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Lighting the Perfect Basement

Lighting the Perfect Basement

Workspace, guest room, safety shelter, private theater, or game-haven, your basement can be a combination of things; it can also be very, very dark.  Lighting a room without access to windows can be tricky.  Basements have a tendency to feel cramped and cave-like, but this doesn’t have to be the case.  The difference between the open-and-free feelings of your living room and your cave-like basement is lighting (usually because of a lack of windows).  While you can’t add windows underground (at least, not without a lot of work first), adjusting the lighting for your Hobbit-hole can make all of the difference you need.

Light Where You Need It

As a rule of thumb, you want to place can and downlights roughly 8’-10’ apart (if your ceiling is lower than 8’ you should decrease this distance).  Even with proper spacing, you want to make sure the lights are powerful enough to illuminate the room.  Upstairs rooms get extra light from outdoor streetlamps or sunlight, neither of which will help you underground.  You should look for 75-100 watt incandescent lamps, but we want to stop thinking of lights in terms of wattage, so let’s look at lumens instead.  For the newer lamps, that means you want lights with a lumen output of 800-1200 lumens (typically a 13-watt LED will yield within that range).  This is also the layer where you want a slightly cooler 300K-400K temperature lighting, to give your basement the health of upstairs rooms while blocking out that cave feeling.  But this is just the ambient lighting that’s designed to light up the entire room as the base layer of illumination.

Ambient Lighting

A single layer of lighting will make your room feel unnatural.  Think about the lighting in a typical closet, the light is functional, but very flat.  Accent lighting is the best way to build depth and volume in a room.  A few eye-level lights or table lamps will add hot-spots of light to the room that give focus and guide the eye.  Reflected light around crown molding is another way to add a layer of lighting that contrasts with the main sources to create depth within a room.  Keep things bright to make the space open, but add a few shadows to give it a sense of space.  These accents are where you’ll want to add warmer color temperatures, to give the room warmth in the midst of your artificial sunlight.

Can and recessed lighting is the most typical for ambient ceiling lighting in basements.  You’ll find a few floor lamps used from time to time as well.  This doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to install ceiling fans, track lights, or pendant lights, as any of these can work in a basement, the problem is fitting for a low ceiling height.  Basements usually have lower ceilings, giving you far less room to work with.  Any fixtures will typically need to be surface mounted to save on space.  This is the reason you find recessed lighting as the major source of ambient light, with sconces and lamps being used for accents or task lighting.

Secondary Lighting

Secondary lighting should be put on separate switches.  Separate your floor plan into sections, regardless of if there are physically separate rooms, and light the different sections to match what kind of “room” is in each.  For example, let’s say your basement functions as an entertainment area.  One section has a few arcade cabinets and a pool table, next to that is a small electronics workbench, then at the far end is a personal media-center.  It’s single room with three very different areas.  The workbench should be placed on a separate switch, near the bench itself.  Special task lighting can be installed into the workspace, but it only needs to be lit while in use.  The gaming and media sections should be on a master switch, well lit for moving about the basement.  At the same time, the media center should have a secondary dimming switch to control light levels, or place both sections on two different switches (with a secondary switch for the media center to be controlled from the far wall) to allow for dimming the lights in the separate sections as needed.

Making Light of the Situation

For the light sources themselves, incandescent lighting is cheap, but the heat output can make your basement oppressively hot if ventilation is already a problem.  If you’re converting the basement into an exercise room or workout space, you’ll be better served by using CFLs or LEDs to lower the average temperature of the room.  To make the room a little more inviting, making a fake window with a powerful LED panel behind it is a great way to make a room feel more natural and less closed-in.

As a final tip, place your controls in easily accessible spots.  You should be able to turn on the ambient lights before you even step into the basement.  Place the switches at the same height as you would any other room in the house and keep them close to the door of the room, this prevents people from having to fumble for a light switch, or guess where it’s located before entering a room.  Make sure that dimming controls are placed near the respective sections of the room where you’re most likely to be when you need to adjust them (or get configurable LEDs to control lighting remotely).

Basements are a free-form room that you can adjust and configure to suit whatever taste you have.  They are the perfect extra room but the lighting for a basement is usually forgotten, or treated the same way as any other room.  The lack of natural light means you should not treat a basement the same as any other room.  If you haven’t hired a lighting designer to build or remodel your basement, then keep what we’ve talked about in mind.  If you have any other questions, we’ll be glad to answer them in the comments below.  To ask a question of my own, how have you designed your basement?  What kind of lights are you using and, maybe, do you think you can improve the room with better lighting?  Let us know through FacebookTwitterGoogle PlusLinkedInPinterest, or Instagram, or just send us a picture to prove your point!

Header image used courtesy of David Cedrone.

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