Ellen Freeman Roth                      

February 14, 2002

Guiding Lights

It's no coincidence that the meaning of the word light has broad reach into visual, intellectual, and spiritual realms. Light is elemental and powerful, and there is perhaps no time we feel its power more than when there's less of it, during these days when darkness falls early. ''When I'm designing lighting for someone's house, it may be July with sun streaming through a skylight but I think about what a room will feel like in deep winter at 4:30 p.m.,'' says Michael Eberle, co-owner of the lighting store Chimera in Boston's South End. ''I want the room to be bright, but if it's overlit, it becomes too Hollywood.''

Too much light in a room can be confusing. Alternately, not enough light in a room can be tiring. Proper lighting is important for safety on stairs or a walkway, for functionality in a kitchen or office, and for aesthetics. ''There are three kinds of lighting: general or ambient, task, and accent,'' says Belmont-based lighting consultant Robin Doerfler. ''The best lighting design incorporates layers of light. If you light a room evenly with one light source, there's no interest for the eye. The eye is drawn to what the light source is illuminating.''

One can create layers of light in a dining room, for example, by using a central chandelier, low voltage pinhole ceiling lights on either side of the chandelier to make crystal and china sparkle on a set table, wall sconces, and an art light to highlight a painting or sculpture.

The key to effective lighting is design and planning. "Take the time, whether with a lighting designer or a contractor or builder, to determine where all the lights are going and their function, because changes after installation are extremely expensive," says D. Schweppe, owner of Schweppe Lighting Design in Concord.

"Most people have never thought about what lighting they need," Schweppe adds. "When you start probing, the process can feel overwhelming. Does your spouse sleep while you read, and what kind of lighting control do you want to accommodate that? For household security, do you need to turn on all the inside lights or just outside lights? What is your work style in the kitchen? Is the kitchen where kids do homework and you do taxes, or is it a place to microwave something and leave? The questions frustrate some homeowners. Often people invest more effort thinking about accessories for their cars than where they live."

Schweppe recommends that homeowners consider spaces they like and what lighting makes them feel comfortable. Do they go to the local library and sit in a particular corner? He cautions against starting the process by choosing light fixtures: "Forget the fixtures at the outset. Instead, ask what you want the light to do. What do you want to see? What is important in each space? If you can answer that, you're 90 percent of the way there."

After function, assess whether you want hidden fixtures or you prefer to see them, says Schweppe. Then identify tasks done and how you want the room to feel. Do you want the whole space to be bright and cheery? Do you prefer a light strip on top of the cabinets or pendants throwing light up and around?

Most good lighting stores have qualified people to help you answer these questions. Some stores deduct the fee for such consulting from the eventual bill you rack up.

The total amount of lighting for a room is determined by the footcandle requirements for that space. Footcandles are a technical measure of the amount of light on a surface, with one footcandle equaling one lumen per square foot. One dinner candle throws off approximately 12 lumens, the international measure of light quantity. Footcandle guidelines vary according to whether a space requires ambient or task lighting and the specific tasks to be lighted. The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America publishes guidelines on footcandle requirements per space (www.iesna.org).

Many ways exist to light a room, including ceiling-mounted fixtures, pendants, track lighting, table lamps, wall sconces, and indirect lighting. Indirect lighting is increasingly popular for illuminating a space or architectural features. Lighting can be hidden in soffits above cabinets or in crown molding. Washing surfaces like ceilings and walls with light helps a space feel bright.

"I like indirect lighting with which your eyes do not come into visual contact with a light source," says Eberle at Chimera. Lights hidden in an outside stone wall disappear but light a clear path to a door. Lights set into stairs subtly illuminate the stairway.

Recessed lights are a workhorse in kitchens and other areas, but lighting designers caution against their overuse because they can create shadows. "Down lights throw light on whatever they hit as they shine down," Schweppe says. "A light above the center of the kitchen sink casts a shadow and gives whomever is working under it a warm head. Instead, keep light to either side so it criss-crosses."

Different surfaces require different lighting applications. Incandescent, halogen, low-voltage, and fluorescent lights have varying qualities, color, temperatures, and advantages (see chart on Page H1). Various light sources or bulbs have dramatically diverse effects on colors and textures.

Most lighting designers recommend creating customized lighting for each room based on a furniture plan. However, Chimera's Eberle suggests a different approach: "I wouldn't light for furniture in a home. I want people to be able to use each space in multiple fashions, to have flexibility if they choose to move furniture."

Another tool to optimize lighting is lighting controls, which also promote energy efficiency by allowing the use of only the lights needed at a given time. Susan Arnold, a lighting designer at Wolfers Lighting in Waltham, says, "With one touch of a button, you can control the lights in a room and have lighting schemes for varying scenarios or times of day. Perhaps you want a dimly lit path as you shuffle to the kitchen or bathroom in the middle of the night. In addition, lighting controls can be hooked up to a home-security system so house lights flash if there's a break-in. In a fire, the lights can illuminate at 5 percent power, easing vision in smoky conditions. Lighting controls offer many options. And aesthetically, a lighting control is more streamlined than numerous dimmers in a big ganged box."

Simple dimmers also have benefits. "I love them everywhere," says Arnold. "Why not put them in your bathroom so you can wake up without being blinded? And when my teenage daughter doesn't get out of bed, I raise the lights in her room gradually until she gets up."

After a lighting plan is developed, a valuable planning step is putting up paper or cardboard facsimiles of lights and switches before the contractor runs wiring and installs fixtures. Schweppe advises that this time-saving strategy points to areas where lights or wiring will intersect with floor joists, ductwork, or plumbing pipes, enabling coordination and problem-solving before installation. This approach also shows the homeowner exactly where lighting is slated to go.

In new construction, Schweppe says, "it's also a good idea to take video or photographs of wiring in the walls and ceilings before the wallboard or plaster goes up so you have a record if you do have to make changes. It's an invaluable tool for every homeowner. When you think ahead, you save yourself time, heartache, and eventually money."

Showrooms display innumerable styles from traditional to high-tech, iron to glass, floor lamps to bendable track lighting. Homeowners are even venturing into lighting color, borrowing effects from theatrical lighting. For those assessing the choices, designers say forget the trends. Use light to help define your room.