Lighting for living spaces (living rooms, dens, or bedrooms) can actually be more difficult to design than lighting for task areas (kitchens, home offices, and baths). The lighting must be flexible for the many and varied activities in these rooms. The general emphasis is on atmosphere and mood, with the occasional task (reading a book, packing for a trip, or late night cleaning.).
Accent: Start by accent lighting points of interest: artwork, architectural details, and display areas. These elements are usually at the perimeter of the room -- on or adjacent to the wall. This is best accomplished with spot lights (low voltage halogen is a good energy-efficient choice), or wall washing (large lamp fluorescent strips are good for even lighting of large areas - see note below). Track or recessed lighting are good choices for spotlighting individual pieces of artwork or points of great interest. Bookshelves, very large wall art (quilts, murals, etc.) or collections (groups of small objects with equal import) are best lit with wallwashers. These can take the form of recessed cans or track, but a better choice may be to use architectural fixtures. A luminous soffitt or a valance can be built to hold fluorescent strips to provide uniform wall lighting. Don't forget to light 'floating' furniture like coffee tables, as these provide a nice focal point for seating areas.
Task: Once the points of interest have been lit, look for task areas to light (reading, wet bars, hobby or game tables). The amount of light you need will vary -- some hobbies can require a lot of light, while casual reading may use much less. A good strategy is to physically bring the light source to the task, as in a hanging fixture or a floor lamp, or to project the light to the task as with a spot light from track or recessed fixtures, but beware of glare with spot lights! Decorative elements in these areas such as portable fixtures, or a pendant hanging over a game table can be a nice touch. If you use recessed lighting, plan your furniture layout very carefully. If you make significant changes later, the tasks may be in different places.
Ambient: After the accent lighting and the task lighting comes the ambient lighting. In small rooms with light surfaces, you may not need any extra lighting to provide ambient light. Portable fixtures and the light reflecting off of artwork may provide enough light to comfortably move through the space. However, in a large room, or one with dark surfaces, additional ambient lighting may be wanted. Recessed lighting is a poor choice for ambient lighting. Instead, look to use wall sconces or ceiling lights, or add a portable fixture or two (think about using switched outlets on the portables). A great way to add ambient light is with indirect fluorescent lights. You can create a cove or lightshelf on the walls to bounce light off of the ceiling. Lighting the ceiling helps expand the space and can add visual interest to the room itself.
Remember to layer the light and control the layers independently so the room can adapt to different functions as desired. Dimmers are a good way to help the lighting be more adaptable and they extend the life of incandescent bulbs considerably.
Note: Recommendation: use electronic ballasts for T-8 lamps. In living spaces a low color temperature (3000 degrees K) and a high CRI (80+) is usually desirable. If your lighting budget allows, think about using a dimmable ballast.
by Eric Strandberg, The Lighting Design Lab
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