Layers of Light

Trends in Residential Indoor Lighting

”The big thing about residential lighting is that people are taking it more seriously. They are bringing us in for lighting design to showcase their homes,” said Mike Boso, Residential Superintendent, Doan/Pyramid, a Cleveland, Ohio-area company whose clients’ homes range in size from 2,000 to 50,000 square feet. Is this the norm?

In spite of well-publicized energy crises, new technologies and urging of government—including the Energy Policy Act of 1992 calling for more lighting efficiency at home—most homeowners have been slow to adopt changes in lighting. Most light their homes as they have done for decades. That doesn’t present itself as much of a profit incentive for electrical contractors.

Yet, there’s a growing awareness of changing lighting technology. People see high-end homes in the movies, notice the moods set by the push of a button and are beginning to think about how it might apply to them. Designers are rethinking home lighting. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), in association with several universities and professional institutes is studying the development of energy-efficient lighting and soliciting industry comments (

Think tanks are discussing the issue, too. In October 2003, the Lighting Research Center (LRC), part of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., co-organized the one-day “Bridges in Light” symposium in conjunction with an advisory council composed of leaders in the lighting industry. Held in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., participants described it as the “First Continental Congress of Lighting.” The focus was on environmentally conscious design, lighting systems, and promotion of the value of lighting.

“Most people view lighting as a commodity,” said Mark Rea, Ph.D., co-chair of the symposium and director of the LRC. “They purchase lighting products, but don’t understand the true value of lighting, including its ability to affect our health, comfort, productivity and even energy savings.” His comments were echoed by symposium co-chair Govi Rao, vice president of business creation at Philips Lighting Co. “Lighting is ubiquitous,” said Rao, “but as an industry, we don’t do a good job of educating consumers about the lighting that is all around them.” (

Enter the electrical contractor. Some are educating their customers about the possibilities. “The worst service you can do to a customer is not to say anything and let them do what they did in their last house and be as unhappy with the lighting in the new house as they were in the last house. Lighting is everything. It makes the difference in the way they enjoy the space,” said Boso. Another contractor also doubles as a lighting designer, as a small part of his company’s business. “You can match the light to the owner’s personality and to how they feel about each room. When you sit down with people and look at their house plans, you’re looking at what’s shown by the architect in terms of rooms, fireplaces, windows. The areas require nice lighting to give you an ambiance. Electrical contractors should know the sources of light to be able to create the ambiance. They should also know the energy requirements (Title 24 in California) for every area in the home. Lighting is one of the most important parts of the job in terms of the owner being comfortable with a home. All of the choices about paint, carpet, cabinets are enhanced by lighting.”

What do these and other electrical contractors and industry professionals find are the predominant trends in residential indoor lighting?

“The job is always better if you use the philosophy of different layers—a down layer, a middle layer and an up layer,” said Boso. “In every room, layers are the key. Recessed lighting has been the trend for the past 20 years, but even that you can overdo. You can light the room well, but you have 20 holes in the ceiling. If you have three components in a room, then the room is well lit. If you limit to down lighting, then the ceilings are darker and heavier and the room has a heavier feel. If you limit to up lighting, you might not have enough lighting down on surfaces like in the dining room where you’re eating. If you limit to mid-lighting, if you have to choose, at least you get both up and down. If you count on one light source, you’re usually disappointed.

“The big thing that makes residential lighting go well is how you control it,” added Boso. “We try to eliminate switches on the wall and set up lighting control systems so we can manage all lighting with a single button. High-end homeowners entertain a lot. They don’t want to think about getting everything to the right light level. Once you are past the place of placing your furniture and hanging the art, you can create drama with light levels of different intensities. We go to the home in the evening hours and create scenes. They like this look, that look and the other look. We don’t need to make any decisions past that point. It’s all done on a button.”

“Several things are creeping into tract homes,” said Watson, “including task lighting under counters and recessed lights to touch up family rooms. For individual homes, we tend to use a light source that will leave the natural color of the object. I tend to shy away from fluorescents for that, in spite of the color corrections. And I shy away from using metal halide in homes as well. You can give the homeowner a little variance by using dimmers and low-voltage lighting. In a living room, you can use incandescent light for general lighting and then use a circuit track with quartz light to highlight artwork or for reading. In a dining room, you can use a central chandelier and then lights around the periphery to give ambient light. People that come to a house always seem to end up in the kitchen, so I like to include different shades of light in that room—task lights for the cook, then use dimmers so you don’t use all the light when the guests are there.”

