Lighting designer Will Lewis shares his insights on how proper bathroom lighting can positively impact our homes, and our health.
Q. What considerations should be taken into account when lighting a bathroom?
A. Most interior spaces have the same three main considerations: supporting visual activities, rendering the architecture for perception, and overall visual experience. Good bath lighting starts with the vanity. We need light that properly illuminates our face from a flattering angle to avoid long eye socket shadows; light should come from multiple directions to properly render our curves and creases; and light sources and positions need to be free of glare. We’re not consciously aware of it, but that meeting with yourself in the mirror provides valuable feedback about your current state of health—those bags under your eyes, your skin tone, complexion, etc., are important visual cues that you need to catch a little more sleep or drink a few more glasses of water.
Q. What are the best kinds of lights to use above the vanity? Above a free-standing tub? Over the shower? As general lighting?
Photo Courtesy of Lewis Lighting Design
A. Mirrors with internal backlighting are a good solution for modern bathrooms. They light your face with multiple sources from a good angle and from multiple directions while keeping the light source away from your direct line of sight. You can also uplight the ceiling and have undercabinet lighting on the sink concealed behind the mirror. For more traditional aesthetics or more budget-friendly solutions, a linear fixture either above the mirror or on both sides with a soft diffuser works well. Spreading the light out over a larger area in this way makes it softer on the eye as compared to using smaller wall sconces for the same amount of light.
Lights in the shower are often not necessary if you have a good ceiling-mounted light in the room. For high-end master suites I like to use a ceiling recessed wall washer with a solid glass lens that lights the fixture wall from behind a waterproof, corrosion-proof glass trim recessed in the ceiling. The right light on a premium finish tile surround can provide a beautiful backdrop to the composition of the room.
With adequate ceiling height, a decorative pendant light could be used above a freestanding tub. I would use a soft glowing globe type fixture (appropriately styled to complement the interiors), mounted high enough to avoid accidental contact. Dimmable downlights would be a nice complement to create ambiance for a relaxing soak.
Q. What should consumers look for in terms of color and wattage?
A. Color is highly subjective, based on personal preference, interior style, and finish palette. For example, cooler lighting can look great in a modern, minimalist aesthetic with slate flooring, white subway tile, white plumbing fixtures, and light gray-toned finishes. But cooler light can have a muting effect on earth-toned palettes so you are better off with a warmer light there. At the vanity you want your lighting to match the conditions of light that you will be in throughout the day. What looks great at the mirror may unfortunately look much different at the office. This is a moving target though since both office lighting and mid-day natural light are on the cooler side, but evening functions are often in spaces with dimmer, warmer
lighting. A mid-level color temperature around 3000K might be a good compromise, but “tunable-white” LED lighting may be an ideal solution as it offers the ability to adjust the color temperature of the light as you see fit.
It’s difficult to generalize appropriate fixture wattages—that will be depend on the number of fixtures and light distribution. There is an overall limit to allowable lighting power density, which is governed by local energy codes.
Q. How about efficiency? How can we incorporate energy-saving lighting in the bathroom?
A. Controls are the most important factor in reducing overall energy consumption, which is actually more important thanproduct efficiency. The occupancy rate of a bathroom is relatively low. Most residential bathrooms are unoccupied for the vast majority of each day, so it’s important to make sure that they don’t get left on as we rush out the door for work in the morning. Auto-off vacancy sensors can be beneficial here.
Many homeowners have developed objections to efficient sources and tend to prefer incandescent lamps. But when used appropriately, fluorescent and LED light sources can create pleasant and comfortable light more efficiently their incandescent counterparts. An exposed compact fluorescent in a marquee style vanity light, for example, is likely to create glare and produce underwhelming color. But from behind a frosted glass diffuser, a good quality CFL or LED lamp with warm color temperature will be hard to distinguish from an incandescent A lamp.
Q. What are some common pitfalls people run into when lighting their baths?
A. Expecting professional results from a DIY effort. It’s not rocket science, but there is art, skill, and science to interior lighting design and you need to work with a professional designer to get high-performance, beautiful, and energy-efficient solutions. The magazine images that inspire homeowners have at least one thing in common—they were designed by professionals.
Another pitfall is choosing fixtures without consideration for what they are lighting and how they will deliver light. Recessed downlighting is a desirable feature in real estate these days, but lighting a bathroom entirely with recessed downlighting has the potential to create a dark and gloomy space if care is not taken to compose the brightness of the space by lighting walls, art, feature materials, etc. Bathrooms are relatively small, enclosed spaces and without brightness on the walls and ceiling surfaces, that perception of a compressed, tight space can be exaggerated.
Q. What about safety—are there special considerations for lighting a space with so much plumbing/water?
A. You need to make sure that there are no light fixtures within reach of the bathtub to prevent the possibility of touching lights while standing in water. This includes wall sconces, ceiling fixtures, or pendants. The light fixtures in the bathroom also need to be on a separate circuit, and wall switches need to be grounded. It is also a good idea to select fixtures that are designed to prevent water and moisture from getting into the fixture or the ceiling plenum, and avoid any corrosive, moisture sensitive materials so that your bathroom continues to look great over time.
Will Lewis is Principal at Lewis Lighting Design, LLC, a Boston-based design firm that provides comprehensive natural and integrated electric lighting design services to the architecture, design, and commercial real estate communities. His team uses light to create visual environments that optimize the function, beauty, and sustainability of architecture. Their work spans the commercial office, healthcare, hospitality, retail, and custom residential markets. Will is an IALD-credentialed, award-winning lighting designer with more than a decade of experience and holds a B.A.E. in Architectural Engineering with an emphasis in lighting design from The Pennsylvania State University.