A Checklist for Kitchen Lighting
Our expert Randall Whitehead, IALD, shares his checklist of key factors when illuminating this popular room.
What lighting is best for kitchens?

This is one very general question my friend. I have written whole chapters on this subject, but I’ll stick to the highlights for this column.

With the way the economy is, more homeowners are having people over for a meal instead of going out to a restaurant. Kitchens are the new center for casual entertaining and family gatherings. Often friends and family bring an appetizer, salad or desert to add to the meal. Everyone gathers around the kitchen island as others trail in, so the kitchen needs to be as inviting as the rest of the house.

You want to allow the kitchen to have different combinations of lighting, depending on what is being done — whether it’s preparing a meal, doing homework with the kids or writing a succinct ransom note. This is where our old friends the four functions of light (task, accent, ambient and decorative) come into play. I have talked about light layering many times before so I will go more deeply into the specific considerations for lighting a kitchen.

Many facets of your kitchen design will determine the way it is illuminated. Not only do such variables as ceiling height, natural light, and surface finishes affect the placement or amount of light used, but there are other factors you should consider as well. Here is a checklist:

Color: Darker finished surfaces absorb more light. An all-white kitchen requires dramatically less light (40 to 50 percent) than a kitchen with dark wood cabinets and walls. Reflectance: A highly polished countertop acts just like a mirror. Any under-cabinet lighting will show its reflection. Consider selecting a honed, matte or flamed surface.

Texture: If your end design includes brickwork or stucco, you might choose to show off the textural quality of those surfaces. This is accomplished by directing light at an acute angle to the textured surface. Luminaires located too far away from the wall will smooth it out (which might be a good idea for bad drywall jobs).

Mood: Floor plans are more open now. Guests will flow from the living room to the kitchen to the dining room. The kitchen should be just as inviting as the rest of the house. Make sure that there is enough ambient light in the kitchen. This softens the lines on people’s faces and creates a warm, inviting glow.

Tone: The warm end of the color spectrum works okay with incandescent light, but cooler colors can be adversely affected by the amber quality of incandescent light, or CFLs or LEDs with a warm color temperature. Blues can turn green and reds can turn orange. Select a Kelvin rating that provides illumination which is complementary to both skin tone and room colors. I recommend looking at all your materials under both daylight and artificial light to see how the colors are affected by the shift in color temperature.

Codes: In California, designers must deal with Title 24 (the State Energy Commission’s requirements for new construction and remodel work). As of Oct. 1, 2005, 50 percent of the wattage must have an efficacy of at least 40 lumens per watt (fluorescents and some LEDs meet this requirement) in kitchens. Today, many decorative and non-decorative fixtures are hard-wired to take compact fluorescent lamps and LEDs, and are available in dimmable versions. California is the only state with such regulations ... for now.

Windows: Windows that let wonderful light stream in during the day, showing off landscaping, become reflective black holes at night. Give some thought to exterior lighting when lighting kitchen interiors. Outside lighting will not only cut the reflection of you looking out the window, but will visually expand the interior space out into the exterior after dark.

Sloped ceilings: Even if there is enough space above a sloped ceiling to install recessed housings, special care must be taken to select fixtures that don’t glare into people’s eyes.

Pot racks: It is extremely difficult to light a work surface through cookware. If you must have one, consider recessed adjustable fixtures to cross light the surface or focus downlights in the center of the rack. There are also pot racks with integrated lighting. 

Door swings: Make sure that switches are on the unhinged side of a door. Otherwise, people will have to reach around to the back of the door to turn on the lights.

Randall Whitehead, IALD

Randall Whitehead, IALD, is a professional lighting designer and author. His books include "Residential Lighting, A Practical Guide." Whitehead has worked on projects worldwide, appeared on the Discovery Channel, HGTV and CNN, and he is regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Visit his website www.randallwhitehead.com for more information on books, upcoming seminars and the latest lighting trends.

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