Interior residential lighting trends are changing the way we see our spaces with nontraditional approaches, more universal functionality and smarter technologies.

Technology continues to challenge traditions and long-held notions about residential interior lighting. Evolving demographics, increased demand for energy efficiency and sheer creativity are rewriting the rules in new construction and remodeling projects. A fundamental shift is occurring in lighting applications. It’s too big to ignore and requires diligence on industry developments and being open to new ideas and needs.

According to Mary Beth Gotti, manager, GE Lighting and Electrical Institute, Cleveland, industry trends continue to reflect the desire for more layers of light in the home compared to the past few decades.

“You’re seeing more focus on the aesthetic aspects and how light can create mood and enhance architecture,” Gotti said.

The pace of change in the American home is expected to accelerate dramatically in the next several years, according to recent research conducted by the National Association of Home Builders. The study asked some 500 architects, designers, manufacturers and marketing experts what they expect to be prevalent in average and upscale homes in 2015.

Respondents said the industry will be recognizing the power of mood lighting. They expect a definite trend toward recessed lighting used more commonly in the kitchen, media room and finished basements. Interviewees predicted more chandeliers in dining rooms and entry foyers of upscale homes and some unique hanging fixtures doubling as artwork.

“Traditional residential lighting fixtures can be used in unique, nontraditional applications, such as chandeliers in bathrooms or mini pendants over bedroom night stands. Historically, these types of fixtures have found their way to one location in a home, and the idea of expanding their applications helps people use lighting in more contemporary and creative ways,” said Mark Lynders, divisional general manager, ceiling fans and lighting fixtures, Westinghouse Lighting Corp., Philadelphia.

“The rules are changing,” said Patricia Rizzo, M.S., adjunct associate professor and residential program manager of the Lighting Research Center—Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “The key is flexibility and making sure that lighting is being applied in a way that accommodates the aesthetic desires and physical needs of the homeowner through the various stages of life.”

Universal design opportunities

The growing surge in baby boomers becoming senior citizens and the accompanying demand to age-in-place are the largest demographic changes taking place in American culture. According to the Universal Design Alliance, one in four adults is 50 years or older, while those in the 85-and-older age group are the fastest-growing population segment.

As life expectancies have increased, more aging adults desire to be cared for in the comfort of their own homes or those of their families, rather than assisted living or nursing home facilities. The concept of residential universal design is based on designing dwellings to accommodate a broad segment of the population, from toddlers to the elderly.

More homes are being built to service “sandwich” generations, Rizzo said, such as grandparents outfitted with first-floor master bedroom suites. Other general features of universal design include wider hallways and doorways, zero-step entries and smooth thresholds, disabled-accessible bathrooms, door levers instead of knobs, and appliances and cabinets within easier reach.

Along with these cultural and structural changes comes the responsibility to properly light the areas. Rizzo has been researching and exploring the role of lighting in universal design and designing lighting to meet the needs of the aging eye.

“A number of optical changes occur in our eyes before the age of 65. And then neural changes and diseases become more common after 65, which all mean that less light reaches the retina, and we don’t see as well,” Rizzo said.

As a result, the needs of the aging eye can be addressed by minimizing direct glare, avoiding light reflection from glossy surfaces, maintaining uniform light levels and attempting to create a diffused, even glow throughout a space, placing more light close to a task and providing good contrast between transition areas.

Rizzo said light emitting diodes (LEDs) provide a special benefit to the aging eye.

“As we age, our sleep patterns become irregular and being exposed to the right amount and intensity of light at the right time of day can help regulate a body’s circadian rhythm,” Rizzo said. “Interestingly, because humans are blue sky detectors, the perfect color to activate our systems to the solar day is the wavelength of the blue LED, peaking at 470 nanometers [nm].”

Linear LEDs and other light sources can be distributed in confined spaces, such as under counters and toe kicks, defining edges, around door jambs, behind handrails and step lighting.

Another special universal design application Rizzo suggests is the incorporation of a lighted mail drop, such as a dedicated pull-down drawer adjacent to a front door or a utility room. A door-switch-activated light can enable a physically disabled person to safely and more visibly send and retrieve mail.

