Category: Lighting

The Art of Lighting Art

Landscape by Howard Post, Keating Gallery, Aspen, Colorado

“There are lots of reasons not to buy a painting, and very few reasons to buy one. That’s why I have to have good light,” says Gordon Keating.

Keating, who owns the Keating fine art in Aspen, Colorado, didn’t change the lighting in his gallery for reasons of efficiency or the environment.

The representative from CORE, the County Office of Resource Efficiency, certainly had environmental goals in mind when he stopped by Keating ‘s gallery with a bag full of green literature and a bit of a bribe in the form of a lighting grant. But Keating says that he’s “not a greenie.”

He does care a lot about how the gallery’s lighting is done though.

LED Light That Creates Clear, Beautiful Color

“I was skeptical,” Keating says. “But I did the research. I wanted to duplicate the color and clarity of the 120 volt PAR 20 halogen bulbs I had been using. The paintings respond well to that type of light because it has a warm color, and it’s clean. ”

Oil painting by Wilson Hurley, hung in poor light. Notice how the trees at the right side of the painting appear nearly black.

Same painting, well lighted. The trees now have much more green, the white is brighter and the sky is far more subtle. My digital shot definitely picked up the difference, but it was far more marked in person.

Keating replaced nearly all of the existing halogen bulbs in his overhead track fixtures with Toshiba E-Core LED bulbs.

No Change in Fixtures

The new LEDs have the same mounting base as the old halogen flood lights, so Gordon was able to keep his existing fixtures. (By the way, the bulbs have the same screw-in base that American consumers are accustomed to seeing on old-fashioned Edison bulbs.)

What Keating found was that LED technology has come a long way in terms of quality, bulb longevity and aesthetic choices.

Keating fills his track fixtures with 8-degree and 25-degree flood lights so that he can angle individual lights onto the paintings. To the left, you can see a demonstration. Gordon moved a painting for me so that I could see how different it looked under good and bad lighting conditions.

The Keating Gallery specializes in traditional art, mostly oil paintings and three-dimensional pieces, all with a Western accent. (The photography on the Gallery’s website puts my shots to shame, so go take a look at the true beauty of these works.)

On the day I visited, I admired three beautiful old Navajo bridles and several fine pieces of Acoma pottery, in addition to the paintings. (I’m a painter myself, and I earned a minor in art history at the University of Colorado in Boulder, concentrating on American Indian art, and I felt that these handsome pieces of silver and pottery really deserved a place of honor in this blog.)

“The detail in some paintings requires both a wash of light and a spot,” says Keating. “There can’t be any hot spots. It has to be excellent.”

Vintage Navajo horse bridle, Keating Gallery, Aspen, Colorado

“You also want light that’s more white because you want the colors that the artist painted to show,” he explains. “I have experimented with the color of the light, and have found that the 2700 Kelvin does this.”

How the Color of Light is Measured

As I explained in an April 2010 post about exciting new options in energy-efficient lighting: the color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we typically have used in homes have a color temperature of up to 2800K. They shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and it creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Keating, who opines that he has become “kind of geek about lighting,” says that he has done a lot of experimenting with the color of different sorts of bulbs. “Some M-16’s burn red, or blue or green,” he complained. “That just ruins the look of the painting.” Because LED manufacturers are trying hard to sell their product, they are providing very good consumer information, and he has been able to find the perfect choice.

Controlling the Ambient Light

Keating’s gallery is located in a 1960’s building. While the structure is cinder block, its interior and facings have been rustically finished to fit in with Aspen’s architecture. Many of Aspen’s false-fronted buildings date from Colorado’s silver rush, and they have Western and Victorian features. Although it is reproduction rather than original, the building that houses the gallery features a ceiling rough-hewn and exposed beams and pressed tin tiles.

Pressed tin ceiling and rough beams of the gallery ceiling.

The reflectiveness of the tin ceiling is misleading. The surface is actually fairly dark, and Keating uses it to his advantage. It helps to keep the ambient light subdued.

When Keating moved into the gallery, he replaced some cheap looking chandeliers with some 1920’s era chandeliers. Wavy glass covers the light bulbs that provide the ambient light. Traditional Edison bulbs are used in those fixtures, and Keating wants the resulting light to be low-key. “It helps the gallery to seem bigger,” he explains. “And the gallery should seem kind of romantic.”

Lighting designers think of creating light in three layers: ambient light, accent lighting and task lighting. A art gallery differs from a home in that it needs far more accent lighting than ambient lighting. (An office, by contrast, would require a preponderance of task lighting.) Gordon needs only a small amount of task lighting on his desk, and only enough ambient lighting to make the gallery seem comfortable. Otherwise, the light should direct all eyes to the paintings — just as he has arranged it.

Fixing the LED Dimmer Problem

On the left, the PAR 20 sized Edison bulb the gallery used to use. On the right, the replacement LED the gallery now uses.

Through trial and error, Keating discovered a way to dim his new LEDs. Although the kinks are slowly being worked out, many low-energy bulbs, both CFLs and LEDs, suffer technical problems when it comes to dimming. The lights will flicker and cut out when you try to dim them. But Gordon found that by leaving one halogen bulb on each track strip, he was able to successfully dim the entire fixture.

He’s also pleased that the new LEDs produce far less heat. “I used to have to put on a glove before I could touch the lights,” he explained. “I  have to mess with them a lot to get the light on the paintings right.”

Because of the heat reduction, he’s looking forward to the summer.  In years past, he has had to use an air conditioner to remove the heat that the lights added to his space. “The gallery is at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains,” he mused. “Air conditioning shouldn’t really be necessary.”

One final benefit he’s found; he has more elbow room. Although the new LEDs are somewhat pricey initially, they come with a five-year warranty.  Keating finds that because he’s having to replace bulbs far less often, he no longer has to devote expensive gallery space to storing light bulbs.

That’s a bright idea. It’s much better to use the space for art.

Two fine pieces of Acoma pottery at the Keating Gallery in Aspen.

Of Green Lighting and Felonious Filaments

Prima Lighting's Titan Collection Mini-Pendant "Sahara." Dimensions Diameter: 5.61" Height: 5.26" 12 volt; light bulb is 50W T5 GY6.35 12v Xelogen. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

I have seen the light! Specifically, I saw quite a few beautiful and energy-efficient lights recently when I happened into Opus Lights, a new, green lighting boutique in San Francisco.

Energy-efficient lighting sure isn’t what it used to be. Fluorescent lights used to be ugly, noisy, harsh, and undimmable while LEDs were dim and homely. But no more!

Perhaps you want a beautiful, artisan-quality energy-efficient pendant light for your newly remodeled kitchen? That’s no problem. Need a dimmable CFL that doesn’t hum? Okey dokey!

Need a bright, white but low-voltage light to showcase diamonds in a store display? Got it! Want a CFL that will cast a rosy glow on customers in your cosmetics studio? Sure thing! Nowadays, low-energy lights come in different shades of white, and the color can vary over a wide range of possibilities.

As you might have guessed, this post will be devoted to beautiful, energy-efficient lighting, and I will be highlighting several suppliers.

