Lighting Design for the Home

Technology - Lighting

Lighting Design for the Home

it is not always about what you light, but also just as important what you do not light.

By Stephen Margulies

Designing with Light

general design narrative

Light plays an important role in our daily lives. Light reveals all things. Color, texture and form cannot be experienced without light. The famous architect Louis Kahn stated, “A plan of a building should be read like a harmony of spaces in light. Even a space intended to be dark should have just enough light from some mysterious opening to tell us how dark it really is. Each space must be defined by its structure and the character of its natural light.” 

Without light we cannot see. Plants and animals require light to exist. The entire biosystem functions based on the presence of light. Light impacts our health and wellness, sleep cycles, and our perception of the spaces we work and live in. We can immediately tell when we are in spaces with good lighting and conversely tell when we are in spaces with poor lighting.

There are many factors that impact light within a space. Color, spectral distribution, intensity, and glare are just some of the basic principles we think about and employ when designing lighting systems for our daily lives. In this article we will explain basic techniques we use when designing lighting for our homes.

understanding the clients’ needs

The first thing we need to understand is who are we designing for and what their needs may be. Not too bright yet not too dim? How one arrives at the answer to this first question is not so straight forward as you might think. One example I would cite is that elderly people require more light than younger people. As we age, muscles that control our pupil size and reaction to light lose some strength.

Some people just like more light and some people like lower levels of light. People who work in the technology sector like their spaces dark so that their computer displays are not competing with ambient light.

Typically, spaces with higher levels of light are not as dramatic as spaces that are darker. We were once designing a restaurant for the famous designer Philipe Starck and he told us to make it as dark as you can until we are in trouble. In the theater one can easily see the benefit of controlled darkness. It is apparent that the light is steering what you are looking at. It is not always about what you light, but also just as important what you do not light. When spaces are lighted, we are interested in creating the prober balance of the light and the dark. Contrast creates interest and helps define space. Proper dimming helps in making these adjustments once the space is constructed, but the basic infrastructure needs to be designed into the project to allow this balancing to take place.

Since control of light has become rather sophisticated it is important to understand what the users’ expectations are for operating their lights. Individual zone control allows the occupants to individually control a specific group of lights. Each time one attempts to set the light level this process needs to be recreated. If there are multiple groups of lights within a room, then the process becomes even more complex. We typically do not want to give the users more than three controls at one location. More than that becomes extremely confusing.

When we have more than three zones of control, we normally recommend a preset solution that is programmed to establish specific scenes within a room; and this can be set for many zones. We just completed a home where the living and dining spaces were open to each other. The scenes were Day, Night, Dine, Living and Off. There were 10 unique zones and simple keypads were employed in two locations so that these scenes could be easily accessed from either room. We have seen many installations where keypads are employed but the buttons are commissioned to control individual zones in lieu of scenes. Scenes are about lifestyle - zones are about confusion.

We have also run into projects where the husband wants it one way and the wife wants it another way - that becomes a bit more difficult, but you can design systems that satisfy both parties. We will describe in more detail how this is done in a future article. Understanding the end-user’s expectations is critical for the success of any lighting system.

Lighting design for the home staircase back

understanding design palette and space

Although applying lighting principles in a home are very consistent, the styles of homes vary. One would not use the same applied equipment in a traditional home as one would in a contemporary home. Traditional homes will use more decorative lights in ways to properly render the space. Applying chandeliers, surface ceiling mount fixtures, sconces, picture lights, millwork lights, floor and table lamps are appropriate lighting tools. Modern style residences may use recessed downlights, accent and wallwash fixtures, track, surface mount fixtures and concealed coves at walls and ceiling height changes.

With any design style the lighting designer needs to understand where the furniture is going, where artwork may be placed, and the general construction techniques to properly integrate the lighting systems into the architecture.

understanding color

Homeowners have now found out that lights come in a variety of colors. I continue to see the people who chose the wrong light bulb on the Home Depot shelf and were shocked when they screwed it into their existing lighting equipment. There are basically two metrics used to defining the color of a light source. The first is Color Temperature, described in degrees Kelvin and rate of the visible color of the light source. The lower the number the warmer the light, the higher the number the cooler the light. The lamp manufacturers have come up with a variety of names for these colors, but typically you will see “Daylight” for the cooler light sources (5,000K) and “Warm” for the warmer sources (2,700K).

