the evening, she probably needs a light. Repeat this thinking for each space.
Categories of Home Lighting
So you’ve determined that you need some form of lighting in defined places to meet a need; but what sort of lighting would work?
First some definitions:
- Task lighting – direct lighting to help you to see when cooking, reading, eating, juggling.
- Accent lighting – lighting to pick out specific features in a room.
- Mood Lighting – to reflect the atmosphere you want to create
- Decorative lighting – where the fittings themselves are a form of decoration; perhaps a fancy shade, large size or vivid colour.
- Ambient lighting – light that is present around you from all sources.
- Natural lighting – from the sun through windows, typically.
This kitchen demonstrates several types of lighting: task from the pelmet lights and recessed ceiling spotlights; accent from the uplighters on the cupboard tops; natural lighting from the glass extension (just visible) and windows; and ambient lighting from the combination of all. There is no decorative lighting here. Combinations of these lights are controlled by a series of switches to reflect the need and the mood.
This dining room contains most types of lighting: task from the decorative ceiling lights; mood from the table lamps and wall lights; accent from the picture light; natural lighting from the window; and ambient lighting from all in combination. The pendants are also on a dimmer switch to enhance the mood further for those luvvy duvvy moments.
Knowing these definitions will now help you to understand the type of light you need; so don’t try to read a book beneath a decorative wall light; you need a task light for this.
Here are some examples of task lights and their applications:
- Recessed Spotlights – useful in a kitchen or bathroom, we favour LEDs – make sure they are fitted so as not to cast shadows on working surfaces, including your own shadow – a major failing of central lights in kitchens. To clear a standard 300mm deep wall unit, we install lights 450 – 500mm from the wall to provide good light onto the worktop below. Spacing between lights is 800-1000mm, often dictated by the location of ceiling joists above. We spend much time measuring and re-measuring to balance the spacing once we can actually see the joists. We also recommend white bezels for a light coloured ceiling for the fittings to blend in with its surroundings; why make a feature of an uninteresting set of chrome rings? It is the effect of the light that is important; a theme to which we return frequently.
- Pelmet lights – fitted beneath kitchen wall units to light the worktop directly. We’ve also fitted them to wall units above desks, and in bathrooms. Make sure you have an extra local switch for these. In the image below, we recessed these lights into the thick shelf, but for kitchen units with pelmets, you might try low profile LED strip lights (only 8mm high). Remember to buy the drive unit too, which can be hidden on top of the unit or at the back of a cupboard shelf.
- Floorstanding lamp – adjacent to a seating area for reading.
- Bedside reading light – for reading in bed, surprisingly – may be a spotlight fixed to the wall. Here we integrated a pair of fibre-optic swan-neck lights into the headboard. These days we would use LEDs.
- Mirror cabinet lighting – so you can see your face clearly for making up, shaving, or whatever else you do to your face. Make sure that the lights are positioned either side; cheaper cabinets with top lighting, cast unflattering shadows making you look old, haggard and generally depressed.
- Desk lamp – for studying.
- Ceiling Pendant Lights – here we dedicated ceiling task lights for the dining table.
- Cantilevered lights – if you need to illuminate a space with no obvious fixings, such as a glass ceiling, you might consider a cantilevered light, such as in the image below. They come with various reaches.
- Cupboard lights – fit lights in cupboards and wardrobes where possible. If you have a loft conversion and plan on making use of the eaves for storage, make sure you fit a light in there. A basic, cheap bulkhead light will do.
Some rooms simply need a basic light to switch on, without being too specific. Some texts refer to this as background lighting:
- Batten light fittings – these are fixed tight to the ceiling and usually have a close fitting shade fitted.
- Flush ceiling light – typically in bathrooms and corridors.
- Pendant – typically hanging from a flex or chain, the basic pendant is a central light source sending out a flat, depressing light.
- Fluorescent Tube – a utilitarian fitting, often found in garages, utilities, and my Mum’s old kitchen; these are also a fairly depressing form of light.
- Track Lighting – tracks fit into several lighting categories: because the fittings are directional, they can be pointed at a desk to fulfil a task or at an ornament to provide an accent. With enough fitings, track lights also provide general background lighting. Tracks are usually fitted to the ceiling in appropriate lengths up to 3m or so. Longer tracks can be created by connecting several lengths together, whether straight or angled around the ceiling.
- Exterior Lighting – don’t forget that you may need to see outside from time to time; and to let you know when a badger is approaching the house. For close lighting we fit Passive Infra Red (PIR) lights (LED where possible) which can also be switched manually from indoors to stay on for a period whilst you attend to your bins, or water the plants. Below is an image borrowed from JCC.
Accent lights pick out specific features of a home. There is some overlap between accent and mood, but we draw a distinction between discrete accent lights and decorative accent lights. We prefer discrete lights because we believe it is the effect of the light that is important and you can achieve much of this with relatively cheap fittings; later we talk more about decorative lighting.
- Plinth lighting – brings life to your kitchen particularly at night, when your island looks like it’s floating. This continuous LED strip light is switched at the wall, with cabling set into the floor during the construction phase.