Dim Bulbs and Bright Ideas

Prima Lighting's "Sinclair" in blue flake. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Prima Tublix low-energy mini-pendant lamp. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Trista Pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Clarity Zenon pendant from Pegasus. This 12-volt halogen quick connect mini pendant light includes glass shade, a quick connect canopy, and the bulb for about $185. Dimmer sold separately. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Ether halogen pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

I’m prompted to write about this topic not only because of the stunning lighting options I have recently seen, but also to mark two important dates:

  • Saturday, March 27, the third worldwide Earth Hour
  • July 1, 2010 – the day when California’s Title 24 energy legislation goes into effect, significantly changing how we in the Golden State light kitchens in both new and remodeled homes.

I also want to award an official Bronx Cheer to the dim bulbs who created the retro-lighting craze in New York restaurants. It seems that quite a few restaurants have made a point of installing energy-guzzling Edison bulbs as part of a design fad; supposedly they are sending a message about style and the old-fashioned goodness of their food.

According to the federal government’s Energy Star program, if every American home replaced just one Edison incandescent with a standard CFL, in just one year, the nation would:

  • Save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes,
  • Save over $600 million in annual energy costs, and
  • Prevent as much greenhouse gas as would be emitted by 800,000 cars.

What’s in California’s Title 24

The old-fashioned “Edison style” light bulb was banned in the European Union several years ago. The US federal government will mandate more efficient bulbs beginning in 2012. As of that date, all new bulbs will use 25 to 30 percent less energy to produce the same light output as today’s typical incandescent bulbs.

Compared to the EU, California has been slow off the mark when it comes to the push for energy-efficient lighting. Our Title 24, which will become the strictest state-enforced energy code in the US when it goes into effect, was first written in 1978 (!) in response to the energy crisis. California’s current standards went into effect in October, 2005, and the new ones were supposed to take effect last August. They were pushed back and will finally kick in on July 1 of this year (2010).

Here’s what they will require of home owners who are remodeling or buying new property:

  • “Edison bulbs” (incandescent lighting) will be allowed in most rooms, if the lights are controlled by a dimmer switch or a sensor that turns them off when no one is in the room.
  • Outdoor light fixtures will need to use energy efficient bulbs or to be controlled by light and motion sensors.
  • At least half of your kitchen lighting – as measured in Watts – will have to come from energy-efficient light fixtures (generally meaning those using CFL or LED bulbs).

Title 24: Tough in Kitchens?

California has a worksheet for evaluating whether the balance of energy-efficient versus old-fashioned, inefficient Watts in a kitchen meet Title 24 standards. The first time I tried to fill out the form, I found it surprisingly difficult! It’s not that the form is unclear, or that the math is difficult. It’s just that the new forms of lighting are so much more efficient, it’s hard to strike a 50/50 balance. To equal the energy consumption of three small of Edison pendants, you wind up lighting the rest of the room like the Eiffel Tower!

A compact fluorescent is roughly 75% more efficient than a Edison bulb that puts out the same amount of light. It’s a bit confusing to think about, mostly because we are accustomed to mentally weighing the amount of light in watts. I know, for example, that I need at least at 75 watts for reading, and that a 40-Watt bulb is too dim.

But that wattage scale is pretty much history now, because an 11-Watt CFL puts out almost as much light as a 60-Watt incandescent. To make a meaningful comparison, you need to look at the light measured in lumens. (I have included a handy table below that will help you do that.)

Meanwhile, here’s what California’s Title 24 requires for kitchens:

  • Kitchen lighting requirements remain much the same as current codes, with the added provision that internal cabinet lighting cannot exceed 20 watts per linear foot of cabinet space.
  • Your low-energy and incandescent lights must be wired on separate circuits.

These standards, by the way, apply to permanently installed fixtures and not to plug-in lamps.

It’s Easy to Do the Right Thing

The good news about the changing California, US, and European standards is how easy it is to comply. Since energy-efficient bulbs have a longer lifespan than Edison bulbs (if you don’t buy the cheap Chinese versions that sometimes get dumped on the US market), the long-term savings should more than make up for the short-term expense of upgrading your lighting.

Prima low-energy wall sconces
Low-energy wall sconce from Prima Lighting. Photo courtesy of Prima Lighting.

It’s even easy to retrofit those recessed, round, can-style lights in your ceiling without rewiring them. The good folks at Opus Lights showed me screw in adaptors that enable current can-style fixtures to use CFLs that look just like current flood-style light bulbs. In addition, you will find several helpful consumer guides to the best in low-energy light bulb options at the end of this post.

Bright and Beautiful

The best news is how beautifully the options for low-energy lighting have progressed in the past couple years. This is true for track and cable lighting systems, for fixtures, for bulbs, and also for the actual quality of the light they produce.

As mentioned earlier, the new energy-efficient lighting options – both LEDs and CFLs – come in different shades of white. The color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we use have a color temperature of up to 2800K, and they shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Designers draw upon an understanding of the color of different kinds of light, and choose lights that make furnishings, merchandise and people look most attractive.

Prima Lighting

Prima Lighting, which manufactures the great lights I saw at Opus Lights, manufactures  low-voltage lighting systems for commercial, residential, retail and restaurant applications. Their products include bendable monorail and cable lighting systems in sleek chrome and muted silver finishes, as well as chandelier and miniature recessed lighting systems. They also have an extensive collection of pendants, many of which are pictured here.

Prima Lighting Rail System in commercial installation. Photo credit: Prima Lighting

One of the brightest spots in Prima’s line is their vast, handsome collection of low-voltage interchangeable spot light track heads. Prima’s signature FIT system features dual slot openings, horizontal or vertical orientation, and multi-circuit operation. Their wide array of interchangeable pendants and trackheads can be mixed and matched with the various mounting systems.

Pegasus Lighting

Pegasus Associates Lighting, which is based in Pittsburgh, PA, is a nationally recognized e-commerce site that sells unique lighting products to a wide spectrum of customers. Judging from their fan club on Facebook, they’re folksy – a family-run company that prides itself on being friendly, helpful, efficient, and enlightening.

Pegasus’ products are extensive. They include barbecue lights, cabinet lighting, cove lighting, desk lamps, display lights, exit signs, fiber optic lighting, light filters, fluorescent fixtures, light bulbs, LED fixtures, lenses, light boxes, louvers, mini pendant lights, night lights, over cabinet lighting, picture lights, reading lights, recessed downlights, rope lights, shelf lights, showcase lighting, step lights, track lighting, transformers, under cabinet lighting, UV filters, wall sconces, work lights, and xenon light fixtures!

Begun in 1993, Pegasus Associates Lighting is a division of the now-anachronistically-named Edison Lighting Systems, Inc., which has been in business since 1987. On their helpful and information-rich website, Pegasus takes pains to communicate their willingness to help you find and use unique and technologically-superior lighting products. Here’s what they have to say:

We consider a lighting product to be unique or, at least, somewhat unique if it is difficult to find, is contemporary or avant-garde in styling, is unusual in some fashion, uses a state-of-the-art light source or optical design, is custom-made, or is energy-efficient… we prefer to offer our customers lighting products that use LED, fluorescent, halogen, or xenon light bulbs instead of traditional incandescent light bulbs, and we prefer to offer our customers fluorescent lighting products that use quiet, energy-efficient electronic ballasts instead of magnetic ballasts.

