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Lighting Lofts and Other Open Spaces

Lighting loft-style residences and other large, open living spaces has always been a challenge.  High ceilings, scarce or poorly placed power sources and a characteristic lack of interior walls often leave the homeowner scratching his head as to where to start.  The prevalence of loft conversions and open floor plans in new home and condominium construction have pushed questions regarding these challenges to the top of the Brilliant Lighting FAQ list. 

In this article, we offer several simple tips to keep in mind to create an inviting and functional lighting plan for any open space.  We will also explore several contemporary lighting solutions that are particularly useful in overcoming the technical challenges of lighting open living spaces.

The Challenge of Large Spaces
Fundamental to the problem of lighting lofts is a lack of interior walls. Most loft conversions and many contemporary condominium designs divide the entire residential space into one or two large areas rather than half a dozen traditional rooms. The problem for converted lofts is often amplified by high ceilings.

Why are these problems? Walls provide a good deal of light via reflection. Most walls are painted a light color. Combine light colored walls with a light fixture mounted to a typical 8-10 foot ceiling and that single, centrally-located fixture is often capable of lighting an entire room. If you are lighting a large space with high ceilings or few walls, keep the following tips in mind:

The Approach
It's not a gymnasium. - First, understand that your approach to loft or contemporary condo lighting will be different than that for lighting traditional interiors. Don’t attempt to compensate for the size of the space by simply mounting a larger number of traditional fixtures to those high ceilings. Your loft will look like a warehouse (which it might have been at some point.)

Pursuing a general illumination strategy whereby the entire space will be illuminated with ambient light as it is during daylight hours isn’t practical or desirable. Plan on your loft space looking very different at night than it does during the day.

Don’t waste that open space - The open feel of your loft or new home may be what drew you to the space in the first place. If you have few interior walls and/or high ceilings, don’t hesitate to suspend lights from the ceiling where necessary to bring light closer to the target surface. You may, however, want to avoid large fixtures that will hinder visibility across the space. Suspend smaller fixtures over kitchen peninsulas, bars and central dining areas so that the line of sight across the room isn't significantly obstructed.  Modern monorail lighting systems and cable lighting systems offer a wide variety of pendant fixtures suspended on thin, low voltage cables that are ideal in such circumstances.

Create your own breaks - Looking for a way to break up the open space of your loft? To create more intimacy in certain areas of a loft such as a sitting area or a dinner table, consider delineating these areas somewhat with light. Focused task and accent lighting surrounded by a relative absence of light will accentuate and isolate these areas. Darker areas between well lit focal points in the room will subtly break up the space and create a dramatic effect without obstructing views. Remember to thoroughly and warmly illuminate distinct functional areas using a combination of accent lighting and strategically placed ambient pendants to minimize shadows.

Practical Lighting Solutions for Common Large Space Problems:

Scarce Power Sources

Track lighting, cable lighting, monorail lighting and other linear lighting systems are popular in loft type environments due to their 'single point of power' capabilities. Typically, power may be fed to one point on these systems and many (sometimes 20 or more) fixtures may be powered anywhere along the rail. Consider using track lighting or monorail lighting systems when only one or two ceiling-based power sources are available.

No ceiling power at all? Monorail lighting systems installed near walls will typically accept power directly at the end of rail. In situations where overhead light is needed but no power is available from the ceiling cable lighting systems are often a good choice.

If your loft has very high ceilings, suspend your pendants or track systems to bring light closer to the target area. Monorail lighting and track lighting systems routinely offer stylish matching suspension rods (called standoffs) for all system types and metallic finishes.  Typically, situations requiring suspensions of more than eight feet will require wire supports that may easily be cut at installation time to suspend the system at any length.

Cable lighting systems (which suspend directional track heads or ambient pendants between two high-tension wires) are another popular choice for spaces with high ceilings. Consider a cable system when attaching any type of support to the ceiling seems impractical. Cable systems are very versatile but have support limitations when heavy pendants are desired in the middle of long spans.

Minimizing Shadows in Task Areas:

Areas requiring a good deal of light (such as the kitchen) should be lit carefully to prevent shadows. Install direct task lighting over kitchen countertops. Endeavor to light heavy work areas from more than one angle to prevent shadows.  Try to use lamps (light bulbs) with a beam spread of ‘medium flood’ to ‘full flood’ to provide more light.  Think carefully before installing kitchen lighting in the middle of the ceiling or any place where your body will come between the task area and the light source as shadows will result. If fixtures are mounted in the center of the kitchen ceiling, use under cabinet lighting to backlight countertop task areas and prevent frustrating shadows.

One of the best ways to reduce shadows is simply to provide a mixture of ambient and direct light. Modern track lighting and cable lighting systems allow ambient pendants and track heads (spot lights) to be attached to the same power system to provide a mix of light with minimal new wiring. If pendants aren't practical in a particular space, many systems also offer fixtures that may be installed in an upward orientation to provide a wash of ambient light. If using wash lights, consider placing them on a separate circuit so that you may vary accent and general lighting levels as desired to shift the mood of the room.

Minimizing Glare in Common Areas:

When aiming spotlights, be aware of reflected glare off of shiny surfaces. Treat glass and polished table tops like mirrors and make sure that track heads won't be visible in those mirrors. Typically, aiming spot lights at a sharp or even ninety degree angle down over a surface will accomplish this nicely. Otherwise, spot lights should generally be pointed at walls to provide reflected light for the space. 

If you must aim spot lights at horizontal angles, put them high enough so that people have to look up at an unnatural angle to gaze directly at them. If track heads from one area will be pointing directly into the eyes of people in another area of the loft, consider using barn door or louver lens accessories that block or filter light to prevent glare.

Lighting lofts and other large spaces is a challenge. Fortunately, modern lighting design has kept pace with the growing diversity of spaces in which people choose to live.  With a little thought, you can easily develop a lighting plan that will accentuate or completely change the mood of your open space.

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