- Picture Lights – we prefer to light pictures remotely, so as not to affect the look by fixing a conventional picture light to the wall or frame – here we installed a discrete wall-washer in the ceiling to bring the painting to life, like in an art gallery. This light is 500mm from the target, but you’ll need to check angles and dimensions in your case.
- Recessed Spotlights – often fixed but some have a gimbal for a small degree of rotation.
- Wall Washers – a recessed light that can rotate up to 90 degrees and cast light across a wall of ceiling. This one is similar to that directed at the painting in an earlier image. Check the cone angle of the light beam emitted as they do vary: a narrow cone gives a focused beam, whereas a wider cone provides a flood effect.
- Tracked spotlight – highly directional for specific highlighting.
- Plant and Patio Lights – we fit LED uplighters into architectural planters to provide a stylish lighting effect on the patio. We also fix downlighters to posts to light up particular garden features, as in the second image below. Outdoor lighting must be installed by a qualified electrician using either low voltage fittings with transformers (don’t forget to buy the transformers too!) or mains voltage with armoured cable. Having gone to this effort, make sure you switch them on from time to time and enjoy the effect.
- Outdoor Lighting- we designed these external up and down LED wall lights externally, presenting a beautiful vista on approach to this property.
- Alcove Lighting – we fit low profile LED striplights into rebates to illuminate alcoves for dramatic effect. They come in typical lengths of 300, 500 and 1000 mm. You can also buy longer lengths of flexible strip (or rope) on a roll. Don’t forget to order the drive units too (which you can hide on top of the cupboards), and check how many lights can be driven off each. You also need to check the length of cables supplied with the drive units to make sure they reach.
- Shelf Lighting – low profile LED striplights again in pre-formed rebates.
- Special lighting effects – here, our client wanted to show off her vase and coloured balls. With nothing on the market, we designed and made a glass topped side table with embedded LED uplighter to shine up through the translucent blue balls – incredibly dramatic at night.
- Step Lighting – offers some task lighting for saftey, but is mainly for effect; here we fitted relatively cheap LED lights, recessed into the wall.
- Floor lighting – be careful not to blind the occupants, but with careful positioning and choice of light, you can create a stylish effect as with these 1W LED marker lights set into the floor highlighting the bath.
Mood lighting creates a cosy atmosphere for a space, typically through a series of warm glows. Use of a dimmer switch on other lights will also change the mood significantly. Remember that dimmer switches usually require a deeper backbox than a standard switch, so check this with your electrician.
- General mood lighting – this living room has combinations of lights on different circuits to set the mood, including table and floorstanding lamps aroud the room.
- Ceramic wall lights – we like simple ceramic wall lights – cheap and paintable so they blend with the walls, the effect of the light provides a pleasing ambiance.
- Peripheral lighting – although we’ve not yet installed one of these, we designed one for a client recently which didn’t quite fit within the budget. We also designed one for a shop and for a cafe to provide an exciting effect around the ceiling. Nevertheless they are ideal for setting the atmosphere in, say, a home cinema room. Here is an image we borrowed from Linden Concepts to show the sort of thing:
Generally, we like to create dramatic lighting effects using discrete accents; but we also enjoy using more decorative fittings when our design and the style of property call for them.
- Decorative wall lights offer more of a feature in themselves.
- Decorative table lamps – this is an expensive, metallic, architectural lamp that makes its own statement
- Decorative Table and Floorstanding lamps – used as task lights described above, these lamps also double as decorative accent lights. This bronze lamp is an interpretation of a male figure.
- Decorative bedroom lighting – here we layered a number of lights on different switches to suit the mood; decorative table lamps and a chandelier present a glamorous feel, but we also fitted recessed spotlights, reading lights, and film star lighting (not in shot) either side of a large mirror for a spectacular make-up space at the dressing table.
- Chandeliers – more glamour; here for these teenage girls we fitted a red chandelier to fit with the room’s other accents.
- Hall and stair lighting – we choose chandeliers and globes for halls, stairs and landings. You need to watch that you don’t blind yourself coming down stairs where you may be looking directly at the lamp (bulb). Translucent globes are great because you don’t actually see the lamp from any angle; chandeliers are fine because each lamp is usually not excessively bright, but the overall effect remains spectacular.
Lampshades. In the decorative lighting section we should mention shades. They come in many shapes, sizes and materials, and each offer a different lighting effect, spread and pattern.
- Opaqe shades enclosed at the top will only shine downwards, as with these metal shades.
- Translucent shades will shine up and down with filtered light through the sides. This ceiling batten light shade also has a diffuser at the bottom to prevent glare.
- Shaped shades will create light patterns on the adjacent wall depending on the design. This opaque faux suede shade throws light up and down; more at the bottom than the top, because of its trapezoidal shape.
- Glass shades – glass shades are transparent or translucent. If transparent, remember that you will see the lamp (bulb) inside the shade. Is this what you want? Some lamps are a more pleasing round shape these days, and the ugliness of older lightbulbs is disappearing. However, the curly-wurly shape of some low energy lamps may still look out of place in your scheme.