Lifespan Hrs.
Energy Cost
5-Year Cost
Incandescent 60W 840 1,000 $8.00 $1,200.00
CFL 11W 770 8,000 $1.45 $217.50
LED 5W 625 50,000 $0.40 $60.00

Getting Creative with LEDs

While researching this post, I found several artistically notable light fixtures built around CFLs or LEDs, and I thought I would close by sharing some of those visual delights.

Behar LED Lamp

The first is Cloud Softlights, which was created by the Molo design studio. Cloud Softlights are made from paper, and they are lit from within by LED lights. They are luminous and abstract, and indeed cloud-like. They can be hung in clusters and shaped to fit the space they are lighting.

The second is a designer-style LED lamp from Yves Behar and EcoCentric. To operate the Leaf Lamp, shown at right, you touch it. It responds to touch to turn on and off, and also to alter the brightness level and color temperature. You can adjust its angle  as well. It’s a low-energy lamp that is made from 95% recycled materials. I found it on a United Kingdom-based website, and I don’t know if it’s available in the US. (But I’m sure if you just have to have it, you can talk them into shipping it to you.)

"Fragile Future" LED installation created by Lonneke Gordijn. Photo credit: Wired Magazine website.

The third is “Fragile Future,” the ethereal LED installation shown at left. Begun as  designer Lonneke Gordijn’s graduation project from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2005, the sculptural installation pairs the fluff from dandelions with LED lights and wires.

Resource Links

Those who are shopping for stylish, energy-efficient lighting would also do well to visit Gold Notes, the blog written by my friend and fellow designer Jamie Goldberg. I didn’t know that Jamie was writing about lighting, and vice versa, but when her RSS feed popped into my mailbox, I was delighted by the lighting she had found. I’m sure you will be too.

Last Saturday, in the biggest (and possibly most beautiful) demonstration in the world’s history, lights all over the earth were dimmed in honor of Earth Hour – an event designed to raise consciousness about energy consumption and global warming.

1 Rump or 2 and Other Kitchen Conundrums

“Please take our guests to the living room. This is strictly a one-rump kitchen!”  I used to often hear that memorable phrase when my husband and I lived in a small apartment. Mason and I now have a two-cook kitchen, but the practice of asking “one rump or two” is one that’s very useful to anyone considering the redesign of a kitchen.

Remodeled kitchen from Keane Kitchen showrooms.

A well-designed, two-rump kitchen offers separate counter spaces for two cooks: one area should be adjacent to the range and another for salad and drink preparation. A kitchen designed for two cooks usually has two sinks, and often more than one oven, as is the case with the beautifully designed kitchen here, the work of my friend and fellow designer, Jamie Goldberg.

But with kitchens, bigger does not necessarily mean better!

A few years ago, a relative – I will call her Antoinette – excitedly invited me over to see her new multimillion dollar home. My immediate  reaction to her “dream kitchen” — it’s a nightmare!

I immediately saw that it was the kind of kitchen that David L. Brooks skewered in his book Bobos in Paradise as “an airplane hangar with plumbing”. Antoinette’s kitchen island looked about the size of Maui!

In reality, the island was around 10 feet square. If the surface had been a bit higher, the outer edge could have been used as a stand-up bar  – if you happened to be serving ors d’oeuvres for 30 or so people! But its depth and circumference were bad news when it came to food preparation. It was so wide no one could reach the center, and to use the appliances, one would need track shoes. Since the appliances were scattered in a ring facing the island, reaching them would be like training for a track meet.

Kitchen at Monticello Monticello’s kitchen was among the best equipped in Virginia. While serving as U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson purchased a large number of cooking utensils for his residence in Paris. In the early 1790s, as part of an 86-crate shipment of goods, he had them shipped back to America and eventually to Monticello. While the cellar of the South Pavilion housed Monticello’s first, relatively small kitchen, a second kitchen was constructed during the expansion of the house. Completed by 1809, the newer, much larger work space featured a bake oven, a fireplace, and an eight-opening stew stove with integrated set kettle. A tall case clock also stood in the kitchen: Isaac Jefferson, one of Monticello’s former slaves, recalled that the only time Jefferson went into the kitchen was to wind the clock.  The kitchen's brick floor, bake oven, fireplace, stew stove, and the tall case clock seen at Monticello today are part of a restoration and re-interpretation effort that culminated in the summer of 2004 with the opening of the space to visitors.
Thomas Jefferson's kitchen at Monticello’s was among the best equipped in Virginia, thanks to all the utensils he picked up while serving as US Minister to France. This is Monticello's second kitchen, an 1809 upgrade that featured a larger work space with bake oven, fireplace, and 8-opening stew stove with integrated set kettle. The restored kitchen is open to visitors.

Although I was kind enough to keep my thoughts to myself, mumbling something about the kitchen being “impressive”, I knew that Antoinette was going to come to loathe the kitchen. It had been designed to impress, and the design was about conspicuous consumption more than about food consumption. (The message in the design, I believe, was “let them eat cake.”)

Over the centuries, our kitchens have come full circle from being the center of family life, to being galleys intended for food preparation to again becoming a gathering place for family and friends. Since the 1950’s, multiple trends have bulked up our kitchens, tripling its size. June Cleaver’s kitchen, seen on the 1957-63 TV show “Leave It to Beaver,”  was less than 100  square feet. The average American kitchen is now around 225 square feet!

This increase does not reflect bigger families. During the same time, the size of the American family has shrunk. While some of the changes are driven by technology, the big drivers for kitchen remodeling have been social, related to both to changes in how we really live and how we want to live.

Reasons to Remodel Your Kitchen

While there’s always a bit of “keeping up with Joneses” that figures into remodeling plans, there are also some green and family-affirming reasons to remodel.  The schedules of two-career families demand that we be able to cook quickly, and they may also prompt us to do more business entertaining at home. Couples often want to be able to invite friends to have a drink in the kitchen or help with salad prep while a convivial meal is being prepared.

Parents need a convenient place to feed the kids, to keep an eye on them while cooking, and also to enable the kids to make their own snacks. Safety can also be an issue.

Dish drawers are an energy saving alternative to the standard dishwasher.
"Dish drawers" are an energy-saving alternative to the standard dishwasher. They can handle as much as a traditional 24-inch dishwasher, but because each drawer runs independently, you can wash small loads as economically as large ones. The model pictured is from Fisher-Paykel.

In addition, some people also want to reduce their energy bills and lower emissions that drive climate change. In addition to replacing old, inefficient appliances with new “Energy Star” models, eco-conscious homeowners can offset the use of artificial lighting by increasing “daylighting”. Improved window placement, insulated frames, and low-emissions glass can improve the color and quality of interior light while significantly cutting drafts, winter heat loss, and summer overheating.

A remodel also provides an opportunity to replace old incandescent light fixtures with energy-efficient compact fluorescent, LED, and halogen lighting. (Incandescent light bulbs have actually been banned in Ireland, and Title 24, the California energy bill that goes into effect in January 2010, will require that half of kitchen light in newly built homes comes from energy efficient light fixtures.)

All in all, the kitchen is one the two most-often remodeled rooms in the house. (The bathroom is the other.) In this first post, I will look at changes in how we configure and use our kitchens, and I will also include some tips and tool for thinking about ways to improve your kitchen. In later posts, I will return to the topic of kitchens, exploring small kitchens, wheelchair accessible kitchens and other kitchen topics.

