10 Tips for Choosing your Lighting

No single design component has as much power to elevate or devalue your design as lighting. Whether you’re building new or renovating, these simple tips will help you through this important design phase.

#1: Do your lighting plan at least 8 weeks in advance.

If you think lighting is something that can wait until the end, you’ll be sorely disappointed with your options. Give yourself as much freedom as possible by planning your lighting at least eight weeks in advance, this way:

  • You’ll have more fixtures to choose from. Like good food, high quality lighting takes time to make and ship. Your options will be considerably greater at two months out than they will at two weeks. You’ll also give yourself some buffer time so your lighting install can go smoothly.
  • You’ll have more control over your lighting plan. Avoid being restricted by conventional wiring layouts; after all, there’s nothing conventional about your design.
  • You’ll have the budget to do what you want. If you wait too long, unexpected costs during the build will limit your options, and the last thing you want is to be making key design decisions in a financial crunch. See Tip #2 to learn what percentage of your budget you should allocate to lighting.

#2: Plan to spend about 3-5% of your budget on lighting.

Lighting has a profound influence on how you feel, how you behave, and how you interact with people within a space. More pragmatically, lighting also has an effect on power bills, and the safety of a space. Quality lighting will enhance your design, last longer, look spectacular, and save you money in the long run. From a decorative standpoint, the right fixtures exert a cohesive influence on the design. From a functional standpoint, the right light levels and layout highlight and support the beauty of a design.

Given the crucial role that lighting plays, you need to establish a lighting budget ahead of time to ensure that it’s a strong design element, not simply a rushed afterthought. Conventional building advice might state that 0.5% is enough, but for those who understand and value design, plan to spend around 3-5% of your budget on lighting.

#3: Consult a lighting specialist who understands design.

If you’ve enlisted the help of an interior designer, they’ll often work with a lighting partner themselves, or refer you to one. If you’re doing it on your own, seek out a lighting supplier who has that magic combination of technical expertise and design savvy: someone who regularly works with electrical engineers and interior designers themselves. As you’ll learn, there’s more to picking a fixture than choosing a pretty lampshade.

#4: Start with recessed lighting.

A good recessed plan sets the groundwork for the rest of your design, so it’s crucial to call your lighting supplier and make an appointment as early as possible. More than anyone else, a good lighting specialist will be able to create a plan that balances both your aesthetic and practical needs. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a templated recessed plan will serve the nuances of your unique space.

#5: Layer your lighting.

Approach your lighting plan like you would your wardrobe: different layers for different scenes. Your lighting needs change throughout the day according to your activities and moods, so it makes sense to set up your lighting to accommodate these needs. Think of your lighting in terms of spatial organization:

  • Ground lighting (outdoor, in-floor lighting, passage lighting, etc.)
  • Mid-range (feature lighting like floor lamps, table lamps, low-hanging pendants and chandeliers, indoors and out, etc.)
  • Ceiling (potlights, recessed, etc.)

Ask a lighting expert who understands design to help you make these levels work together to create multiple lighting effects.

#6: Choose your fixtures based on function.

Each fixture you put into a space should serve a specific purpose. Understanding this underlying “why” will help you create an environment that’s cohesive and functional. The great thing about lighting is that there’s a light for every need:

  • Feature: these fixtures make a statement, and are chosen more for the character they add to the space than for the amount of light they give off
  • Task: whether you’re reading, cooking, or eating, these fixtures shine some light on the task at hand
  • Detail: incorporate lighting into the design to create cool effects like back-lighting on your bathroom mirrors, or under-cabinet lighting in your kitchen
  • Accent: when you want to call attention to a particular feature in a space, like a painting, or the building itself and the landscaping outside
  • Basic functional: use recessed to cover your basic needs

#7: Know your ceilings.

Before you go to choose your fixtures, it’s important to have basic information about your ceiling on hand. Here’s what you should know:

  • Ceiling height
  • Ceiling materials (will determine how much weight you can hang from it, and if you need reinforcement)
  • Height of your counters (if you’re looking for over-the-counter pendants)
  • Ceiling insulation (whether or not you have it will determine the type of housing you need)

#8: To dim, or not to dim?