- Shades also cast exciting patterns on the walls- take another look at this bedroom lighting image, and the shapes created on the walls behind the table lamps:
It is important to spend a little time talking specifically about bathroom lighting, because it is subject to rigorous regulation. You may be familiar with Ingress Protection (IP) ratings which dictate where such fittings can be fitted. Essentially your qualified electrician will advise on the permitted IP ratings of the lights you would like to fit. In any event, he or she should always carry out the work for you. Below we fit IP65 fire-rated LED recessed downlighters above the shower and elsewhere on the ceiling; the wall lights, being out of a splash or shower zone, can be rated lower giving scope for a more interesting lighting scheme. We designed a number of these lights on the “mood” circuit for a more relaxed feel and for night time visits.
Other Lighting Considerations
Here are some other thoughts to enhance your lighting design.
- Lighting Circuits – We look to design at least 2 circuits per room (one switch for each), so our clients can choose and combine lights flexibly to suit the need. Particularly important in large rooms, where you won’t need all the lights on all the time, look to zone the space and provide a set of lights for each. Even in a small bathroom we provide a main light for general use and low level light for night time visits.
- Two-way switching – try to think about ease of use. If you have a long room, it might be best to have a switch at each end operating the same lighting circuit. If you enter or leave a room from two distinct doorways, have a switch adjacent to each. Make sure you site switches within easy reach, not behind opening doors as we see so often.
- 5 Amp circuit – wherever appropriate, we fit table and floor standing lamps on a 5A circuit. This allows our clients to switch on or off all these lights from a wall switch, rather than switching each individual lamp (whilst still allowing for individual switching if required).
- Switches – your choice of switch is wide and varied; simple and complex.
- You can choose to have your lighting integrated as part of a home electronic control system, an app, or a simple switch, dimmed or otherwise.
- You can have a motion sensor switch fitted (for rooms where children (or adults) are likely to forget to turn off the lights)
- If you settle for a simple switch, we suggest that you don’t try to make a feature of them; they are not particularly attractive so we tend to lose them into the background. If you have white, cream or light grey walls, a stylish white switch will be fine. If you plump for blues and purples and darker colours, then brushed steel or chrome will work better.
- We even colour-match switches to glass splashbacks.
- Dimmer switches – We mentioned above that dimmer switches generally need a deeper back box than a standard switch; so check with your electrician. Also check that the lamps you have in mind are actually dimmable; some LEDs for instance are not, and you need to select dimmable versions specifically, which are more expensive.
- Light colour temperature – you will see light colours expressed as a temperature in Kelvin. The lower the figure the warmer the colour. As a guide: 2700K is extra warm white (slightly yellow), 3000K is warm white, 3500K is white, 4000K is cool white (with a clinical edge), 6000K is daylight. We find that warm white is bright and white enough for kitchens and bathrooms. Manfacturers have started to produce 10W recessed LED spotlights – the feedback from some clients is that these are a bit bright; it is possible to dim them (when you purchase dimmable fittings), but we find a series of 7W lights to be perfectly adequate.
- Borrowed light – you may be able to fit a glass panel in a wall partition to “borrow” light from an adjacent room (whether artificial or natural). This may mean that you may only need to fit fewer lights in that space, or use a light less frequently if enough light penetrates from the adjacent space.
- Solar Tube – we were amazed at the effectiveness of this light tube bringing natural light into a room with no windows. You need to choose the position for the collecting dome carefully on the roof to make sure that chimneys or other obstructions don’t cast shadows; a solar tube will not be appropriate in all circumstances. You can fit more than one if necessary. In a space of around 2m by 2m on a reasonable British day, our client did not need to switch on the lights at all.
- Home Lighting Effects – light can be used to disguise the shape of a room:
- An uplighter shining on the ceiling will make the room feel higher, whereas low level lighting and light thrown downwards lowers the focus for a more intimate feel.
- To make a small room feel bigger, lights on opposite walls give the illusion of breadth; more so by adding mirrors to bounce the light around.
- To make a large room feel smaller, focus the light in defined areas – a few table and floor lamps near a seating arrangement defines that smaller zone clearly.
- To add interest to a room, place lights behind plants to throw leafy shadows on the walls. We also look to provide lights art different heights for a pleasing asymmetry.
Your Room Lighting Design and Installation
Returning to your room lighting design you should now be able to complete your overlay, showing:
- which light will go where, the colour (warm white etc) and therefore a specific model number.
- where sockets are needed for table and floorstanding lamps
- which lights are to be on a 5A circuit.
- where all the switches are located
- which switches are to be 2-way.
- which are to be dimmer switches (or other control mechanism).
Electrical work should be carried out by a qualified electrician. Look up the NICEIC, ELECSA, or equivalent website to find one local to you.
Effective home lighting will enhance your decorative scheme, and have a positive influence on your life; it will make you feel good. Spend time thinking about the lighting you need and the effects you wish to create.
We hope this guide has been of help. Please get in touch if you need more information or if you feel other helpful points should be included in this blog. If you’d like more ideas for home lighting installations please click on our lighting section for further information.Back to blog