It’s best to start with a plan. That seems obvious to me, but apparently not to everyone. I recently heard a story about a woman who simply went out and bought all new appliances without having a plan in place. Because most of them wouldn’t fit, they wound up sitting in her garage for over a year while she backtracked, trying to decide whether to sell the appliances or to ask a contractor to enlarge her kitchen. Who knows, those appliances might still be in the garage had she not met a designer in a tennis class!

I suggest that you start planning for a kitchen remodel not by looking at new appliances – you will get to that – but by first looking at how you use your kitchen now and how the changes you can anticipate over the next ten years will change your needs.

What’s the Best Size for My Kitchen?

Do you need to enlarge your kitchen, adding on or borrowing space from another room? Maybe, maybe not. The optimum size is based first and foremost on how many people will be cooking, and how many will be visiting the kitchen. Here are some questions to answer:

  • Is a one-cook kitchen sufficient?
  • Does your family have a main cook and a sous-chef who does the chopping and prep work?
  • Do you want a kitchen where multiple family members or friends can join in, helping with salad making, table setting and other dinnertime activities?
  • Does your kitchen need a family activity area where children can do homework or color near mom while she’s cooking?
  • Do you pay bills or use a computer in the kitchen? If so, you might want to add a small desk or a convertible work area.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), a respected trade industry group, offers some great guidelines for figuring out the best size for your kitchen. Here are a few:

Kitchen layout
There's a sequence to kitchen work - first the cooking and serving, and later, the dishes! In this floor plan, the orange triangle connecting the sink, stove and refrigerator shows the work area for the main cook while the yellow triangle demarcates her helper. If these triangles cross, traffic problems ensue. The yellow triangle does cross the green clean-up triangle, this probably won't cause a problem since prep and clean up don't happen at the same time.

Countertops – You need at least 158 linear inches of counter. The surface  should be 24″ deep with at least 15″ of clearance between the counter and the upper cabinets. (But a wheelchair user needs 18″ deep counters because she cannot reach the back of a 24″ counter.)

Loading and prep areas – You need about 2 feet of space next to your fridge, sink, and stove to load, unload, and prepare food.

Opening doors and appliances – All doors should swing freely; your dishwasher door should not catch on the pull for the adjacent cabinet, and your stove door should open without causing a trip hazard. (Having enough room for door swings is partly a function of space planning, and partly a function of room size. Small rooms may require different types of doors and some other ingenious solutions.)

Aisles – A working aisle should be at least 42″ for one cook and at least 48″ for multiple cooks. (But one cook doesn’t need more than 60″ either!)

Measuring Kitchen Efficiency

In a kitchen, the “primary work triangle” is formed by lines drawn from the kitchen sink to the refrigerator and stove. For efficiency’s sake, each side of that triangle should be no less than 4 feet long and no more than 9 feet long. The total of the lengths of the three legs should be no more than 26 feet long.

Galley kitchen
Be it ever so humble, the galley kitchen layout is among the most efficient kitchen arrangements.

It can be a challenge to keep within that limit in today’s large kitchens. For example, the kitchen shown above is 13.5 feet wide and 22 feet long; the sides of the sous chef’s triangle add up to nearly 26 feet. That makes for a lot of walking back and forth!

The most efficient kitchen is probably the galley kitchen; it’s basically two counters with a working aisle in the center. The galley’s small size limits walking distances, and if there’s enough counter space, it can be a delight. Indeed, a caterer we hired to put together a buffet in our  “one-rump” kitchen told me that it was the most efficient kitchen in which she had ever worked.

I was very pleased, having laid it out myself. Although I knew nothing about kitchen triangles at that point, I had argued with our contractor about the kitchen layout. He wanted at 6-foot wide center aisle. That convinced me that he didn’t cook much! If he had, he would have known that an aisle that wide would force the cook to take 2 or 3 extra steps every time s/he went from the stove to the sink.

Kitchen layout by Nicolette Toussaint
Better! I revised the kitchen above so that the two cook's triangles and the clean-up triangle don't cross. This involved downsizing the main refrigerator slightly and adding a set of refrigerator drawers in the sous chef's salad prep area. Because this kitchen is designed to also be wheelchair accessible, the aisles are fairly wide (all doorways are 36") and the counters in one area are set at 33" above the floor - easier to reach from seated position that the standard 36" counter height. These lower counters also enable kids to make their own snacks more easily.

All of those extra steps add up to what’s called a “travel penalty.” In the two-cook layout above, both chefs – or rather their feet – are going to be paying that penalty.

The goal in kitchen planning is to have the triangles as compact as possible, but to also ensure that work triangles  don’t cross so that kitchen workers don’t bump into one another.

There are multiple types of travel patterns in a kitchen: movements of the main and sous-chefs, of table setting and serving, of clean-up, of unpacking groceries and unloading the dishwasher, to name a few. The simplified kitchen layouts here show just three of the most-used patterns: the chef, the sous chef, and clean-up. Because the main chef will be preparing the entree at the same time the sous chef is making the salad, it’s important that the two cooking triangles (red and yellow in the big layouts) don’t cross.

In practice, and in smaller kitchens, it’s likely that some of the triangles will cross, so while minimizing them, it’s also important to consider the sequence of traffic patterns. Some of us do clean up while cooking, but most of the clean-up traffic (indicated by the green triangles) will occur after the cooking is done. In most cases, our kitchens involve some trade offs, and it’s best to make them consciously – and before the appliances are purchased.

Other Kitchen Conundrums

Here, in no particular order, are a few useful planning tips to keep in mind if you’re thinking of remodeling your kitchen:

