Layered Lighting: Your Competitive Advantage

While at my first architectural job in college, I was given the task of doing an electrical plan. The thinking was that the least experienced drafter could handle the job of adding outlets to the floorplan. I followed the example plan, resulting in an electric plan that was code compliant – and completely unremarkable. What a missed opportunity, especially from the lighting perspective! If only I knew the potential that good lighting can bring out in a space.

Now that I’m older (and hopefully wiser), I’m realizing what a powerful design tool lighting can be. This is especially true for the 55+ buyer who needs 6 times as much light as someone in their 20s.

Lighting in Production Housing

I have found that lighting is underutilized and misunderstood in production housing. Years ago, I remember a builder touting the number of recessed cans he had in the house. While the amount was certainly staggering, it begged the question of whether he was building a home or a surgery center. Granted, this was back in the day when a surface mounted fluorescent fixture was the norm for the kitchen. Yuck!

Fast forward to present day and the sheer number of lighting decisions to be made is mind-numbing. First, we have the different types of bulbs. Then there’s the color (temperature) choices for those bulbs. My daughter works as a lighting consultant in NYC, so walking into any public or commercial space with her is an educational experience for me as she points out that the temperature of the light bulbs are all different. This is something I never paid attention to before – and now can’t stop noticing.

So, as a production builder, how do you start? I don’t need to tell you that light can be expensive – especially decorative pendant fixtures. Many choose to only include the junction box so that the lengthy process of selecting fixtures doesn’t slow the start or closing of the home.

Types of Lighting

I like the layered lighting approach. This gives the lighting and the room a sense of dimension. A room with only recessed cans will appear very flat, so let’s use these four categories as our guide:

1. Ambient Lighting: Soft glow lighting that envelopes the space without any glare or shadows. Also known as Mood Lighting.

2. Task Lighting: For me, this is the light that is attached to my drawing board, illuminating the task of design.

3. Accent Lighting: Either in the form of a decorative fixture – where the fixture itself becomes the accent - or lighting that accentuates a feature like a painting.

4. Wayfinding Light: Lighting that illuminates a path. This is especially helpful along stairs or the path one might take in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

In bedrooms and family rooms, buyers will bring in lamps, so these rooms have more variables. We’ll leave those alone and focus on the two most important (and expensive) rooms in the house; the Kitchen and the Master Bath, and how layered lighting can be the finishing touch for these spaces.


Consider that giant fluorescent fixture from the 70’s. It added a lot of light to the room, but standing in front of the countertop created shadows on the work surface - not ideal for chopping.

Instead, under-cabinet lights illuminate the countertop without awkward shadows. For ambient lighting, I love the above-cabinet lighting giving the room a beautiful glow. Task lighting should illuminate the cooking surfaces and countertops, like a spot light over the cook-top and kitchen sink.

Be sure to finish off the space with accent pendant fixtures over the island. This has become the most important “statement” light(s) in the entire house, so make it memorable.

Master Bath

I often see a cluster of lights mounted just above the mirror, attempting to be both Task and Accent lighting. However, these overhead lights cast shadows on our faces that exaggerate wrinkles. Lights mounted at eye level are far more flattering because they wash out our wrinkles. Better yet, consider a back-lit mirror. The best of both worlds is the illuminated mirror with lights built in like many new hotel bathrooms.

For Accent Lighting, you might consider a pendant fixture centered in the room – but in many markets, this is not allowed over the tub.

For Wayfinding Light, you might include a couple of step lights in the bath. Don’t forget to include one in the toilet room for midnight trips to the loo.

Lighting is an incredibly powerful tool in design. You can make spaces feel larger, create ambiance and add depth and dimension. If you want to set yourself apart from your competition, consider thoughtful lighting as your competitive edge. Your houses will look and feel better to your buyers. Your buyers themselves will look better. Who knows, that may be just the thing that converts them from idle shoppers to committed buyers.