Lighting Essentials

Tips for the Empty Nester-  Part 2

Practically the day I turned 40, I started needing reading glasses. I needed extra light to read a menu in a restaurant, and sometimes doubled up pairs to read fine print. Over time, I needed stronger magnification, and then finally ended up with progressive lenses.  Mine is hardly a unique experience. Retinal deterioration is a part of the aging process, and studies show that a 60 year old needs twice as much light as a 30 year old. So naturally, the home planned for aging in place make lighting a very important design element.

Quantity of light isn’t the only factor to consider. Some interesting facts:

  • Glare increases the retinal deterioration in people of all ages.
  • Aging eyes experience reduced contrast sensitivity (difference between light and dark surfaces), and require more time to adapt to sudden brightness changes.
  • The natural cycles of light and dark (Circadian rhythm) are important for maintaining human health. It is important for us to be exposed to bright light during the day, and equally important to experience darkness at night. There is growing evidence that exposure to white or bluish light at night negatively affects daily biological rhythms, sleep quality and the immune system.
  • Poor lighting will dramatically reduce depth perception for seniors. This creates a safety concern for “danger zone” areas like Stairways, Bathrooms, and Kitchens, where mis-judgements in depth perception can be most harmful.
  • Aging eyes have difficulty adjusting to sudden changes in light levels, so your goal is to keep light levels uniform in your frequently used adjoining rooms.

Design solutions

For enhanced quantity of light:

  • Ensure that there is adequate light for general illumination, avoiding dark spots. Indirect lighting can be more efficient and produce less glare than using a lot of recessed downlights.
  • Providing dimmers allows for bright light when needed, but still allows creating a softer mood when desired.
  • Provide ample direct lighting for task areas- under cabinet lights to light up kitchen counters or other work surfaces, reading lamps where needed.

To reduce glare:

  • Select light fixtures that don’t allow direct sight of the bulbs. Use fixtures with shades or frosted glass to soften the glare of bright bulbs.
  • Avoid shiny dark surfaces on countertops, tables, etc. A polished surface is a source of harsh reflections and glare. The darker the surface, the stronger the glare will be. This can be especially important for kitchen counters, where sharp knives, poor eyesight, and and glare could make for a dangerous mix.
  • Use light colored, honed and matte surfaces where possible. Even glossy painted wall surfaces can be a source of glare, so stick to matte or eggshell finishes.
The chandelier on the left has clear glass surrounding the light bulbs, which will cause bright spots and glare. On the right, the frosted glass diffuses the brightness providing a softer light.

To reduce contrast:

  • Have a few table lamps on while watching TV reduces the contrast between the bright screen and the darker room. Soft lighting behind the TV is a good trick to avoid the bright  TV against a dark background, which can be a source of eye strain.
  • Keep lighting levels uniform in adjoining rooms that are used frequently to avoid having to adjust to sudden changes in light levels.

The image above shows the color temperature of lighting (in degrees Kelvin) as it changes during the day. Exposure to cooler light during the day and warmer at night, has been shown to aid in sleep rhythms. (Most residential lighting is 2700º – 3500º, but with tunable LED, you can get a wider range.)

  • For people that have difficulty with sleeping patterns, consider an LED lighting system that offers controls to change the tone of light through the day to assist with circadian rhythm. The light will be closer to sunlight temperature (blue) during the day, then get warmer (red) and softer at night. (This is also helpful for adjusting to jet lag.)
  • For safety, make sure areas such as stairs are well lit and free of strong shadows. Lighting can be used to assist in “way finding”. Motion sensors can control lighting for getting from bed to bathroom at night.

In the top stair image, besides being from a Hitchcock film (Suspicion), this looks like a scary stair for anyone, not just the elderly. There is high contrast and strong shadows on the wall, combined with the darkness on the stair treads. 

  • For lighting and electrical controls, light switches placed at 42” above the floor provides more universal access than the standard 48” height. Both for children and those in a wheelchair. Luminous light switches are a great way to make it easy to find in the dark.
  • Electrical outlets at 18” off the floor makes it easier to reach without excessive bending, 12” is a more standard height, but harder to reach for the elderly or anyone with knee issues, as well as someone in a wheelchair.

Clearly there are a lot of things to consider when planning lighting for your new home, but giving these attention early on will provide years of reward in terms of both comfort and safety.

I sometimes refer to split levels and ranches as “The Other Mid Century style”. They may not quite call to mind the classic mid century modern houses that have become so desirable, but with a little imagination, they do offer a great opportunity to create a modern home for this century.