  • Consider the next buyer. Unless you and your house have a until-death-do-us-part arrangement, you should consider the next owner’s likely needs as well as your own desires. You may love that Wolf professional-style range, but the person who buys your house might consider it a problem that detracts from the value of the house.
  • Don’t get too trendy. Similarly, it’s a good idea to consider how the durable parts of your design – such as tile, flooring and appliances – are going to look in 5 or 10 years. For example, right now a retro-1960’s palette is very much au courant. It seems like every interior design magazine I see features several interiors in the same baby blue and brown combo, as well as lime green and orange. If you paint your walls in trendy colors like those, they can be easily changed, but counter tops will cost thousands, not hundreds, to replace. And I can guarantee you, that in 10 years, we will be looking at brown-and-blue rooms and yawning “that’s just so 2009.”
  • Don’t overspend. Once you get to looking at high-end appliances, counter tops and flooring, it’s really easy to drop $150,000 on a kitchen.  The cost of the design shouldn’t exceed 20 percent of your home’s value. You can typically recover up to 8 percent of that cost when you sell your place.
  • Watch for “bad adjacency“. If you live in an old house or apartment, you have probably inherited some old-fashioned design trends. One of the worst is having a bathroom that opens from the kitchen, something considered very undesirable, even tasteless, by modern buyers. It’s well worth correcting this during a kitchen remodel, as well as finding ways to enclose or otherwise hide laundry appliances. Among other bad, but common adjacency problems are noisy kitchens that neighbor sleeping or study rooms.
  • Fix the lighting. You’ve probably had the annoying experience of having your own shadow fall across the vegetables you’re chopping, making it hard to see. This happens when kitchens are designed with just one or two central ceiling lights; those fixtures may create adequate “ambient” light, but don’t do a good job of lighting counters.  When your central lighting is supplemented with proper task lighting – for example, fluorescent panels tucked away under the skirts of your upper cabinets – it  can greatly decrease your chance of injury while preparing a meal. In addition, you will want to ensure that your light does not produce glare on work surfaces.
  • Cork is a great choice for the kitchen floor. Naturally resilient and forgiving to both the cook's back and dropped dishes, it also quiets the room by absorbing noise. This handsome floor is from WoodFloors Online.
  • Reduce the noise level. Today’s dishwashers are much better insulated, and thus quieter, than those of a decade past, but they’re still noisy enough to interfere with conversation. Ditto for range hood fans and washers and dryers. If you add to that the noise produced by your refrigerator, plus the echos of footfalls on stone or tile flooring, the kitchen can be a noisy place. Pay attention not only to the energy ratings of your appliances, but also to the specifications on how much noise they produce. You might also want to consider putting some sound-absorbing surfaces, such as fabric or wood, somewhere in the kitchen, and perhaps even adding some sound proofing to the walls if sleeping or study rooms are next to your kitchen.
  • Consider what’s underfoot. Marble is beautiful, but it can be slippery, as can other kinds of polished stone. If you choose a slip-resistant flooring –  a matte-finished wood, bamboo or laminate; cork, or textured or a soft-glazed ceramic tile – you may prevent a fall. (If you’re holding a hot casserole or a knife when you fall, you could be in for a trip to the ER.)  If you select tile, you should also place a throw rug with a non-skid backing in areas that get wet.
  • Think safety. Your kitchen layout should enable you to locate the range and cook top away from doorways and passages, and it’s also a good idea for parents to opt for rounded corners on counter tops. In addition, consider the heights of the adults: the NKBA’s Kitchen Planning Guidelines say that microwaves should be installed 3″ below the principal user’s shoulder but no more than 54″ above the floor to avoid accidents.

Resource Links


Tea“One Lump or Two, Dear?”

The work triangles I discussed in this post were developed back in 1944 after the University of Illinois conducted a number of studies of kitchen design, and they gained wide adherence in the US in the 1950’s.

I was tickled to learn that our British cousins have quite a different tool for measuring kitchen efficiency. They count the number of steps the cook has to take to prepare a cuppa tea, English style.  That’s not just a matter of dunking a tea bag in hot water, the way the Yanks do it.

Instead, it requires taking down and pre-heating the cup with tap water, filling the kettle, heating the tea water, gathering the tea, fetching the milk from the refrigerator and the sugar from the cupboard, replacing the tap water with boiling water, steeping the tea, and finally serving it. Those tasks take the cook to each end of the triangle, and possibly then some.

Because one the nicest rituals in my life is awakening to a cup of British-style tea with milk, served in bed by my loving husband, I was delighted to share this piece of design trivia with him. Mason is retired, and he wakes up hours before I do. He says he finds the tea-making process pleasant, and we both enjoy our pre-dawn tea and conversation. While writing this post, I asked him to count the number of steps he walked while making our tea in our current two-rump kitchen.

The total came out to 25.  I was asleep so I don’t know whether they were sleepy, mincing steps, or big, bold strides.

I Can See Clearly Now: Daylighting II

Want to see how the light will look before you spend money on remodeling windows, adding skylights, or repainting a room? If the answer is yes, have I got a story for you!

The room has a nice warm quality when lit with two different sources of artificial light. This is at 4:30 on a summer afternoon. (Note the yellow wood stairs that cover and shade much of the left side of the south-facing window.)

Here's how it looks at noon with the lights off. OK for computer work, but it's hard to read a book. Light comes from the south-facing window and an east-facing door that leads to the kitchen and living room.

I recently built a scale model of my dining room and tested eight ways to increase the room’s natural light. My tests yielded some surprises – insights that I will share in this post.

As you can see from my photos, it’s so dark that, without artificial light, the pink walls in my dining room/office look smoky gray. When the room was occupied only at night, this wasn’t much of a problem. However, as I have moved my design practice into the room, the lack of natural light has become an issue. There are multiple reasons for that:

  • Human beings need full spectrum light for accurate color perception – a fact that makes natural light particularly important for visual designers.
  • Humans also perform better in natural light. Studies show that adequate daylighting can increase building lease rates, reduce worker absenteeism and sick leave, increase production, result in higher sales, and speed patient recovery times in hospitals. It has even been shown to help raise student test scores and reduce tooth decay.
  • Lack of natural light can impact mood. Like many other people, I suffer from SADS, or Seasonal Affective Disorder Syndrome, and natural light helps combat these blues.
  • We waste a shocking amount of electricity lighting our buildings during hours when sunlight is readily available. I find this reprehensible for both environmental and economic reasons.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I wrote about the first version of this model in A Light at the End of the Tunnel, Daylighting. That post contains much more information about the health and energy benefits of daylighting, as well as summaries of some daylighting strategies that I decided not to test on my model. For that reason, I don’t talk about them here, but you might find them of interest if you’re trying to lighten up your own dark room.

Match Wits with My Model

Before I share the results of my experiments with the daylighting model, I invite you to test your best guesses about what would most help to lighten the room.

Below, I have listed, in alphabetical order, the eight alterations I made to the model, giving each a two-letter mnemonic code. Take a moment to rank these options so that you can compare your predictions with the results of my experiments. (Put the number and code for the strategy you think would make the most difference first, the second-most effective strategy second, and continue until you have ranked all eight alterations in order of expected effectiveness.) You may be as surprised as I was by what worked, and what didn’t add much light to the room.

Here's where the window and stairs are located on the actual house.
Here's where the window and stairs are on my house.

Here are the alterations I tested:

  1. AW – All white – Painting the entire dining room white
  2. CL – Clerestory windows. Cutting clerestory windows through the east wall of the room to admit more light from the living room (wide, short windows located up near the roof where you can’t see through them are called “clear story” windows)
  3. MI – Mirror inside. Mounting a mirror on the sunny, west wall within the room
  4. MO – Mirror outside. Mounting a mirror on the outside wall that reflects the most light in through the window
  5. OS – Open Stairs. Replacing the solid wood stairs with openwork metal stairs that allow light to shine through
  6. WE – Window Extension. Extending the dining room window up to the ceiling
  7. WI -White inside wall. Painting the sunniest wall, the one that reflects the most light inside the room – white instead of pink
  8. WS – White stairs and stairwell. Painting the outside stairs and stairwell white, leaving the room pink

My test results will be revealed at the end of this blog. In the meantime, here’s a bit more information about the model, and some photos of the changes in light produced by various alterations.

The Second Daylight Model

The daylight model; this is the same side of the house that is shown in the photo above.

