Lighting Isn’t Cheap: Here’s How to Do It Right

With the cost of today’s bulbs and fixtures, it pays to plan for lighting on the front-end of your remodel. Picking the right fixtures and bulbs for your remodel can be an intimidating process, but taking some time to plot out your lighting will save you money in the long run

Choosing lighting
Lighting was once the poor relation of remodeling — a check-off item more endured than embraced.

A few years ago, you would have spent maybe 1.5% of your remodeling budget on lighting. But today you’re looking at more like 5%. After all, one LED bulb can cost $35; and the newest, smartest, wireless-connected bulbs featured on the Apple store site cost $60 each.

LED Lighting

“It’s a new world of lighting,” says lighting guru Joseph Rey-Barreau, an architect, lighting designer, and University of Kentucky design professor. “Changes are happening so quickly, people have to think about it more than ever.”

Even design professionals are scampering to keep up with the latest and greatest. Rey-Barreau says lighting classes accounted for seven of the 10 top-attended workshops at the American Institute of Architects’ annual conference last June.

“Five or six years ago, lighting was at the bottom of the list,” he says.

Skilled lighting design may not be the primary part of a renovation, but it shouldn’t be an afterthought.

“Once you’ve put holes in your drywall, you’re stuck,” says Philip Finkelstein, a New York lighting specialist. Finkelstein recently revised a customer’s kitchen lighting plan (drawn by an electrician) that would have cast shadows on all prep areas — and cost more to install.

Lighting 3

Still, lighting can be a bear to understand. The world has its own language (know what lumens and Kelvins are?), and increasing costs can make decisions intimidating. So it makes sense to learn about lighting before you begin your remodeling project. Believe us, you’ll love your remodel much more when it sets the right mood and saves you coin because you installed the correct fixtures and bulbs from the get-go.

Learning the Language of Lighting

Lighting design that’s done right has three layers:

1.  Ambient (general lighting of a room).
2.  Task (such as food prep).
3.  Accent (for highlighting a piece of art or focal point).

To do these three layers well, you’ll need to understand the terms used to describe light bulbs:

Language of Lighting, different types of lights

Kelvin: A scale of measurement for the “color” a light produces. The higher the Kelvin (K) number, the cooler the light appears. Most bulbs will be in the 2,500K to 6,500K range — with 2,500 being the warmest and 6,500 the coolest. For reference, a candle burns at 1,900K and sunlight is 10,000K.

Wattage: How much electricity a bulb consumes. Most of us are used to wattage being an indicator of brightness (the higher the wattage, the brighter the bulb). Not so anymore. LEDs and CFLs use far fewer watts than the old incandescents. Today, lumens are the gauge for brightness.

Lumens: The amount of light you get from a bulb — in other words, its brightness. For instance, you need a total of 1,000-3,000 lumens to properly light a 250-ft. living room.

This chart from the Lighting Research Center shows how many lumens you need for particular tasks. If you’re older or your eyes are weak, you’ll want to increase the lumens.


Task Area Minimum Lumens
Reading 98
Closet 381
Dressing 1,680
Dining table 315
Kitchen cutting counters 360
Range 450
Sink 450
Toilet 45
Vanity 1,680
Outdoor entrance 996
Paths 297
Flower beds 972
Stairs, entries, hallways 1,200

To help simplify all this data about lights, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission requires light bulb makers to place labels on packages that estimate:

  • Yearly energy cost.
  • How long the bulb will last.
  • Whether the bulb feels warm, cool, or somewhere in between.
  • How many watts of energy the bulb uses.

Example: A soft, incandescent table lamp bulb might use 60 watts; cost $7.23/year for about one year; emit 630 lumens; and appear warm at 2,850K.

A bright, LED bulb to light hallways might use only 9 watts; cost $1.08/year for 22 years; emit 800 lumens; and appear closer to daylight at 5,000K.