The second is Color Rendering Index. This is a scale of 1 to 100 and is a relative scale rating a light source’s ability to render all colors where natural daylight is the baseline at a rating of 100. The yellow high-pressure sodium streetlights which have very poor color rendering properties are rated around 65. Fluorescent lamps were rated around 70 or 80 depending on the lamp type. New LED light sources are most commonly found between 80 and 90. These LED ratings keep improving. We try to use the highest CRI ratings for residential projects. Lighting manufacturers publish this data on their specification sheets. Lamp manufacturers typically have this information on their packaging.

2,700K light sources come close to incandescent light sources and are normally desirable for most residential applications. 5,000K is definitely a mistake for residential applications.

There are many LED fixtures and lamps that offer a technology called “Warm-Dim”. These are meant to mimic the way standard incandescent lamps operate when dimmed. The lower the intensity the warmer the light. This is a great technology to use in residences.

To go one technology step further, many light fixtures offer RGBW light sources. These sources can produce both warm and cool, or almost any color imaginable. And this can be achieved through programming. Offering these capabilities adds significant complexity but is also like giving fire to a caveman!

One is not sure what today’s designers will do with these capabilities. These programmable light sources have been proven to support health and wellness in a meaningful way by impacting one’s sleep cycle - often referred to as circadian rhythm. As the technology improves, control and commissioning of such systems will become simpler. These are all very powerful tools to create great environments.





specific recommendations


When we begin a project we look for design opportunities to employ a variety of lighting techniques. As stated above we need to understand the design style, finishes, architectural details, and possible artwork locations. Once we know these important details about the project, we begin our first pass.

In each room we like to create “layers” of light in lieu of just one lighting element in a space. For example, a dining room may have a chandelier over the table, sconces on a wall and recessed wallwashers to illuminate artwork. A living room may have recessed downlights over a seating area, picture lights for artwork, floor and table lamps. A kitchen may have cove indirect lighting for a ceiling coffer, undercabinet lighting for task lighting and pendant light fixtures over a kitchen island counter. Bedrooms may have a ceiling decorative fixture and table lamps that are plugged into a dimmed wall receptacle.

Having multiple lighting effects within a room creates visual interest and allows greater flexibility for the owners so they can have a variety of “looks” for each room. The designer wants to avoid recessed downlight (highhats as known to many builders) everywhere. Create the brightness but remember the darkness. Both are required to light spaces well.


Lighting for the outside of a home needs to do more than just provide safety and security. Driveways, home entrances, and landscapes are all things to be considered for the lighting outside of the home. Overhangs, canopies, trellises and doorways are all opportunities to integrate lighting and celebrate these structures. One can provide area lighting with low-level landscape ground cover fixtures, “moon lights” mounted within tall trees and bollards. Tree up-light fixtures and lanterns of various types attached to the structure are techniques to add drama.

When featuring the building one must be careful not to cause glare through windows. Spot and floodlights mounted to the building façade projecting away from the building may be simple, but most often create undesirable glare conditions. The sense of brightness is more important than actually delivering foot-candles on the ground plane. Combining these layers of light outside the home will accentuate the features of the house and create an inviting aesthetic.

professional lighting designers

Engaging a professional lighting designer is probably the simplest way to get a great lighting project. The lighting equipment has become very complex. Selecting the right fixtures that utilize the best color, best shielding, best distribution, and compatibility with control systems is not a simple process. Going to your local building supply store and finding the right equipment on the shelves normally leads to failure. The money spent on the lighting designer will more than pay for itself in avoiding mistakes and assuring the client that they will be getting the best results. For the homeowner and the technology designer, it makes sense to engage a professional lighting designer. Lighting designers can be found on the IALD web site (

how to go forward

The residential technology designer can offer their clients the best service by aligning themselves with the best professionals in every applicable discipline. The homeowners who engage the technology experts have expectations for their home to be smart, simple to use and aesthetically well integrated. Light reveals all things. Deliver profound results!



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