To make the light in my daylighting model accurately show the changes I wanted to test, I expanded my original one-room model so that it would show both the main sources of light and the features that obstruct it. The expanded test model, the second daylight model, is shown at right. It includes:

  • Yellow painted stairs that block much of window – they can be seen on the left side of the model and also in the dark photo at the top of this post.
  • Door to kitchen – the door is at the center of the model. Here the kitchen is represented only by the tile placed outside the model. This is the same tile that is installed in the real kitchen, and it reflects a surprising amount of light.
  • Living room – the space to the left of the door is the dining room. The main sources of living room light are the  window at the right side of the model and the door into the kitchen. Light from the living room enters the dining room through the door on its east side.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

Adding a mirror inside the room reflects light, but not as much as I expected.
Adding a mirror inside the room reflects light, but not as much as I expected.

Here's a surprise - look at how much more light the room gets when the mirror is placed OUTSIDE on the landing!
Here's a surprise - look at how much more light the room gets when the mirror is placed OUTSIDE on the landing!

Painting the wall outside the window white reflects about the same amount of light as a mirror in the same spot.

A white wall, white stairs and whitewashing the black tar roof (unseen from this angle) reflects the most light of any of these options.
A white wall, white stairs and whitewashing the black tar roof (unseen from this angle) reflects the most light of any of these options.

At the outset, I thought that placing a mirror to catch and reflect sunlight falling on the room’s west wall (right side of the photo) would brighten the room a great deal. One of my fellow designers suggested this idea, and I was eager to try it.

The prof in my Building Envelope class, however, was unenthusiastic. He noted, rather disdainfully, that this smoke-and-mirrors trick would make my room look like every third restaurant in downtown San Francisco!

I was surprised to discover that placing a mirror outside the window – as the photo at far right shows – brightened the room far more than a mirror inside the window.

What startled me even more, however, was the discovery that white painted walls, both inside and outside the window, reflected more light than mirrors in either position! This seemed counter-intuitive, but both experiments with the model and a review of ASHRAE tables confirm it.

ASHRAE is the acronym for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, and they have published extensive tables that list the reflectance of dozens of types of building materials and finishes. The reflectance standard for a perfect mirror is 100% (meaning that it reflects all of the available light) and is referenced as a value of 1.0. The aluminum foil I used in the model as a “mirror” is not perfect, but polished aluminum has a reflectance – or “R value” – of .8 to .9, and many mirrors are actually in that range too. So the foil probably gives us a good idea of how much light a real mirror would reflect.

A white masonry wall, according to the ASHRAE charts, also has an R-value in the range of .8 and should reflect about as well as the mirror. My model experiment not only confirms this, it also reveals that the reflectivity from white walls provides a much more even wash of light than the mirrors do. Look carefully at the light on the floor and ceilings in third photo at right and you will see this. In addition, you will see that the painted wall actually reflects light back into the depths of the room better than any of the mirrored options.

The fourth photo in this series shows that the room is significantly brightened when the outside wall, the bottom of the staircase, and the black tar roof outside the window (unseen in the photos here, but visible in the model above) are all painted white. The amount of light reflected onto the ceiling is substantially greater than in any of the preceding photos, and the wash of light to the right of the window reaches deeply into the room.

More Light from the Adjacent Room?

Clerestory windows were invented to let light into Gothic churches on the level above the stained glass windows that line the nave, and today, clerestory windows are often used in green buildings because they offer a great way to get to light travel from perimeter rooms into windowless interiors.

ClerestoryAs you can see from the photos in this post, my room receives a lot of light from the east wall’s door that opens to the living room and kitchen. I had hoped that installing clerestory windows in that same wall would add light to my dark dining room – but it was definitely an option I would want to test before trying it in real life. While it was easy to add the little windows shown at left to my model, adding them to the house might be quite an expensive option. To add them, my contractor would need to pierce a load-bearing wall that provides support to the building’s upper floor. That’s not impossible, but it would necessitate reinforcing the wall, and that would add to the cost of the project. Unless the clerestory windows added a lot of light to the room, they wouldn’t be worth the expenditure.

That’s exactly what the model showed. The amount of light the clerestory windows added to the room was negligible – much less of an improvement than I would get from simply painting the east interior wall of the room a lighter color! (You can see the model’s clerestory windows in the photo at the bottom of this post.) So that’s a neat $5000 or so the model has saved me. Painting all of the walls white of course increased this effect.

Buying a Stairway to Heaven

The old, solid wood stairs at left. New, pierced metal version at right.

The most obvious barrier to daylighting in this room, of course, is those darn stairs. They not only block the view, but they also shade the window from the wonderful south light that comes into the kitchen and living room, and from light that would fall from the sky directly above the stairs.

Those stairs need to be rebuilt, and I have wondered whether leaving the risers open at the back of the stairs (or alternatively, putting a transparent material at the back of the riser) would significantly lighten the room.  Ryan Stroupe, from whom I was taking a green building course, suggested something even better: what if the stairs were made from a pierced or open metal grating? I tested that option by building a set of stairs for the model out of metal window screen; you can see the old and new stairs in the model photos above.

Here's the model after all eight alterations have been made. The best improvements came from painting the light well's surfaces white, raising the top of the window, exchanging the solid wood stairs for metal stairs that admit light, and painting the interior walls white. You can see that the clerestory windows, at top left side, don't add much light to the room.

My last change was to further open the room by extending the room’s window up as far as possible toward the ceiling. Obviously, this strategy would work best with open stairs and an open top landing.

Grand Finale

Drumroll, please! After all this testing and photo-taking, I can clearly see what’s going to work best, and you can compare your predictions to the results. Here’s how the eight possible improvements stacked up:

  1. Open Stairs
  2. Window Extension
  3. White stairs and stairwell
  4. White outside wall
  5. Mirror outside
  6. White inside wall
  7. Mirror inside wall
  8. Clerestory windows

Interesting, eh? How well did your predictions turn out?

If you’re thinking about improving the daylight in a room, here are some resources that you might find useful:



I Can See Clearly Now

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

-Johnny Nash

A Light at the End of the Tunnel – Daylighting!

How is it that I, a person who is highly sensitive to light – or rather the lack of it – works in not one, but two spaces that are as dark as the inside of a pocket?

The presence of sunlight offers amazing benefits to a building’s inhabitants and/or owners. Studies have shown that adequate “daylighting” can increase building lease rates, reduce worker absenteeism and sick leave, increase production, result in higher sales, and speed patient recovery times in hospitals.

Here's what the window looks like at noon with the room lights turned off.
Here’s how dark my office is at noon on a sunny day lit only by the south-facing window and an east-facing interior door.
Here’s how it looks a few steps farther back with all of the lights turned on.

I know from experience that a lack of sunlight can cause depression. When I lived in gray and overcast Chicago, I suffered from SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder). After a move to San Francisco my mood brightened, except during bouts of summer fog. Another move to the border of the sunny Mission District has helped me escape both gray skies and blue days.

Even so, the rooms where I spend the most time are both dark: my home office and my office at Alliant International University. At the university, I’m privileged to have a private office, but it’s an interior space that is wholly dependent on artificial light. My office has no windows. A vertical glass panel beside the door would let in light from the hallway – if there were any. On three occasions, I have been in that office during power failures, and each time, I was instantly plunged into darkness. I found my way out to the hallway – an equally dark space – only with the help of the small flashlight on my keyring!

View of artemisia bush from inside the daylight model
View of artemisia bush from inside the daylight model, same south orientation as the real window. This shows how much light should be getting into the room - quite a contrast to the real room above.

