Thoughts on Recessed Lighting


    We’re in the middle of doing a partial gut renovation and I suggested that we do recessed lighting in almost all rooms, as that seems to be the way to update lighting. My wife says no to the lighting, and says that a ceiling fan with light is all we need. To me, recessed lighting looks clean, neat, and makes the ceiling look higher. Plus it would be a great selling point later down the line if we decide to sell. I hate thinking that we’re doing a gut reno and putting back the simple lighting that was done 100 years ago in the house. Any thoughts?

    25 Replies

    1. This is probably the wrong blog to tout recessed lighting. Most period homes look better with period fixtures. Yes, you need more that one ceiling fixture but lamps are the best option. I do not consider recessed lighting a selling point, I put it up there with knotty pine panelling and formica countertops.

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    5. I don’t like dark spaces. The gloomy Victorian vibe is not for me; brownstones are naturally dark, since most have light from front and back and no natural light from the sides, to state the obvious. It was extremely important to me to have lots of light in my place. In the double parlor I have two nice chandeliers which work well with another hanging fixture in an alcove. Downstairs where I have the kitchen, dining room, hallway and bedroom, I have a lot of wattage in the kitchen and that is recessed lighting. The rest of the downstairs I have Center ceiling fixtures. I think you need a lot of light in a kitchen – you need to see what you are doing and recessed lighting is very good for that. But in other spaces I prefer center ceiling fixtures. I also hate ceiling fans. I think they look so awful; I don’t know if the increased air circulation offsets the spinning propeller look.

    6. Basements and garden levels definitely should have recessed lighting IMO whether you’re staying “period” or not. It’s not just a ceiling-height issue but it brightens a room that’s always shadowy thus somewhat depressing even when it’s relatively well lit by windows.

      I also like it even in parlors when there’s a big space that’s not adequately lit by sconces or lamps and isn’t right for a chandelier. We have a spot like that and when we do the next round of renovations in a few years I want some recessed lights on a dimmer there. I’d like to add the lights now but there’s a whole thing to do with the ceiling so we have to put it off a while. I need to brighten a shadowy section in the middle of an open space in the parlor where we plan to have our son’s play area. So if you have a spot like that in your house you think you’ll use for children’s play, or future owners would, it may be worth it to add recessed lights overhead. People live lives in these houses so the decor must be functional not just faithful to the period. The lights don’t have to be huge and they don’t always have to be turned on just because they’re installed.

    7. Would be very nervous about recessed lighting and updating–it’s the kind of thing that will go out of fashion, and which turns off a segment of buyers. And it’s expensive.

      In general, I’d think going with classic fixtures–wall sconces, ceiling lights, etc–is the smart bet. Using fixtures that are modern (ie, don’t turn the gaslights back on) but consistent with the turn of the century “look” of the house is probably the safest thing to do. There’s a danger of doing something that screams “2000” and then trying to sell in 2020, when something else is fashionable.

      That said, if you’re staying a long time, do what YOU like. It’s your home.

    8. Recessed lighting, hunh? You sure you wouldn’t prefer track lights? To go with your granite countertops and stainless steel appliances?

      mmmm… taste-y….

    9. Okay so here is what WE decided on together. In the bedrooms there will be both recessed and a center fixture on ceiling. Both will be controlled on different switches, and all will have the ability to dim. Hall will have it also, as well as kitchen. Our parlor and dining room will NOT have it. The basement since it’s only about 8 feet high will have the recessed lighting. The bedroom will also have night lamps on both corner tables. Even though I said that bedrooms will have recessed lighting there is a very slight chance that me may toss out that idea since we will have table lamps.

    10. I vote with no recessed in parlors, dining rooms, bedrooms for a house with detail – i.e. not a gut, but OK in kitchen, hall, bathroom.

    11. “Wall scones are a classic feature and again if not too many, work well.”

      the raisins get hot though in wall scones

      “Recessed lighting is inappropriate in an old house”

      generalizations are generally true, especially when it comes to taste

    12. We put it in the kitchen, task areas, combined with some old schoolhouse pendants over the island. Love it.

      We put some (less than recommended) in the master bedroom, because it was just too large to light with lamps, plus it’s not an overly architecturally detailed room. At first we cringed but now we agree it was the right thing to do.

      In the living room we resisted and boy are we glad we did. It would have been criminal to see all those cans up in that beautifully smooth plaster. That said, we are struggling to get the right indirect lighting going there–but we’ll get it eventually.

      Buy good fixtures. 4″ maximum. Low voltage is nice in kitchens, otherwise line voltage is fine–though it does get a bit hot.

    13. Recessed lighting is inappropriate in an old house. It will be extremely unpopular with buyers. It is also going out of fashion very quickly. It is the equivalent of shag carpet.

      Where it is appropriate is in a loft. That’s where it started.

      Your wife is right.

      But no one says you are stuck with one ceiling light in every room. For example, you can have pendant lights over the kitchen table, wall sconces in the bath and a variety of other rooms, double lights over the sinks, floor lamps and lamps on tables, etc. Best to keep the permanent fixtures simple and classic.

    14. what about for low ceilings? the pendant lights don’t work because they hang down and make the room seem even smaller; the wall scones are also low enough to hurt someone walking by. Is there a lighting solution here?

    15. my 2 cents: I put in recessed lighting ( all with dimmers) during my renovation and like it a lot.. We offset the lighting with table and floor lamps and the mix is quite nice and balanced. I think recessed lighting is a good starting point, but not a complete solution. One neglected issue ( and not a trivial one) is the electric bill. We have a 1200 sq. ft apartment and the electric bill is over $100 not including AC use.

