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Tips 101 - A Crash Course in Lighting Design
cannot immediately identify why they may like or dislike a
particular room or interior. Proper lighting and illumination is
the single most critical factor in designing a pleasing interior
environment. A successful lighting design is pleasing to the
eye, focuses attention on key room features and eliminates
shadows and "hot spots". There are several lighting applications
that can be used to meet specific lighting needs or to achieve a
desired special effect.
GENERAL or AMBIENT LIGHTING refers to an even overall level of light
provided to make a room or space comfortable and safe for its
intended use. Recessed lighting is very popular as a general
lighting source. Recessed lighting may be in the form of 3" to
8" diameter "can" type fixtures consisting of a "trim" and a
"housing.” Recessed "trims" are the visible portion of the
recessed light fixture and are available in hundreds of styles
and colors to control the spread of light, reflect the light
and/or match a particular decor or theme. The "housing" is the
actual enclosure that is installed into the attic and connected
to the power system. Different housings are available for new
construction and remodel construction where attic access is
difficult. Where recessed lighting may be in contact with
building insulation, an "IC" rated housing is required to
prevent a potential fire hazard. In may office environments,
general lighting is provided in the form of luminous fluorescent
TASK LIGHTING typically refers to the higher level of light provided on work
areas such as kitchen islands, countertops and desks. Additional
light is directed to these areas using recessed, track or
pendant fixtures. Concealed under-cabinet lighting is also
frequently used by lighting designers to provide task
illumination without seeing the source (fixture). Fixtures with
either low or line-voltage halogen or xenon bulbs provide a
whiter, warmer light than fluorescent under-cabinet lighting. 5
watt xenon or halogen lamps spaced 6 inches apart are suitable
for most task lighting purposes where the fixture is within 24"
of the work surface. Whether recessed, track or under-cabinet
style, low voltage halogen or xenon lighting fixtures are
smaller than line voltage lighting but require a transformer to
change the voltage from 120 volt to 12 volt. The transformer is
included inside many low voltage fixtures but is also sometimes
separate depending on the particular fixture and style.
ACCENT LIGHTING. To be effective, accent lighting should be approximately
four times the level of ambient (background) light in an area.
Focusing light on an "accented object" or "area" draws attention
to a picture, vase or other focal point. Here again. Halogen
lighting type fixtures provide a whiter, brighter appearance
than standard incandescent or fluorescent type fixtures. The
selected fixture should be directional, either a swivel or
gimbal type fixture to aim the light exactly where it is needed.
Adjustable surface mount fixtures, track fixtures and even
recessed style fixtures are available with "aimability" in mind.
For a dramatic museum-type effect, some fixtures can include a
focusing lens for pinpoint accuracy. The "Lighting Illumination"
PDF attached to this file is a good guide for estimating the
illumination or brightness of various bulb types and wattages.
WALL WASHING is a type of Accent Lighting that creates an area of uniform
illumination that may desirable for a series of photos or
artwork. Wall Washing reduces the texture of the wall surface.
Often the reflected light can create ambient light in the
remainder of the room that is pleasing and restful. WALL GRAZING
is opposite from Wall Washing in that it creates a dramatic
highlight and shadow effect on surfaces such as draperies, stone
or brick. Ceiling light fixtures for Wall Grazing are placed
closer to the wall than Wall Washing in order to highlight the
DISPLAY LIGHTING consists of small low voltage lighting fixtures to
illuminate cabinets displaying keepsakes, ornaments, dinnerware
etc. Many under-cabinet fixtures (as described above) are
suitable for display lighting. Small space xenon fixtures used
on a "Mini" or "Linear" track have unparalleled design
flexibility. Tiny fixtures may be spaced anywhere along the
track making it possible to create an even distribution or
highlight task areas. Lamp choices from 3W to 20W allow
illumination levels from a subtle glow to a brilliantly lit
area. A "Light Baffle" often serves as a holder for the track
and as a visual shield, concealing the halogen or xenon bulbs.
An innovative use of the baffle is as a rigid support, such as
spanning the edge.
COVE LIGHTING gives a room a more open appearance by illuminating the
perimeter of the room where the walls meet the ceiling. A large
crown mold or soffit is built around the perimeter of the room
providing a concealed space for a continuous halogen or xenon
track lighting. Cove lighting looks best with a smooth, even
wash of light. Fixtures should be placed at least 4" from the
wall with 6" to 9" being ideal to minimize scalloping. The
ceiling height above the lamps should be not more than twice the
distance from the wall. The lamp spacing and wattage will depend
on distance and brightness level desired. For a medium light
level, a good starting point is with 5-watt lamps spaced 6" on
center, with a track spaced 6" from the wall and 10" from the
ceiling. From this reference point you can design the light
level up or down as desired. A room with a dark ceiling, or a
brightly lit room may need a higher light level.
Lighting that is thoughtfully considered can make a world of difference and
will be an improvement that lasts for many years. Many home
improvement stores include sample displays of the various
lighting systems and fixtures mentioned above. As with most
appliances and electronics, there is a wide variety in the
quality of lighting fixtures available. Be sure your purchase is
from reputable well known company with fixtures that are either
UL or ETC listed. There are numerous online retailers that offer
name brand fixtures delivered to your door at very competitive
About the author:
Brian Starr is the owner of IPN Lighting.com (
His company is an
authorized retailer of WAC Lighting products, including
transformers, dimmers, low voltage pendant glass, linear
systems, surface mounts, and lights.