Frankly, this is the result of bad design. Alliant’s offices were built out only about five years ago, and the folks who planned them should have known better. The offices on the perimeter do have some glass walls, and they do let light. But due to the floor plan, internal walls quickly block the light.

The layout spaces multiple windowless interior offices like mine along long windowless hallways. The halls receive natural light only at the far ends, rendering the glass insets beside the doors pointless. A couple times, when we had extended power outages, the staff wearied of waiting and groping in the dark and went home.

My home office, which doubles as a dining room, is not much better, however. You can see the problem in the photos at the top of the post. I have complained to the management. The manager (me) has assured the tenant that despite serious fiscal limitations, there are some possible options for brightening up this dark space. In this post, I will tell you a little about a model of the room I have built, and how I’m using it to weigh my options for improving the room. Later (perhaps quite a bit later, given the current economy), I will tell you about how my lighting renovations come out.

Modeling the Room

I have created a scale model to test changed paint colors, a light shelf, a light reflection pad, above-head-level clerestory windows, and changes to the reflectance qualities of the surfaces outside the window. Eventually, I will also need to redesign the outside stairs that partially block and shade the room’s one window, but I decided to start by seeing how much I could lighten the room with the easier, cheaper, indoor fixes.

The scale model in the garden. The camera opening is facing you and the windows of the room look south, in the same orientation as the actual room. What the window "sees" is that artemesia bush, the view shown in the previous photo.

The first steps in this experiment have involved testing how the surfaces outside the room impact the light and color inside. I’m conducting my tests using the scale model, pictured at right. This little box is made of foam core, which is easy to use, but too translucent for a daylight model in most cases. But in this instance, the interior walls have been finished with the same wall texture, flat pink latex wall paint, and white gloss wood trim enamel, as in the actual room. The paint and its underlayment (rubber cement sprinkled with grainy brown flour to create wall texture) make the foam board opaque.

The real room (pictured at the top of this blog as it looks when lit by artificial and natural light together), is nine and half feet wide, 11 feet long, and has a 10-foot high ceiling. All of this, plus the window and doors, have been replicated in the  model at a scale of 1.25 inch equals 1 foot. The model even includes an appropriately placed picture rail and high baseboards similar to those in the real room.

Why Daylighting is a Bright Idea

With all the lights on, the room pictured at the top of this blog is fairly attractive – and one made even more attractive by my cat Bridget, who is sitting on the table. What’s wrong with turning on the lights, you might ask?

As it turns out, quite a few things. It takes energy to keep those lights burning. As much as one-third of your total energy bill may be going to light your house.

A beautifully daylight room
A beautifully daylit room

To my way of thinking, that’s ridiculous! To adequately light a space, you need to capture only about 2% of the outside light, and all that’s required for that is proper fenestration. But over the past couple decades, architects, who have been DUI (designing under the influence) of cheap oil, haven’t thought much about daylighting and energy efficiency.

Happily, that’s changing. With buildings responsible for gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel – more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%) – many building owners are undertaking energy-efficiency retrofits. One example is Chicago’s Sears Tower, which has just been rechristened the “Willis Tower” by its new owners.

The Willis Tower, like its glass-box cousins, bleeds energy. This year, it’s getting a $350 million sustainability retrofit that will reduce its base electricity use by up to 80 percent. Like me, the Tower’s owners have little ability to change the building’s basic shape, but they are replacing 16,000 single-pane windows with thermally efficient models and are also installing “daylight harvesting” systems that dim the artificial lighting when the sunlight is adequate. They expect to save up to 150,000 barrels of oil – megabucks – every year!

Green is for Greenbacks

This might be a good place to note that energy costs drive both efforts to improve daylighting and efforts to improve the thermal performance of the building’s envelope. A few months back, in a post entitled “Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow“, I wrote about plugging heat leaks in my house. Last month, I found out how effective my investment of a couple days time and around $100 had been. I received a rebate check from PG&E for reducing my energy use, and that prompted my husband Mason to compare current and past utility bills. A year ago, our June bill totaled $142, and this June it was $49. Since the house was fully occupied both months – Mason is retired so he’s there during the days – and the weather was quite similar, I think the credit goes to mostly to me.

But the financial benefits of daylighting aren’t limited to energy savings. One big box store noticed that the skylit-half of its store consistently showed 40% higher sales than the side that was artificially lit. Wondering whether that might be due to unpopular merchandise or to the way it was displayed, they flip-flopped the store layout, so that the slower-selling products were now under the skylights. To their astonishment, they found that the under-the-skylight sales pattern persisted. This chain is now working on installing skylights in all their stores.

Health Benefits of Natural Light

Natural light also has a positive impact on human health. It makes us feel happier, perhaps because we feel more connected to the environment. We also see a fuller spectrum of color in daylight.

But there’s more to it than that. The depressive impact of SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) – also known as “cabin fever” – is well documented. Studies show that people who suffer from SAD exhibit many of the signs of depression: sadness, anxiety, irritability, lack of interest in their usual activities, social withdrawal, and inability to concentrate. They often suffer from fatigue, lack energy, crave sleep and carbohydrates, and experience increased appetite and weight gain.

Less well known are several studies done in schools, where natural light has been linked to reduced absenteeism, higher test scores, and even to less tooth decay!

Meanwhile, Back in My Office

A southwest view from the daylighting model.
Because the daylighting model is turned about 30 degrees and facing southwest, there's far less light on the right side wall. It's also interesting how much what's outside the window affects the interior color. Compare the color of the walls here, with the San Diego red bougainvillea reflecting on them, with the image above, where the green from the artemesia creates a complement effect that greatly tones down the pinkness of the room.

It’s far easier of course, to orient the windows correctly in the first place than to later attempt to correct the problem – as I will be trying to do with my office/dining room. In my case, the room should have adequate light.

As the daylight model at right shows, the south-facing window gets quite a bit of light. Light also comes through the door on the left side of the room – though not quite as much as this model would indicate. In reality, that door opens into my living room, a space I have not yet added to the daylight model. My living room does have adequate light, but it filters the light that enters the dining room.

The real problem here can be seen in the photo at the top of the post: wooden stairs with closed backs block much of the light that should be entering my office. To fix this problem, I will need to have those outside stairs rebuilt in addition to changing the inside of the room.