Room-by-Room Lighting Tips 

If you’re trying to set a romantic mood in the bedroom, you don’t need the same amount of light as when you’re julienning fries in the kitchen. Each room has its own lighting needs. Here’s a breakdown:

Kitchens (5,000-10,000 total lumens)
Lighting for the Kitchen

Kitchens are a challenge to light because they serve so many purposes — food prep, family dinners, homework location. Layering light — recessed, pendants, ceiling fixtures — gives you the type of light you need.

  • To reduce shadows, place recessed lights on the sides (not centers) of ceilings.
  • Light kitchen islands so shadows don’t fall where you’ll be cutting vegetables or kneading dough. For a 6-foot island, that could mean placing two to three small pendants in a row directly above where you’ll be standing.
  • Chandeliers in the center of the room should have shades that direct light down.
  • Always install under-cabinet lights for task lighting.
  • Use above-cabinet lighting for ambient and mood lighting.


Bathrooms (4,000-8,000 total lumens)

Bathroom lighting


  • Ceiling fixtures aren’t good lights for applying makeup or shaving; they cast shadows on faces. Placing lights on the sides of a mirror is better. Tubular fluorescents that are the same length of the mirror work well. If you have a big wall mirror, place a fixture with shades pointing down above the mirror, which will cut down on shadows.
  • Budget for a light above the tub and shower when you remodel. Showers especially can be dark, making it hard to see when you’re cleaning or shaving.
  • Separate water closets should have their own light and exhaust fan.
  • Install dimmers for middle-of-the-night bathroom visits.


Bedrooms (2,000-4,000 total lumens)

Bedroom lighting


  • Install recessed lighting or a center fixture for general bedroom tasks, such as making the bed, dressing, and cleaning.
  • Use table lamps with warm lights to help set the mood for rest and relaxation.
  • Add dimmers to bedroom lights so you can quickly change the mood.


Living rooms (1,500-3,000 total lumens)

Living Room Lighting

Living room lighting should be flexible for the many things you do at home — sit and talk, read, watch TV (whether on a big screen or a mobile device), play games, etc. Your living room or family room will need to make the most of the three lighting layers mentioned earlier.

  • With ambient lighting, avoid placing lights directly over seating unless you angle them away.
  • Use task lighting, usually lamps, for reading and other things you do while sitting.
  • Install accent lighting in the form of spotlights and picture lights for the room’s focal point and artwork.  Light individual artwork with picture lights set at a 30-degree angle. If you’re lighting several pictures, light the wall with track lighting or spotlights.


Dining rooms (3,000-6,000 lumens)

dining room lighting


  • Don’t position lights above your dining chairs — it’ll cast ugly shadows on faces.
  • To prevent head clunks when getting up from the dining room table, size the fixture no wider than the table less 12 inches.
  • Adjustable recessed lights (ones you can position at different angles) are great for highlighting centerpieces, candles, or flowers.
  • Dimmers are a must to set the mood.


Home offices (3,000-6,000 lumens)

Home Office lighting


  • Don’t forget to highlight your accomplishments — college diploma, picture with the president, Best Dad award — with adjustable recessed lights or surface-mounted spotlights.
  • Train recessed lights at the walls — called wall-washing — to make home offices feel larger and look brighter.
  • Poorly placed lights will produce annoying reflections on computer screens. Portable lamps are good light choices because you can move them to avoid reflections.
  • If you’re in and out of your office all day, install occupancy sensor controls to avoid energy waste.

Feel Like You Need Professional Help?

New world

A long line of professionals are eager to help you add lighting to your remodel. But when it comes to designing a lighting plan, you don’t always get what you pay for. Architects and electricians will charge, maybe, $100/hour to map out lights, and they don’t necessarily have the latest lighting design training, says Larry Lauck of the American Lighting Association (ALA).

A lighting designer — the gold standard certified by the International Association of Lighting Designers — will charge between $250-$350/hour to place recessed lights and train LED spots on your artwork.

