How to create a lighting scheme

lighting scheme
A good lighting scheme is, quite simply, the make or break of a successful design

We are photosensitive creatures – we regulate our biorhythms by natural light, we are drawn to light, and to shade which of course only exists if we have light. In fact I think dappled shade on a sunny day is one of the most restorative environments and I strive to create the interest and peace created by nature in my work. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am drawn to Japanese design, with it’s appreciation of shadow and depth as negative space to pause, rest and to appreciate light.

First and foremost a home with good natural light is preferable to one which will rely on artificial light even on the brightest of days. Of course we are not always lucky enough to have our first choice on this.

If you have an area of your house which is naturally dark, don’t force it with a bucket full of light sources, enjoy the mood of shadow and find a reason for that space to ‘be’. Perhaps as a reading nook, or a drinks area. Or maybe a TV snug that not only requires, but thrives in a darker mood. If it is an essential area which really does need to be lit, read through the following guide before deciding how, where and when this should happen.

Your lighting plan will be most effective when based around your requirements for the room and your furniture layout, so it is important that you understand how you will use your space before deciding on where and what type of lights will be required. While it may seem like a pain to be thinking this far in advance, it really is key to allow electrical points, lighting circuits and light groupings to be intelligently layered, and placed at points of need to suit your lifestyle. 

Choose function first, and then you can play with the decorative.

Good lighting can accentuate the delights and hide some of the less than perfect features of your space. Poor lighting will make your space one dimensional and will dull colours. Most rooms will require at least three, sometimes four layers and sources of lighting, from downlights, pendants, spotlights, floor and table lights, picture or display lighting, and if possible have a mixture of light fittings that are visible and hidden. Multiple sources and focal points of light will create layers of depth and interest.

While there is the possibility of changing fittings once they are in place, the very best results come from designing your lighting as part of your whole scheme. Rewiring and creating multiway switches (so lights can be turned on or off at various points) will usually involve cutting into your wall, and skimming plasterwork and re- finishing to achieve the flawless finish you will want.

Essential points of a lighting plan

There are four types of lighting: general, task, accent and ambience. Each are layered together to create a coherent theme. This theme should continue not only as you move through the room, but as you move through the whole house/space. This doesn’t mean you have to have the same lighting everywhere, but that the sense of light is the same, much as you would try to unify colours between adjoining rooms. Using similar Kelvins on bulbs used throughout keeps the situational responses and object “look” the same in colour and in “feel”.

General lighting is for (as the name suggests) general light needs. Cleaning, setting up for a party, moving furniture… the big stuff of real life. This has to be sufficient to illuminate the whole space without overly shadowing. Sufficient to see cobwebs (yes we all have them!), smears on windows and photo frames, and to be able to move through the space efficiently and quickly.

Task lighting is (again as the name suggests) for specific tasks. This could be cooking or prep in the kitchen, or reading in the living room. If you have a hobby you like to do in a certain room, this is the lighting to ensure your eyes don’t strain, or so you can find the specific wrench you need. Task lighting can also be wayfinding – lighting which guides you from one area to another (either specific, such as commercial fire escape routes, or something such as stair lighting at low level to help highlight stair contrast at dawn and dusk), or perhaps subtle garden lighting to draw you down a certain path….

Accent lighting is where the special effects lie. This can be in a subtle low level light wash to accent architectural detail, or a spotlight on a sculpture, bringing drama. Here you can really have fun with all the natural elements, or created elements of your space… I have used very impressive lights which cast little lumen into a room purely because they are beautiful and enhance the room (whether on or off), however in lighting terms these would not be sufficient alone and so while they serve their purpose, they must be reinforced. Think of a lead singer alone, and then with a backing group. The lead singer may be great in their own right, but the harmonies and volume added by the backing singers add to and layer the lead singers abilities, making the ensemble altogether more joyful.

Ambience lighting is that which creates the mood you want in a space. Wall, table and floor lights in certain groupings are most effective and can be gathered to a wall switch in a 5 Amp circuit, so that your atmosphere is created at the flick of a switch, rather than at a switch on each independent source.This form of lighting should pool and puddle with interest while leaving space for shadows to play and mood to mellow. I often use it as a grounding force in tall rooms, where the low level lights coming on at dusk make for a more intimate space. 5 Amp circuits are also efficient as a zoning mechanism, when used to ‘border’ areas.

With all mains lights, using a dimmer circuit is a great idea as it can lumen-bridge between the soft light required of a summers evening and the brighter requirements of the same room in winter. Ensure this circuit is marked as a dimmable one on your plans, and each fitting is also marked as the wiring, switching and bulbs for dimming are different to non-dimming.

Multiway circuits are brilliant at giving ease to your lighting scheme. Multiway (multiple way) means you have the ability to switch lights on and off from a number of points. This is particularly helpful if you have a room which is accessed via a number of routes or a room which changes its requirements based on your location in it (for example switching bedroom lights off from the bedside, not just from the entry point to the bedroom). On occasion you will find a room that has too many accesses to create a switch for all of them – this will be clear on plan. This may happen in a hallway which may have several rooms leading off it. I have found that a successful solution is to use a switched circuit to introduce occasional focus (perhaps on the hallway table or by a mirror when you have guests coming over), but to have a circuit of discreet general lights on a sensor, activated through movement in the space, for everyday use. These can be preset to turn off after a certain period of time.

If lumens, Kelvins and circuits sound like another language, do see my glossary of technical lighting terms – the A-Z of lighting language – for explanations!


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