Here, Roberto Serra, Co-Founder of lighting consultancy Match Lighting Studio, shares important tips on what to look for when planning good lighting and how to avoid common mistakes.
Lighting has changed substantially over the past decade, with LEDs taking over all other light sources, bringing so much more flexibility and variety to the market in terms of products and suppliers alike.
But with such ample choice and increased complexity, considering some important aspects at the outset of your project will help you achieve a good lighting scheme and avoid common traps and drawbacks.
Understand your space
Lighting for a space can be designed in many different ways, but if you want to ensure that the lighting will be optimised to suit your requirements, do spend time initially understanding as much as possible about the space itself, the people who will use it and the activities performed within.
What finishes are you going to adopt on walls, floors, ceilings and furniture? Darker finishes reflect less light than lighter ones, so the perceived brightness will be lower for the same amount and type of light installed.
Have you planned the furniture layout? Is it going to be fixed, or does it need to be flexible, such as moving a table to cater for additional seating or clearing the space for special events? Planning the right type of light over the table to suit your needs will avoid headaches (and potentially head bumps!) in the future.
What walls will have artworks, pictures or shelves? Which ones will be bare? Will they have a smooth or textured finish? Deciding this in advance will help in selecting the best lighting options, as well as identifying the best positions and types of luminaires to adopt.
What will be the activities performed in the space? Some areas manifestly require less light than others, e.g. a hallway or circulation space will most likely require less light than a kitchen or working space.
Other important questions to ask yourself include how much natural light will be available in the space and what form of window treatment you will adopt (projecting light towards a glass window is quite ineffective); the age of the individuals (younger eyes generally need less light than older ones); or various practical/technical considerations such as the presence of any obstacles in walls and ceilings, like solid concrete surfaces, concealed services, pockets for sliding doors, etc. Knowing of any potential restrictions is also important for identifying the feasible location of electrical accessories, such as control points, switches and sockets.
Identify main views and approach routes
One of the mistakes often made when planning lighting is positioning ceiling downlights in a strict symmetrical arrangement without considering what they are actually lighting. This might look good on plan, however, bear in mind that when you enter a room, you do so most likely through a door, not by flying into the space through the ceiling! As such, the predominant surfaces your eye will notice will be specific walls or pictures and furniture covering those walls. You should also consider any views beyond the room, such as towards windows or doors looking out into patios and gardens.
These spatial considerations will set the roots for a well-planned lighting scheme, where the luminaires can be positioned so as to best illuminate those predominant vertical surfaces and to prevent obstructing the best views rather than meticulously arranged symmetrically to light the floor. Lighting the vertical surfaces can also dramatically increase the perceived brightness of a space.
Layer your lighting
Once you have a good understanding of the space, start planning what type of lighting would work best there. Often the primary concern of individuals’ (poorly) planning lighting for their homes is how many downlights to install and how far apart. But while downlights can be a good option for accent or possibly task lighting, they are often not very well suited for general lighting, given their defined beam and strong intensity. There are several other forms of lighting you can adopt, such as decorative pendants, wall lights or linear lights carefully integrated to provide indirect illumination (e.g. in a ceiling slot to wash a wall).
If you want to enjoy a space to the full and make sure it will adapt to your changing moods and activities, it is important to plan multiple layers of lighting and to control them independently. You can, for example, allow for a layer of general lighting for safe and comfortable circulation in the space; a layer of task lighting for performing the main activities in the space; a layer of accent lighting to bring to life certain features of the interiors, such as pictures, artworks, columns, fireplaces, decorative objects and plants.
You can also allow for a circuit of lighting-controlled sockets (commonly referred to as 5 amps), giving you the flexibility and opportunity of adding future decorative lighting in the form of floor or table lamps, even when you haven’t picked the specific luminaires or when you need the space to be flexible.
Note that layers can be combined: a linear LED integrated under a shelf can seamlessly act as a task/accent light and as a soft, comfortable general light when dimmed down, while a pendant over a table can double up as a task light and as a decorative focal point in a room.
Plan your lighting controls
The perception of light is very subjective: planning for suitable controls and the right types of LEDs will give you the flexibility to cater for changing requirements.
Think about how you would like to combine your lighting layers and what different scenarios would best suit your habits and personal preferences. The more independent lighting circuits you have in a space, the higher the flexibility, but generally also, the higher the cost and complexity of the wiring.
The different moods and activities will likely require the various groups of lights to be set at different brightness levels for the various scenarios, meaning that the LEDs will need to be dimmable and that you will need more than a simple switch to control them.
In addition to conventionally-wired switches and dimmers, you could consider lighting control systems, which range from full-house central control systems to more cost-effective, distributed control systems with wireless keypads, or you could even adopt smart lamps, which can be easily programmed through a phone app and independently controlled via either wireless keypads or virtual assistants.
Mind that the wiring for one control solution can be substantially different to another, and your electrician needs to be well aware of which one to pursue.
Select and purchase your lights
This is where the quality of the actual manufacturer and fittings come into play, and some technical knowledge is important. Things to bear in mind are:
Colour appearance or colour temperature (CCT):
The lower the CCT, the warmer the light source, with a warm white CCT of 2700 or 3000K being the general preference for a domestic environment
Colour rendering (CRI or Ra):
Indicating how well a light source reveals true colours. The higher the CRI, the better the colour rendering. Aim for a minimum index of 80-85, but consider 90 or more for lighting artwork and fabrics.
A medium beam (25 to 40º) is generally more effective for accent lighting than a wide beam (60º and more), while fully-diffused luminaires may be preferable when providing indirect or general comfortable lighting. Adjustable/directional fittings are generally a better option for accent lighting than fixed ones, as you can direct the beam of light to the desired surfaces.
Visual comfort (glare control):
Is the light source or fitting suitably concealed from direct view to prevent discomfort to the eye? This applies to recessed downlights, but also to some linear LEDs that can be very bright in appearance.
Are those chrome finish downlights really the best option you have? Consider downlights with white finishes and discrete bezels or even trimless ones with deep recessed light sources to make them blend in the ceiling and not detract from the more aesthetically-appealing decorative luminaires.
Driver requirements and wiring:
Is the driver (transformer) integral to the luminaire, or does it need to be installed remotely? How big is it, and how far can it be installed from the LEDs? Make sure the lamps and drivers are dimmable and compatible with the control system you choose and that your electrician is well aware of the wiring requirements.
Sourcing from suppliers that manufacture locally and can certify the circularity of their product should be the preferred option, rather than buying cheap fittings imported from other continents. By adopting fewer luminaires positioned meaningfully, you can afford better quality lighting, have a much better project outcome and be more responsible toward the environment.
These are just a few of the considerations that contribute to shape a good lighting scheme. If you feel lost at any stage, consider getting the advice of a true lighting expert, even if for only part of the project (e.g. initial inspiration, luminaire selection, etc.). A little initial investment will reward you with beautiful, reliable and comfortable lighting for many years to come.