I grew up in a 1958 split level house in suburban Philadelphia, and I remember even as a child recognizing the distinctively different feel from my friends’ traditional colonial houses. The more open plan, cathedral ceiling in the living room, and the 50’s decor seemed so cool by comparison. And the half flight up to the bedrooms and half flight down to the playroom seemed so easy compared to the conventional three level configuration.

Split levels and ranches became popular during the post WWII suburban expansion and reflected a desire for a more modern style home. The splits worked well on sloped or smaller sites, offering an open layout, yet more compact than a spread out ranch. In some homes, the arrangement allowed for cathedral ceilings in the living room since there was not a second floor above.

Somewhere along the way, split levels became something of a pariah. These houses generally lack both the design sophistication of a classic mid-century modern house from the same period or the character and charm of a traditional Colonial or Tudor. When found in neighborhoods with high land values, they often become tear downs that make way for more conventional Colonial style mansions. But from my experience and what I hear from local realtors, there is a growing demand for more modern homes, and these splits and ranches may be the best bet short of building a new house from scratch.

The split level modernization projects I’ve done have mostly included additions and exterior “curb appeal” makeovers. A common addition is adding a level above the one story portion, usually for a master suite and other related spaces. Addition on the back can create a larger kitchen or family room space. One project completely re-conceived the idea of a split level, and resulted in a dramatic home with the different levels intertwining in unexpected ways.




Englewood Cliffs, NJ

This client had hired an architect who completed the plans for a second floor addition. However, the client wasn’t happy with how the outside was looking, and asked us to re-design the exterior without making any big changes to the plans. The biggest design change we made was to change the gabled roofs to hip roofs, which immediately created a better resolution between the two wings of the house, and established consistent horizontal lines to the wall surfaces. The entry was given a cantilevered canopy, the bay window squared off, and the break up of materials further accented the horizontal connection between the volumes.

Tenafly, NJ

In this project, the client wanted to add a larger kitchen and family room to the back of the house, along with a new deck. This freed up space for a powder room and large pantry area at the living level. At the upper level, the space was reconfigured to provide a more generous master suite, eliminating one bedroom. A new bedroom and bathroom was added to the lower level in the area that had good window exposure. The existing entry sequence from driveway to front door was unwelcoming and included an un-needed circular driveway that was too close to the front door. Our design included a re-working of the front landscape.

This house already had hipped roofs, and our window and material choices helped to further modernize the overall look of the house.

These elevations show a different approach to material choices that I had presented, but the client opted for the black and white approach. 

Summit, NJ

The owners of this house had outgrown the space and embarked on an ambitious plan to enlarge the home and create a more modern expression. The neighborhood was full of these same style homes, but one by one, they were being torn down and replaced by the traditional style homes that developers were putting up around the state. For this project, we kept the original foundation and basic premise of the split level, and proceeded to create a modern home more in keeping with the mid-century spirit of the original. We had to submit for a variance to move the garage entry to the front of the house, and among the comments from various township departments was this very gratifying observation.

“The Historic Preservation Commission commends the owner and Architect for their proposed transformative design of one of the tract mid-century split-level homes- typical of the neighborhood- into a modern home in keeping with it’s mid-century influence. As an expression of its own time, the diagnosis is properly scaled to the neighborhood, and successfully addresses the site conditions, and utilizes material appropriate to their proposed use. We also like that the proposed design resists the common ersatz new-traditional inclinations that are becoming common in this neighborhood. No objections.”

The stair down was reconfigured to make a better flow from the new mudroom off the garage as well as new basement space under the rear addition. Setting the master suite second floor addition back from the front allowed a high ceiling area in the living room.

Scotch Plains, NJ

These owners lived in the neighborhood and were looking for an opportunity to create a modern, larger home nearby. This property met their need in terms of the location and the property size and character, and included a forlorn split level house that could easily have been a candidate for a tear down. Instead, we decided to retain some of the basic structure and proceeded to make additions and reconfigure space to create a home that took advantage of the various levels in ways that added to the interest of the architecture- resulting in a design that couldn’t have been achieved if a new two level house had been built instead of retaining the split level structure.

The two patios at the back also reflect the split-level nature of the house. The connecting stair follow the interior stair form the kitchen to the lower level dining/ living/ guest room spaces.

The lower level now has two stairs down, one from the entry foyer, one directly from the kitchen. The balcony space above acts as a private congregating space for the family, with a piano tucked in.

See this full project here.