Jennifer Sheahan: Lighting choice is key to your home's overall design

Home of the Year winner Jennifer Sheahan switches attention to choosing that all-important element of our decor
Jennifer Sheahan: Lighting choice is key to your home's overall design

Peacock lights - design pieces in their own right and provide lighting.

It is all too easy to leave lighting as one of the last decisions you make when redecorating or renovating, but let me implore you now to make it one of the first things that you think about.

Lighting is incredibly important to the overall design of your home and for me, it was one of the areas that took the most brainpower to figure out and get right.

Bad lighting can undo all the hard work you put into making the rest of your interiors look great, whereas good lighting can transform a space from nice to mind-blowing.

You also do not have to spend a bomb to get great lighting: you just need to plan ahead and think creatively. Let me help you with that.

WHAT GOES WHERE?

Aside from being an integral aspect of your overall design, one of the main reasons you need to decide lighting early is that your wiring and switches need to be in the right places. When renovating, your electrician will install the basic wiring during “first fix”, which is usually just before the walls are plastered. If you haven’t made lighting decisions by this early stage, you run the risk of either not getting what you want because your electrics will not be in the right places, or facing a potentially expensive rewiring and replastering job.

As a general rule, I dislike overhead lighting. I find it unflattering and prefer diffused wall lighting where possible. However, overhead task lighting is necessary in working spaces. Therefore my guideline is to install ceiling spotlights in kitchen working areas, in bathrooms, and in offices or other working spaces. Everywhere else, I recommend installing wall lighting or lamps.

FUNCTIONAL LIGHTING

A general approach in new builds seems to be to fire as many spotlights into the ceilings as possible and call it a day. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this as LED spotlights are cheap, unobtrusive, and provide good task lighting. But before you just go with “as many spotlights as possible”, the question you really need to ask is how much light you need in each space.

Wall lights beside bathroom mirrors are best.
Wall lights beside bathroom mirrors are best.

The amount of light emitted by a bulb is measured in lumens. A standard LED spotlight gives off between 300 and 500 lumens.

Kitchens and other working areas require 300-400 lumens per square meter. Therefore a general rule of thumb is to install one LED spotlight per square metre in these areas. If you have very high ceilings, you may require brighter bulbs or more spotlights to get sufficient light.

Depending on the layout of your space, you may not require spotlights all over your entire ceiling — you can choose to just have them over the working areas such as kitchen countertops or office desks, and to use different lighting options in other parts of the room.

It is always a good idea to have each zone of lighting on its own switch, and even better to have spotlights on dimmer switches, so that you can control the brightness as needed.

AMBIENT LIGHTING

In entertaining areas such as living rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms, you only need around 150-200 lumens per square metre for ambient lighting, and it is much more effective and flattering to use diffused wall lighting instead of overhead bulbs or spotlights. You can also choose to combine wall lights and lamps with spotlights — just ensure they are on different switches so that you can easily change the lighting to suit the mood.

In each area, think about where you need lighting. For example, it’s always a good idea to have lighting beside a couch, an armchair, or a bed so that you can read. Wall lighting beside bathroom mirrors is also a good idea. Therefore you can decide where to place your lighting once you have decided on your room layouts.

ACCENT LIGHTING

If you have beautiful artwork, interesting design details, or just general things you like around your home, accent lighting is a great way to highlight these features while bringing additional cosy ambient lighting into the room. 

A low, warm spotlight on a piece of art along an otherwise dark hallway is a dramatic and impactful way to highlight your favourite features while providing sufficient light for a low-traffic space. 

Stag head design accent light and LED wall strips.
Stag head design accent light and LED wall strips.

I have LED strips along the back of picture shelves in my dining room, which both uplights my artwork and provides diffuse ambient lighting around my dining table. I can also never get enough of fairy lights — I put them up the first Christmas in my home and never took them down. I adore them wound through leafy green plants, laid along bookshelves or draped along a bannister.

WHICH LIGHT BULBS?

There are so many options available that it would take a whole other article to cover them all, so I’m going to keep this simple — LEDs are the most energy-efficient light bulbs available, and given the energy crisis we’re facing it’s hard to argue against them. LEDs are available as bulbs, spotlights, and strip lighting so can be used in most areas of your home. They are even available in the popular Edison bare-bulb style. In summary, unless you are choosing an unusual fixture that requires a specific bulb, LEDs are your best bet.

Peacock lights - design pieces in their own right and provide lighting.
Peacock lights - design pieces in their own right and provide lighting.

Your next choice is brightness and warmth: the brightness will be measured in watts, and warmth in Kelvins. LEDs only require low wattage; an average LED light bulb at 8 watts will give off 800 lumens of light. Kelvins in light bulbs range from around 4200k for a bright “white” (cool) light, down to around 2200k for a more “yellow” (warm) light. I like warmer lighting in general, especially for ambient lighting, but you can choose your own adventure.

  • Got a question for Jennifer Sheahan? Email home improvement@examiner.ie.

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