What kind of changes can help improve daylighting in this room – or one you want to brighten up? Here’s a list, starting with the simplest and moving to the most difficult and costly:

  • Change of wall color: Light colors reflect significantly more light, and a change to a wall inside or outside can help. I will be repainting some walls inside my model to test this. I will also be experimenting with changing the color of the “ground” surface outside the window; currently, that landing is covered with a black tar roof. I would get more reflection if that surface were a light color.
  • Mirrored wall: Mirrors reflect light; I will be experimenting with putting mirrors on the wall opposite the windows, and also with hanging something reflective outside the window.
  • Light shelf: Light shelves are horizontal panels that are placed near the top of window and used to bounce light into the depths of a room. I’m not sure I have enough direct sunlight to make one work – at least until the stairs are redesigned to let light through – but this, too, is easy to test in a model.
  • Light-deflecting panels hung from ceiling: I have seen these in only one place, the LEED-certified offices of the Energy Foundation in downtown San Francisco. In that office, interior designers have hung a V-shaped panel from the ceiling over a conference table. The angled sides of the panel catch light from the windows and reflect it down toward the work surface, brightening a room that is otherwise somewhat dark. My room is shaped somewhat similarly, and I’m eager to try this approach.
  • Drop ceiling: The best light comes from the tops of windows, at eight feet and above, and windows are most effective when they directly abut walls and ceilings. The top of my window is separated from the ceiling by a two and a half foot margin. The ceilings throughout the house are 10 feet up, and it may be that much of my available light is escaping up into the area above my picture rail. An experiment with the box will tell.
  • Install clerestory windows: Those wide, short windows located up near the roof are called clerestory windows, and they are great for letting light travel from perimeter rooms into interior rooms. Installing clerestory windows probably would let more light travel from my living room into my dark dining room – but it might be an expensive option, because to add them, my contractor would need to pierce a load-bearing wall that provides support to the building’s upper floor.
  • Install skylights
  • Install tubular skylights: I can’t add a skylight in my room (because of that upper floor), but some tubular skylights can channel light down inclined paths by reflecting it down a tube, and I might be able to use one of these to import sunlight into my space.

Resource Links


It was the sun that made ancient Egypt prosperous, and they worshipped that life-giving source of energy. The god Ra, the god of the sun, was regarded as the source of everything.

Give a Green Light to Eco-Lamps

Over the past two weeks, I have come across some striking lighting that makes use of recycled and/or renewable materials. Whether you’re working with a modest budget – under $100 – or are looking for a high-end, knock-their-socks-off custom installation, this post should offer something of interest.

Elements 7 Lamp, designed by Light Art Studios, now a part of 3Form
Elements 7 Lamp from Light Art at 3Form

Everything here is original, and because I value learning about the person behind any original, I have included a bit about the artisans who made each of these handsome pieces.

Light Art’s Elements Lamps

Ahna Holder and Ryan Grey Smith invented the first of their Elements pendant lights in their kitchen, melting a resin material in their oven and then shaping it into a lighting unit on top of their dining room table. The two were already successful in the architectural and design business, but little did they suspect then that their project, created for the home of a Seattle friend, would grow into a successful business of its own.

Their business, which recently joined the 3-Form company, is known as Light Art. I recently had the pleasure of meeting one of Light Art’s two founders, Ahna Holder. I spent a day with Ahna and 3-Form’s Northern California rep, Meg Bruce, and as they toured San Francisco interior designers’ and architects’ offices to introduce Elements lamps to the trade.

3Form Light Art Chandelier, Saks 5th Avenue, Palm Beach
3Form Light Art Chandelier, Saks 5th Avenue, Palm Beach

As a consumer, the name 3Form may leave you scratching your head. If you’re not in an interior design or an architectural business, it’s likely that you have never heard of it. However 3Form is hot stuff among designers. And although you don’t know it, you’ve been encountering 3Form materials – glass and resins of many different types – all over the place. They are in IBM’s headquarters, at Cisco Systems, at the Vancouver International Airport, at the San Francisco Shopping Center, in the Smithsonian and in the Santa Barbara Surf Museum, to name just a few spots. The 3Form company was founded in 1991 by interior design and architectural types who had decidedly green leanings.

Varia Eco Resin, the material used in the Elements light coverings, is made from a minimum of 40% post-industrial recycled resin. Designers use Varia to create for everything from room dividers to tabletops and furniture, and although Varia comes in a staggering array of colors, textures and transparencies, a pure white version with a sueded finish is used to create the Elements lamps. Light Arts medium-sized pendants (shown at the top of this post) are single bulb fixtures that range from 30″-40″ in length and priced around $650. Small pendants, priced around $550, are single bulb fixtures that range from 14″-30″ in length. The best way to get one of these affordably-priced originals is to work with your interior designer; Light Art sells to the trade.

While most of my readers are not likely to be commissioning a large, custom-designed piece of art costing tens of thousands of dollars, it’s still impressive to know that Light Art is quickly growing a reputation for making 18-foot high chandeliers like the one shown above to the left!

Hannah Nunns catkins lamp
Hannah Nunn's catkins lamp

If you’re in San Francisco, you can see one of these chandeliers in Saks Fifth Avenue near the perfume counters by Post and Powell Streets. Creating and installing such a large chandelier calls for considerable expertise, and Ryan Grey Smith, who at one time supervised museum installations for master glass artist Dale Chihuly, has it.

Paper Cut Lamps

Artist Hanna Nun, who lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, England, creates beautiful and modestly-priced lights from cut parchment.

Though a city girl by birth, Hannah found great inspiration in the countryside when she studied crafts at Carmarthen college in West Wales. There she stayed for many years, raising her two small children, sketching and drawing in the fields and woodland and gathering her ideas.

Today Hannah is part of Northlight Studio, a cooperative guild of 26 resident artists which has received support from the Yorkshire Art Council. Hannah Nunn’s small lamps are priced at $83 and large table lamps are priced at $98; they are available to US customers through Hannah’s shop on the Etsy website.

Krysallis pendant light
Artist Jerry Kott's Krysallis lamp

In Vino e Veritas:
Wine Bottles Illuminated

Artist Jerry Kott creates colored, sculptural lights from recycled wine bottles. Kott’s Krysallis lights are available online from re:Modern, which calls them the “Color Block” lamp. Price varies according to number of color blocks per lamp: 3 color blocks for $190, 4 color blocks for $260 and 5 color blocks for $310.

Interestingly, “RE” is actually the name of a series of glass art works that Kott has created over a span of years. Kott says that the “RE” series is about rebuilding, redefining, reliving, reinventing and recycling. To make Krysallis lamps, Kott says, “I take empty wine bottles, cut them apart, polish the edges, frost the glass (inside and out) and reassemble them into hybrid bottles of various shapes, sizes, colors and uses.”

Kott gave the lamp its name because the filament of the 40-watt frosted tubular incandescent bulb inside “will flutter, much like the fluttering of a butterfly about to leave the chrysalis.”

Most of the Krysallis lamps are green to gold in color, as shown at left, but Kott has also created some striking lamps from blue and frosted white bottles. Kott has designed one series of Krysallis lamps that hang as pendants. Another series is designed to stand on a table, supported by a silver metal base.

Paper clip chandelier
Paper clip chandelier

Paper Clip Chandelier

If you have time on your hands, you might actually want to create a chandelier using a couple thousand paperclips.

I have seen several different paperclip chandelier designs, ranging from the sleek, sophisticated curvilinear version by New York designer Gary Ponzo (shown at right) to simple versions in which the strands of clips hang in tiers from a hoop. The Gary Ponzo chandelier is being manufactured by Alan Tanksley and can be purchased through him.

Alternatively, by investing about $60 for 4000 paperclips, plus around $5 for a wreath-making frame, you could make your own paperclip chandelier. The process is simple, if a bit time-consuming; it might be a way to occupy your hands while watching TV. If you’re interested, there’s even an internet video on making a paperclip chandelier available to show you how!


3Form Varia Ecoresin - Naturals series laminated with maidenhair fern
3Form Varia Ecoresin - Naturals series laminated with maidenhair fern

This Amazing Day

(excerpt – full poem here)

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

-ee cummings