February 3, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 05
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Sunday, Sep 20, 2020



Real Estate
by Eric Wallen

In designing with light, you are creating a "scene" for a room. You are making a composition, painting with light. Lighting design is all about light control. Create drama, soothe a space, highlight a focal point, and maybe even add color for emotion and textural excitement. For the daring, spectacular effects are possible using colored lenses and even "cutouts" to throw patterns onto walls and ceilings. Your home is stage set&the possibilities are as unlimited as you are.

"Layering with light" is the most important concept in lighting design. The most used tool of lighting design today is the four inch low voltage halogen downlight. These offer flexibility while aiming the light beam very specifically, and are made to be dimmed so you can create different levels of light in the same room. Night light level requirements are always less than daylight levels, so dimmers will really help. Some offer more than one instant setting.

Low voltage lighting is now affordable. Today's dimmer switches and low voltage lights actually reduce energy bills. Most of them can be easily installed. Always follow the manufacturer's requirements and use the right low voltage dimmers for the low voltage lights. The lighting salesperson will gladly help you. Low voltage lights last three times longer than regular bulbs and are easily dimmed. There are also less intense lamps like Zenon and LEDs that last even longer.

If efficiency is important to you, today's compact fluorescent bulbs are greatly improved. A 40-watt fluorescent throws the equivalent of a 150 watt regular light bulb. Now it's hard to even know they are fluorescent -just make sure their temperature and color rendering numbers are chosen correctly. Specify 3500 degree Kelvin or less to keep the light warm, with a Color Rating Index (CRI) of over 80 so things don't look sterile like those old fluorescents did.

Fluorescents that go into regular table lamps are not dimmable. Flat fluorescents are developing. We already are seeing nightlights, and much larger sheets are coming to market. Electronic ballasts are most efficient, but can interfere with your sound system. Also, some fluorescent light ballasts are dimmable but you must use special dimmers, which are very expensive.

Track lighting is another great way to provide specific lighting, especially for tasks or highlighting art. They are also more flexible as to positioning than ceiling cans. Go to a good lighting store (Seattle has lots of them). Most things will actually be in stock, you'll find a greater selection, and the salespeople will know what you are talking about. This is true for all your lighting needs, including a vast array of bulb possibilities you will never see in Fred Mundane.

Interior designers will often provide the lighting designer with a furniture plan. This is fine for clients who intend to keep their furniture exactly where it is. However, if you choose to change your room around, you may find the furniture downlights aren't doing their job anymore. Be careful where you place your furniture downlights, or get yourself a partner who is an electrician!

Designers often use several downlights throughout a room, at different intensities discretely aimed at focal points or reading locations. Don't go overboard. Too many ceiling cans create a "swiss cheese" effect. Less is more. Position them in ways that relate to the room while still doing their job. Try to be consistent. Random ceiling cans look tacky. Ideally you should not notice them. Always use the less visible and highly accurate slot apertures and paint them out to match the ceiling. Do not install those big black or chrome ceiling holes that too many contractors and architects choose. Yes, they're cheaper but they'll ruin a room faster than mad cow in heat!

Always get adjustable downlights with adjustable slot aperture trim with at least 50-watt capacity. You can dim them down, but nothing's more frustrating than fixtures that don't throw enough light or don't aim where you need. If your ceiling is insulated, code requires that you use "IC" rated cans to prevent overheating and to hold in the heat and to keep the insulation out.

Low voltage lighting of all kinds requires a transformer. If you are remodeling, you can use the low voltage cans with the transformers built inside them. Make sure they are quiet. Ask at the store before buying. If they buzz noticeably when lit, they are defective or just cheap things, honey. Return the hussies and throw a fit until you get quieter ones! Generally, the ones made in third world countries are going to break when you try to adjust them. Spend a little more and get a good adjustable light that will last for years.

For major remodeling or new construction, use remote transformers that are hidden away in a closet or basement. The downlights are cheaper this way, and guaranteed to be silent. Remote transformers can be mounted on a plywood board with rubber or neoprene mounts to stop vibration. Always use interior grade low voltage wiring for inside your house for these. Low voltage landscape wire is not designed for interiors due to possible enclosed heat buildup. Heavier wire is needed for longer runs or when you have many lights on one circuit. Transformers and wire sizes should be sized accordingly to prevent voltage drop. Ask at the store. Sometimes they have people who will size them for you, or contact the local product rep.

Now add more layers of light to your room by adding sources of light at different levels. Decorative wall sconces, floor and table lamps can work with the room d├ęcor and help to soften and expand a room's warm glow. And girl, talk about choices!: from gaudy soft light faboo to texturals to lean high intensity steel that cut beams of light through a room.

Floor uplights are an inexpensive way to accentuate plants and large vertical motifs, potentially throwing complex shadows. They are hidden accent lights that are highly dramatic. But remember, less is more.

The secret to good lighting is saying no to glare! If your room has large glass windows or walls, floor and table lamps should be well shielded with opaque shades to prevent nighttime reflections. If done correctly, most people wont realize why the room feels so cozy and inviting, and where the glowing light is coming from. If done well, it's coming from several levels and sources, all carefully controlled.

Eric Wallen is a Seattle lighting designer. For years he helped illuminate the lives of Fabulous People in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now it's Seattle's turn! He can be reached at

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