If you’re looking for a silver lining to the housing downturn, you can find it in design. As builders and buyers have looked for ways to cut costs, many of the unnecessary—and sometimes bizarre—ornamental elements lavished upon homes during the boom have been stripped away, opening the way for pared down plans all the more beautiful for their simplicity.
But while buyers want less of what isn’t necessary, they’re still looking for the best of what is—which makes this an ideal time to revisit your designs with an eye toward perfecting your homes’ basic elements. And if you need a good place to start, try lighting. With lots of new money- and time-saving technologies, and inexpensive maneuvers that pack a dramatic punch, lighting is an ideal makeover candidate for tight budgets.
To that end, we interviewed three lighting designers from around the country about the best ways to brighten new homes. While much of their advice had to do with light placement, each designer we spoke with also emphasized that there are new products worth trying, or old products that have come a long way.
Take fluorescent lamps, for example. Long thought to be the antithesis of all things beautiful, new fluorescent bulbs are not your grandma’s bathroom lights, says Chip Israel, owner and president of Los Angeles–based Lighting Design Alliance. "There are new fluorescent lamps that have a warm color and look more natural. [Many of them] have 100 lumens per watt, and some last 50,000 hours. So there are these long-lasting light sources, and you can get really good color out of them. And these only cost a dollar or two more than the cheap ones."
And then there are LEDs. The darlings of architects and designers, LEDs are often overlooked by builders for fear they’ll lack the warm glow buyers love. But the trick is simply picking the right ones, says Drew Goldman, senior lighting designer at Chicago-based Edge Lighting. To find a quality product, he says, pay attention to two numbers on the product’s published information: the color temperature and the color-rendering index (CRI).
The color temperature, which is expressed as a Kelvin rating, monitors how blue or pink the light will appear. "Standard incandescent is 2700 Kelvin, which is warm," Goldman says. "Daylight is 5000 Kelvin, which is very cool. Halogen light is closer to 3000 Kelvin, and that’s what I would look to match." Another thing to look out for when working with LEDs, he says, is to make sure all the lights in a room are the same color temperature, to avoid mismatching combinations.
The CRI monitors how accurately a light source will render color. "A testing lab will rank a light source on a 100 point scale. The test is performed by casting light on a standardized set of reference color swatches. Light sources with higher CRI values will ensure that your cabinets and other finishes stand out. It will help the room feel natural," Goldman says. With its index reading of 100, halogen sets a high standard. For LEDs, a reading above 70 will work, but what you want is a light that ranks at 80 or above, Goldman says. "Otherwise, things will look flat."
Once you’ve got your lights picked out, there’s still the issue of where to place them. "Currently, the standard seems to be to use downlighting," says Paul Gregory, principal lighting designer at Focus Lighting in New York. "But what makes a space feel inviting is lighting the vertical surfaces and lighting the walls. If the center of the room is lit and the walls aren’t, it seems a little foreboding and less pleasant."
The inverse can also be a problem, Gregory says, if the middle of the room is neglected. "Think about a campfire. When you sit around a campfire, everybody looks beautiful. The color temperature is wonderful. There’s a little animation from the movement of the fire. When you’re in a living room where there are only lamps to the right or left and the wall behind you is lit because there’s a painting, the wall looks better than we do."
To strike the right balance, Gregory recommends pairing a central light fixture with four to six additional downlights and illuminating the walls with decorative sconces. This not only works for the living room, he says, but also in formal dining rooms. "The glassware sparkles, the silverware sparkles, and it looks a little more special when you walk into that room."
The trouble with this approach is that often central lighting fixtures can’t be placed until a room’s furniture is arranged. To get around that, Gregory suggests having electrical contractors put three looped-together points in a room’s ceiling where a lighting fixture could hang. The additional work, he says, should only take about 20 extra minutes and could be offered as an upgraded lighting package.
As always, the home’s showroom space—the kitchen—requires extra care, since it not only has to look good, but also has to adapt. "It’s tricky because you need lots of light when you’re preparing food, and then you need to be able to turn down the lights to make it dark and sexy for dinner, and then after dinner you’ve got drinks," Gregory says. "That requires a decorative fixture or two and it requires downlighting and it requires under-cabinet lighting. It’s not difficult. It’s just important. When you’re 16 years old, you can see four times as much as when you’re 65. It gets a lot harder to see that speck of food on glassware."
To cut costs, Israel suggests using highly efficient, high-quality fluorescent lighting on top of cabinets. "You bounce the light off your ceiling, so your ceiling becomes the light fixture," he says. He also suggests adding toekick lighting in the kitchen, which helps eliminate shadows and gives buyers another lighting layer to work with when setting a mood.
Bathrooms are another area where lighting must be not only beautiful but also highly functional. "In the bathroom, you want lighting that makes your face look flattered," Israel says. "The worst thing you can do is put a bright light directly over your head. It will make you look like you’re 100 years old." Gregory recommends sconces both to the left and right of the mirror, not only because it creates a more flattering effect, but also to make things easier while shaving or putting on makeup. The thing you want to be careful of, Goldman says, is that decorative sconces will often try to spice things up with colorful designs, which isn’t helpful when someone is trying to see their face clearly. He recommends lighted mirrors that provide white light from the front.
In bedrooms, Israel outfits homes he works on with a switch on either side of the bed that turns on a series of low-level toekick lights that illuminate a path to the restroom, helping to ward off trips and falls. He’s also an advocate for vacancy sensors, which don’t automatically turn lights on, but do turn them off when a room is empty. These work particularly well for kids’ rooms, he says, but also make sense for laundry rooms and garages, "anywhere your hands are full."
Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.