However, lighting showrooms typically employ ALA-certified lighting specialists and consultants who have completed several levels of training on all aspects of lighting design. Lighting showroom professionals will design your plan for free, or for a starting fee, which you can apply to the products you buy.

Because selling lighting is their business, these professionals know all the latest lighting trends and products — there are over 200 options for recessed lights alone.

When planning your lighting, you should also note that light changes color, so your lighting design — a top priority for any remodel — should help guide your color choices. Here’s how to match room color and lighting to get the effect you desire.


Selecting Carpet in different lighting
Considering new flooring? View samples during different daylight conditions and switch on your lamps; it’ll give you a better idea of how your natural and artificial light will affect the floor’s color.

If you want to make your remodel project shine, finalize your lighting design before you select paint and carpet colors. The light you choose to illuminate tasks or set the mood will change the way you see color throughout the room. The Robin’s Egg Blue you picked could look like Paris at Sunset under some kinds of light.

It’s all determined by the way light and colors interact.

“People have to understand that the color of an object won’t look the same 24 hours a day,” says lighting designer Joseph Rey-Barreau. “I just had bamboo flooring installed throughout my house, and during the day it looks totally different than it looks at night.”

The way we “see” color primarily depends on two things:

1.  The light that an object absorbs. Black absorbs all colors; white absorbs none; blue absorbs red.

2.  How the light source works. Natural light (sunlight) changes throughout the day and is affected by a room’s location. Artificial light changes with the type of bulb you use.

How Sunlight Affects Colors

As the amount and angle of the sun changes, so will your room colors.

“Natural light should always be considered when choosing color for a space,” says Sarah Cole of the Farrow & Ball paint company.

North-facing rooms:
 Light in these rooms is cool and bluish. Bolder colors show up better than muted colors; lighter colors will look subdued. “Use strong colors and embrace what nature has given,” says Cole.

South-facing rooms: Lots of high-in-the-sky light brings out the best in cool and warm colors. Dark colors will look brighter; lighter colors will virtually glow.

East-facing rooms: East light is warm and yellowy before noon, then turns bluer later in the day. These are great rooms for reds, oranges and yellows.

West-facing rooms: Evening light in these rooms is beautiful and warm, while scant morning light can produce shadows and make colors look dull.

How Light Bulbs Affect Color

The type of bulb you use can alter the colors in a room, too.

Incandescents: The warm, yellow-amber light of these bulbs will make reds, oranges, and yellows more vivid, while muting blues and greens.

Fluorescents: This flat and cool light enriches blues and greens.

Halogens: These white lights resemble natural light and make all colors look more vivid. Using halogens would make the shift from daylight to artificial light less jarring.

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs): CFLs can produce either a warm white, neutral, or bluish-white light.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs):
  You can buy warmer or cooler LEDs, and even “smart” LED bulbs whose color you can control wirelessly. “You can point to the color of the sky in a picture at sunset and make the light bulb in the house be that same color,” says Rey-Barreau.

Tips for Achieving the Color You Want

  • Paint squares of primed drywall with samples of the colors you’re considering, and then move them around the room during the day. Apply at least two coats.
  • Evaluate samples of carpet during different daylight conditions.
  • Most contractors won’t hang lights before you paint, but you can get a color approximation by placing a bulb you’ll be using in a floor or desk lamp. If you’re hyper-sensitive to color or want a very specific look, ask your electrician to hang the lights, then cover them carefully during painting.
  • Remember that natural and artificial light will work together during certain times of day, especially in summer when dusk lasts a long time. Turn on artificial lights even during daylight to see what your colors will look like.
  • Paint sheen also affects color. Glossy finishes will reflect light and change the way the color looks, whereas flat finishes are less reflective and allow colors to look truer under bright light.
  • Light-colored walls can reflect the colors of bold carpets: A bright blue rug, for instance, can cast a bluish tone on a white wall.