“People are moving away from luminous ceilings with lights shining through a piece of plastic and into recessed lighting that you can aim, or focus on display, “ said Skeeter Holt, President, Apollo Electric, Brea, Calif. “There’s also an increased use of the compact fluorescent. The upside is the efficiency and Title 24 considerations and the downside is the cost of the ballast replacement.”

“Budget is always part of the picture. “If money is not an issue, there’s an endless amount of things you can do,” said Dan Diener, Vice President, MacFarlane Electric, Santa Ana, Calif. “Saving money is always a trend. The other trend these days is use of lighting control software.

“The biggest trend is energy conservation,” said Jack Gebelin, President, United Contractors Inc. “Today you can get better color from fluorescents—3000 or 3500 Kelvin, where before it was 4100 (cool white). The lower Kelvin range is much softer. It makes people and wood look better.

“In apartments,” adds Gebelin, “lighting trends don’t usually apply except in common areas like lobbies, lounges or exteriors. There we usually use recessed 2-ft.-by-4-ft. or 2-ft.-by-4-ft. fluorescents, recessed cans with compact fluorescent lamps and trim some of the down lights so that they function as wall washers—to light the wall. Another trend is to cover fluorescents with parabolic cubes to reduce glare and so it isn’t possible to see the lamps. For exterior lighting, they are now trying to match the lighting to the architectural style of the building. “

“People are also recognizing the opportunity to control natural light as part of the total lighting control system with solar, privacy and blackout fabrics,” said Lutron’s David Weinstein. “The electrical contractor can do selection and custom installation of shades in conjunction with the architect and homeowner, then do the programming and servicing. Shading is the next opportunity for the electrician and an electrician should look at creating the market instead of getting a market share. It represents an opportunity for contractors for years to come.”

Sounds great, but not all electrical contractors are so enthusiastic. Many say that budget restrictions rule out inclusion of most lighting trends. Others comment that automated systems often break down easily. Still others tell of contractors being called to repair a system that has no available instructions, making it difficult to reprogram. Others tell of their frustration at having to install expensive sensors and lights when a simpler system would be cheaper and more energy efficient. Others complain about the problems that occur with maintenance. Since many products are not standardized, if the wrong lamp is installed in a particular ballast, it can ruin the lamp and the fixture—and the reputation of the contractor.

Perhaps the problems can be attributed to growing pains within the industry. Nonetheless, many electrical contractors have already made implementation of new lighting trends part of their business plan. How are they doing that? “Our business developed out of need,” Doan/Pyramid’s Boso said. “We had customers with the wherewithal and the desire. They drove us to look at how we were going to control and light their homes. Initially, we worked with lighting designers. Now we’ve come along. If electrical contractors want to get started, I suggest they find a kid that’s a good mechanic but has a skill with computers. It’s all in the programming. Computers are the weak link because the electronics are sophisticated. If the kid lacks the skills to do the lighting, hire a lighting designer until you get a hang of what elements are necessary to go into a room.”

Since new products are virtually flooding the market, knowing one from the other is crucial. “We know which ones work and are competitively priced and do a good job,” said Gebelin, whose company buys a million dollars worth of fixtures a year for their work on apartments and school housing projects. “When you buy in volume, you can get a good price. The owners are always looking for price, but also for ways to make apartments more pleasant. They do that by making lighting more pleasant. Sometimes they have a list of fixtures and we work it over and make recommendations. Some builders rely on us for recommendations.”

Expertise helps. The field is growing. “NECA contractors traditionally focus on commercial, but in last few years during a slow down in commercial, many have migrated to high-end residential,” said Lutron’s Weinstein. “That market represents a great opportunity for NECA contractors. Homes of $800,000 are much like commercial projects in scope and scale. If the owner buys a new house, the contractor can do a wired system. If it’s a remodel, they can put in a wireless system. The value of the wireless is that it can offer the client a high technology product that’s easy to install without disruption of walls and ceiling. It’s an easy way for contractors to provide high technology to an existing home—a profit opportunity.”

Technology and trends are both part of the residential indoor lighting picture. Some contractors are taking the expanding field seriously. EC

CASEY, author of "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors" and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at or

About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at or www.susancaseybooks...

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