Lighting a Timber Frame Home

Selecting lighting fixtures for a timber framed house can be demanding, but the same principles apply as in any other home. As succinctly stated by Peter Romaniello, a lighting consultant from Conceptual Lighting LLC in Connecticut, first decide what you are trying to do, then how you are going to do it, then pick an appropriate lamp, and last of all, select a fixture that takes the selected lamp. This sounds simplistic but makes a great deal of sense. The lamp (or light bulb) will define the quality and quantity of light being provided and picking the exact lamp will limit the number of suitable fixtures. Timber framed houses pose particular challenges, because they have the exposed structural beams and posts extending out from walls, ceilings and roofs. Moreover, they frequently include large cathedral areas and will need extra ambient lighting to illuminate both the framing and the ceiling.

Without additional up lights and wall washers, a cathedral great room can feel dark and oppressive; with appropriate lighting both the space and structure can be appreciated. Another challenge is that unless the timber framed house has a raised second floor deck, it is impossible to use concealed down lights or other fixtures intended to be hidden in floor cavities.The first task when designing lighting for a particular room is to determine accent lighting. This consists of lights intended to feature given architectural aspects of the space, whether a wall, or cabinetry, or a seating area. Once the accent lighting has been selected and placed in plan, task lighting should be considered. This is relatively strong lighting placed to illuminated work areas. The requirements are determined by the type of work to be done and can be achieved by nearly every type of light fixture.

Finally, after ambient and task lighting has been chosen, one should consider whether additional ambient lighting is needed for the space as a whole. Always remember that through switching and dimmers various lighting combinations are possible, so lighting appropriate during the day can be supplemented at night or for a different mood. Peter Romaniello has another useful rule of thumb when designing residential lighting: “If someone paid a lot of money for something, light it!” This could be as large as a stone freestanding chimney or as small as an oil painting on the wall. Another of his rules of thumb is to “light things that don’t move.”

The most important rooms in any house are the kitchen and living room. While bedrooms, baths, studies and ancillary spaces all have specific lighting needs, the kitchen is probably the most important living space in the modern house. It is used for food preparation, serving, storage and often as a breakfast or dining area. It also frequently becomes the center for conversation and guests. Kitchens require accent lighting on walls, tables, islands, and counters. This can be provided by chandeliers, can lights, or wall washers. Task lighting for food preparation is normally provided by under cabinet lights. It is important that these be placed close to the front of the underside of the cabinet, facing backward, in order to hide the lamps from view and to provide shadow free illumination. Fluorescent or low voltage halogen lamps are popular for this use.

It is important to note that down lights, while very popular, do not provide adequate task lighting due to shadows. They add to ambient light but require depth above the ceiling. Track lights are popular in timber framed houses, since they can be placed on the side of a beam and directed wherever extra light is needed.

Indirect strip lighting using fluorescent T8 or T5 lamps is particularly energy efficient and can gain credits for energy conservation. Fluorescent fixtures hidden behind valences or running along beams can provide overall illumination to flood and feature the framing. Whenever strip lighting is used to illuminate linear features, one should be careful to place it so it is either staggered or overlapped. Also use the same length of lamps in order to keep the lumen output consistent. In cove lighting, the gap between lamps should be no greater than the distance of the lamp from the back of the cove; this eliminates what is called “socket gap.”

For lighting timber frames, flood lights can feature portions of the ceiling. Because the spaces are usually large, a minimum 250 watt to 300-watt lamp is generally best. Chandeliers can be either large, dramatic fixtures or very small low-pressure halogen. Suspending these lamps over islands can provide needed light and a transparent but visual barrier over counters and islands. One has to be careful with all suspended fixtures to choose where they are centered, and to preplan their locations with timber framed houses, since the wiring needs to be installed prior to finishing the roof. Sometimes a seating area or fireplace may suggest the light’s location; other times the geometry of the room is so strong that the light almost has to be centered between framing members, windows or doors. Don’t forget that standing and table lamps can also work well, particularly for chairs and sofas intended for sitting and reading.

Considering where furniture is to be placed and what the floor covering will be are both critical. It is all well and good to provide floor outlets in a great room, but if they are covered by an expensive Oriental carpet, it is unlikely the owner will want to cut a slit to run a lamp cord. ​Lamp choices will vary depending upon the desired color and result. Energy saving T12 fluorescent fixtures are still available but are generally being replaced by 1” diameter T8 or even 5/8” diameter T5 lamps. A Super T8 32-watt lamp has a color rating index of 85 and provides 93.4 lumens per watt. Be sure to specify high efficiency ballasts to gain the most from fluorescent fixtures. A high output T5 is 90 per cent efficient, so these lamps are popular for those trying to minimize energy use. PAR flood lights or MR16 bulbs are perfect for task lighting, but if soft, diffuse down lighting is desired, the old-fashioned A lamp (incandescent) is both warm and less brilliant. High efficiency fluorescent bulbs depend upon surface area for output, which is why so many of them look like corkscrews. These can replace A-style lamps but be sure to have a deep enough fixture to keep the bulb from being seen.

The best fixtures are IC rated, or suitable for installation in insulation, and are airtight. Particularly with can lights in ceilings, it is important to consider the insulation and to keep it intact.

When using dimmable fluorescent lamps, it is important to use electronic ballasts and to keep them the same. Electronic ballasts are both more efficient and lighter than magnetic ones. Sometimes manufacturers will mix ballasts on the same fixture, so be careful not to mix and match. Finally, if using can lights with specular or mirror finishes, be aware that dust and fingerprints both are very visible, and if the lamp is too long there can be unpleasant visible glare. “Comfort clear” or “haze” finishes are far more forgiving. Lighting Ideas Lighting is often one of the last items considered when planning a new house, and frequently the budget is cut when overall costs are higher than expected. It is best to plan a reasonable lighting budget, and to use quality lamps and fixtures. Over the long run, they will last better and allow you to really appreciate the beauty and comfort of your new timber framed home.

By Jonathan S. Vincent, AIA – LEED Accredited Professional

Contact us to learn more about how this affects your Timberpeg home.