Automated energy efficiencies

An increasing number of consumers are becoming savvy about lighting and understanding that using simple controls to turn off lights can have a positive impact on their energy bills, said Dean Pournaras, Watt Stopper/Legrand vice president.

Just as automated residential lighting controls—such as low-voltage, wired controls and wireless systems—have introduced homeowners to a world of energy efficiencies and conveniences formerly reserved for commercial and industrial applications, passive-infrared (PIR) sensors and time-based switch technologies are joining the list of solutions bolstering contractors’ business opportunities.

PIR vacancy sensors positioned for a clear line of sight detect when a space such as a bathroom or bedroom becomes vacant and turn lighting off automatically after a preset time delay elapses. Users also can manually turn lights on/off at any time. Dual relay models also are available to control lighting and exhaust fans simultaneously.

Driven in large part by the Department of Energy’s Title 24 mandate in California, many homeowners became familiar with occupancy sensors, which allow lights to turn on automatically upon entry into a room. Ideal for commercial applications, Pournaras said they are suitable in areas such as utility rooms, storage areas and closets, but they can be problematic in areas such as bedrooms if someone is trying to sleep. These are the areas where a vacancy sensor is a better fit.

“It’s important to remember that sensors operate as a standard on/off switch, so if lights aren’t needed, you manually turn them off. The trick is if you forget to turn them off in a vacant room, they’ll turn off automatically,” Pournaras said, adding that vacancy sensors are now required in all new construction in California.

In areas where occupancy and vacancy sensors are inappropriate, homeowners can take advantage of time-based controls. Timed switches provide an LCD display and programmable, preset pushbutton switches for increased flexibility.

“There are retail sensor programs for new construction and remodeling to help contractors educate the market. If you can sell a light switch for $1, a dimmer might be $15, and a sensor might be $25. There’s potential for contractors to upsell, and more importantly, consumers will be more inclined to pay for the product if they know about it,” Pournaras said.

Innovative applications

New LED lighting technologies are taking conventional lighting wisdom down new paths. Color Kinetic’s Intelliwhite is a new solid-state lighting system designed to bring color temperature control and fixed-color dimming to applications, such as concealed fixtures, heat-sensitive zones, harsh/vibration-prone environments, or areas where frequent maintenance or replacement is necessary. LEDs also are being used in fashionable plumbing fixtures to create a visible light band that indicates water temperature settings.

GE’s VIO white LED from Lumination LLC may lead to a new era for lighting fixture OEMs and designers. VIO uses violet-chip technology to produce a less than 100-Kelvin color shift over a 50,000-hour rated life. Potential applications for VIO LEDs are general (pendant, sconce); commercial (task, display); landscape (pathway, in-ground); and architectural (wall wash, marker) lighting.

Despite the focus on new technologies in common residential applications, consumers also can take advantage of many light quality and green advancements in incandescent, halogen and fluorescent technologies.

“Today’s compact fluorescents allow us to get all the light we need without all the excess that comes with it. They offer long life and energy savings and add a real solid task light source family. They’re more adaptable to the average home, and there are more dimming options,” Gotti said.

In terms of the quality of light, new halogen sources provide greater color enhancement, and GE’s Reveal bulbs reduce much of the yellowness associated with conventional incandescents. There are faster warm-up times and more interesting shapes than ever before.

The Lighting Research Center and the Alliance for Solid-State Illumination Systems and Technologies (ASSIST) have unveiled a unique concept for lighting homes and offices that integrates solid-state lighting with building materials and systems to create electronic walls and ceilings. The design includes interchangeable, modular panels that snap in and out of an electrical grid. Occupants can change the location of fixtures or introduce new fixtures to satisfy their needs or moods with greater ease than moving furniture and without any wall repair.

“In many ways, this recent design concept with LEDs is profound, as light can now become part of the architecture,” said Makarand Chipalkatti, innovation management, Osram Sylvania.

The evolution of lighting technology in recent years is moving at a fast pace.

“We’ve seen quicker adoption of new technologies in commercial and industrial, but now we’ve seen a lot more attention paid to lighting in residential, and I would expect that to advance,” Gotti said. EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at