    16. BTW, if you do reno and thinking about recessed lighting opportunity, maybe it would make sense to put wires in place. Latter if you decide on it – make holes and hook up cans.

    17. I agree that some recessed fixtures can be done appropriately. I also think wall sconces work well, especially in a dining room, and should be considered. I also like the purist approach the wife espouses, with the lighting enhanced with sconces, torcheres and or table lamps.

      I think the most important factor is that both of you are happy, and that may require compromise from both. There are many options, and can be negotiated.

    18. Unless I’m lighting artwork, or doing task type lighting over counter tops, etc.), I go very easy on the recessed lights.

      The main reason is simply that they only throw light in one direction…down. These are overused all the time, and you get this sort of zebra striping of light/dark that’s very harsh on the eye.

      Instead, use well chosen surface mounted or pendant fixtures that throw light in all directions for general illumination…put them on dimmer switches to you can really control how much light they throw off. You also need to take into consideration how big the room is that you’re lighting. Don’t pick a fixture that can only take one 60W bulb for your big living room.

      This looks better, and you can actually save some serious $ in the reduction in the rough in and the fixtures.

    19. Just a personal preference, but I love the sensation of turning on a light at its source. Lots of lamps for me. The best use of recessed lighting is to light a feature on a wall – a piece of art for example. Not so great for general lighting. I also would second the sentiment that Bobjohn is a wise man indeed, even though ceiling fans are better for managing comfort than they are at providing light.

    20. i usually just put everything on dimmers regardless. you can add in more lighting later if you do do the recessed lights – like have them for convenience, but at night, you can dim down and then turn on a table lamp for nicer feel.

      i don’t have recessed lighting now, but i don’t mind it.

    21. Recessed lighting is not necessarily a selling point.
      I’m looking to buy a brownstone, and I prefer the absence of recessed lighting.

      But I don’t like your wife’s idea either. Ceiling fans with attached lights are, I think, problematic.

      I like cmu’s advice:

      “What you really need is the ability to have *multiple* levels of ligthing, depending on the mood, which is why floor/table lamps with one or two ceiling/wall lamps is flexible.

      “Finally, unless you’re planning to sell next year, do what you like, not what your hypothetical buyers may.”

      Also, it largely depends on the style of your renovation. If you’re renovating so it looks like it did 100 years ago, you should not use recessed lighting.

    22. the hubs and i had this same debate when we were renovating, and eventually compromised on some recessed lighting in certain hallways, bathrooms, tv room and kitchen – spaces where pendants either just wouldn’t work or that were a bit more modern. this has worked out well. i ultimately agreed that recessed lights would be distracting and/or unnecessary in the entry and parlor, bedrooms and certain hallways. keep in mind, too, that recessed lighting points directly downward, so you can get some harsh shadows and dark spots anyway.

      we didn’t try to use historical lighting in the areas where we chose to do pendants. we used mostly modern stuff because that was our style of renovation. although we agreed to have lamps and “layers of light” as others have suggested, in order to provide sufficient light, it wasn’t practical or affordable to do sconces (fixtures were expensive; we’d have to channel into walls; we weren’t ready to decide on placement before we really had any interior design). problem is, once we were done with our renovation, we didn’t really have the funds to spend on appropriate, nice lamps. so it remains a little dark for my tastes in certain rooms but ultimately, with floor and table lamps, i think it will look and feel nicer than with recessed lighting. lastly, we used modern fan company for the fan lights in bedrooms and the kitchen – the light is okay but you definitely will need to supplement.

    23. It depends what the rooms look like. A restored Vistorian with architectural detail should have a soft lit chandelier on the parlour level. Maybe not in the TV room and elsewhere.


      I also believe that recessed lighting has its place as well….like others said, don’t overdo it. se extremely small cans. Recessed is especially good for highlighting artwork.

      I fortunately have the luxury of pleasing only myself. bobjohn seems to be an extremely wise man.

    24. I agree with you – you want to put in light fixtures now.
      Generally it is agreed that one light fixture hanging from the middle of the room is not the nicest lighting scheme. It tends to cast shadows in the corner of the room, making it look smaller.

      You just need more layers of light – ie, better to have lots of sources, not just one. It doesn’t have to be recessed lighting – there are lots, like sconces and stuff. There are heaps of books on this at the library.

      Plus – make sure you have lots of power points where you need them! Nothing uglier than heaps of trailing cords.

    25. Recessed lighting has its place, but is almost *always* overused. You see new condos with two rows of cans marching down each side of the room…looks institutional/ugly. Remember that lighting “standards” are way over the top, and are so seemingly to ensure the health of the lighting industry. In a typical living room, I might set (a few) eyeball wall washers to light pictures…flexible, fairly unobtrusive and good light.

      A fan with overhead lighting is not ideal either, especially if you have a fussy multi-light fixture. Maybe a modern (Minka eg) fan with single dimmable halogen light.

      Wall scones are a classic feature and again if not too many, work well.

      What you really need is the ability to have *multiple* levels of ligthing, depending on the mood, which is why floor/table lamps with one or two ceiling/wall lamps is flexible.

      Finally, unless you’re planning to sell next year, do what you like, not what your hypothetical buyers may.

    26. I think that its important to distinguish between the quality of light, the surfaces that you are illuminating, and the lighting fixtures. Different spaces will have different requirements and it likely that you’ll need a variety of fixture types to achieve them. And that’s a good thing because having a variety of fixtures will provide an overall richness to your renovation. Fixtures need not all be on the ceiling. Manipulate direct and indirect lighting. Ed Kopel Architects, PC