Know whether or not you want dimmable fixtures, and where, because this will dictate the selection from which you have to choose. It’s best to consult with your interior designer or lighting supplier; they can walk you through the pros and cons, and the locations in which dimmable fixtures would be ideal.

#9: When it comes to lamping, you have options.

The lighting industry has come a long way since Edison. Not only do you now have choices about the efficiency of the lamping you use, but also the aesthetics of the light it produces. While it’s best to consult with your lighting supplier about your lamping options, here’s a quick comparison.

Incandescent: the traditional “Edison” bulb, this lamp emits a warm, broad spectrum, however, as much as 90% of the power consumed by an incandescent is emitted as heat rather than visible light. Given far more efficient alternatives, governments are starting to mandate a phase-out or ban of its use.

Halogen: a form of incandescent, this lamp has the truest colour rendering of any light (which is why it’s most often used to illuminate art). While it’s relatively low-cost and long-life options are available, it is associated with higher CO2 emissions.

Fluorescent: is a gas-discharge lamp that uses electricity to excite mercury vapor. A fluorescent lamp converts electrical power into useful light more efficiently than an incandescent lamp. Lower energy cost typically offsets the higher initial cost of the lamp.

LED: a solid-state lamp that uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as its source of light. LED lamps offer longer service life and higher energy efficiency than any other lamping option, and their small size makes them incredibly versatile. Contrary to common belief, LEDs have a versatile colour range to suit any aesthetic goal: natural white, warm white, cold white, RGB, and amber. Multichip technology even lets you combine different colour chips in a single unit for any colour temperature you envision.

Bonus tip: for fixtures that are in tough to access locations, it’s a smart idea to use lamping with a long lifetime, such as LEDs.

#10: Consider the benefits of energy efficient lighting.

In a time when energy crises and rising cost of power are a reality, it makes sense to get proactive about choosing fixtures that benefit both the earth and your pocket book in the long run. Consider the difference between a 35-watt halogen MR16 (considered to be relatively energy efficient) and a 5-watt LED:

Output (lumens)* CO2** Cost Life (hours) Run Cost (per 1,000 hours)***
Halogen MR16 600 46 $5.00 2,000-4,000 $5.80
LED 1000 7 $38.00 35,000-50,000 $1.49

*Lumens are a measurement of the perceived power of light. **Approx. emission per 1,000 hrs. of use assuming coal generated electricity. ***Includes electricity at average of 12¢/kwh.

Based on these numbers, the LED lasts 12.5 times longer than the halogen, while providing more lumen output. Additionally, if the halogen were to run for 50,000 hours, it would cost $290.50, while during the same amount of time, the LED would cost $74.50. When you factor in the original cost of each lamp, the total cost for the halogen is $295, while the total LED cost is $112.50.

That’s a savings of $182.50 in the first 5 years. Not to mention that you still haven’t had to change the LED, while you would have had to change the halogen lamp 12 times already. Lamps with longer life will require fewer replacements, reducing the demand for raw materials and lowering recycling costs.

Even if you decide to go energy efficient for only a portion of your lighting, a strategic approach will help you make the most of them. Put the most efficient lights in main rooms, desk lights, the kitchen, and the dining room. Don’t forget about your outdoor lights—even better, install motion sensors or timers on outdoor lighting. Task-specific lighting is also a more efficient way of using lights. By illuminating a specific area rather than the whole room a much smaller amount of light may be used.

As always, it’s best to consult your lighting specialist to learn about the options that are best for you. Remember to look for that lighting specialist who can act as a bridge between your interior designer and electrical engineer: this way your aesthetic and technical needs will be balanced.

While these tips only scratch the surface of things to consider when choosing lighting for your space, they are a good start. We recommend that you contact an experienced lighting supplier at least two months in advance to help you create a lighting plan that will truly enhance your design.

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