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Lighting Design for Tiny Houses – Part 2 – Artificial Lighting

How is lighting a tiny house different than lighting a normal room of the same size?

A normal room can be treated as one, fairly unified, space. It is used for a limited set of purposes. For example, a dining room is used for dining and gathering.

On the other hand, a tiny house no bigger than many dining rooms may contain many diverse uses in one space. The lighting can serve to highlight these uses rather than making the house seem like one unified (fairly small) room.

If you’ve decided against unnecessary partitions, then lighting can create the feel of separate, intimate spaces without physically chopping the interior up into separate rooms.

There are two basic types of lighting to consider: daylighting and artificial lighting. Last week’s post was about daylighting; today, we’ll look at artificial lighting and the ways it can work for you.

Artificial Lighting for Tiny Houses

Photo credit: Tall Man’s Tiny House.

Artificial lighting will of course be needed at night, and as a supplement to daylighting when needed during the day. (If your daylighting is well designed, you may need very little artificial daylighting even on overcast days!)

Types of Artificial Lighting

Many different light sources are available: incandescent lights, fluorescents, LEDs, and so on. They’re discussed in depth on Energy.gov so I won’t go into them here. Instead, I want to talk about what is, in my opinion, the most important lighting design concept for tiny houses: task/ambient lighting.

A simple example of task lighting in a kitchen.

Task lighting provides sufficiently bright light, where it is needed, for specific tasks: kitchen counters, reading areas, work areas, and so forth.

Ambient lighting provides a lower, diffuse level of light throughout the entire space; it should generally be about one-third as bright as the task lighting.

Used together, these two types of lighting can generate a lighting design that is both practical and beautiful. Here are a couple of ways that the concept of task-ambient lighting could be applied to specific areas of a tiny house:

  • Kitchen/dining: If you have cabinets mounted above your kitchen counters, small LED “puck” lights under the cabinets could provide excellent task lighting. Otherwise, this task lighting could be incorporated in the ceiling or a soffit above the counters. A ceiling-mounted fixture in the center of the kitchen could provide ambient light for the whole space.
  • Living area: A reading nook or chair could have task lighting in the form of a lamp on a wall-mounted shelf or niche, or a wall sconce. Lower levels of ambient lighting could be provided by accent lighting along the walls.
  • Sleeping area: For a bed for two people, task lighting could consist of bedside lamps or wall-mounted fixtures on either side of the bed with switches that can be individually dimmed or turned off. Light the whole area with a low level of ambient lighting using valance lighting.
  • Bathroom: A single bright and warm source of light could be placed just above or in front of the mirror. Make sure the light illuminates the tub, shower, and any other niches or closets. A nightlight or several small LED lights could provide low-level ambient lighting for nighttime use.
  • Outdoors: If you have a porch, then one or two wall- or ceiling-mounted fixtures can illuminate the front door. Small LED fixtures could be placed above each stair tread to light the stair. A string of lights could be hung, draped, or wound around porch columns to create an enticing dazzle of light.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the basics of passive solar design, which can be applied to any house, large or small.

Have you come up with your own solutions for tiny house lighting? Share them in the comments below!

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Vincent Baudoin is a designer and builder with a background in public interest design, sustainability, and integrated design-build. He develops tiny house designs and construction plans -- check them out at Pilothouse Design.
{ 20 comments… add one }
  • BOBHENRY January 25, 2013, 10:48 am

    Two points I feel may have been missed….

    Aimability and headroom

    I have an 8 x 20 on trailer under construction which essentially can be thought of as a long hallway on wheels. I have chosen to retrofit a series of desk lamps I found at Goodwill into wall mounted aimable lighting fixtures. (Think sconce lighting on a gooseneck.) With these fixtures I have a bit more flexability in that I can adjust the lighting from bounce to task at will and aim it where I need it.

    As to headroom this choice left the walk way clear and unincumbered of fixtures to help keep the ceiling feeling open and airy.

    • Vincent January 25, 2013, 1:07 pm

      Bob, great idea. Ceiling mounted light fixtures are not always the best choice by any means.

  • alice h January 25, 2013, 4:07 pm

    I’m always amazed as I wander my rural neighbourhood how many people have every light in the house (and outside)blazing and how many leave outside lights on all night and all day. I would recommend motion detection lights for a porch, or something that comes on when it gets dark and turns off in daylight but can also be put on a timer. You really don’t need to light the whole area and it plays havoc with your night sight as you walk by those places.

  • Carolyn B January 25, 2013, 6:25 pm

    Good article and great comments so far. I love the “sconces on a gooseneck” idea Bob has. Looking forward to your next article, Vincent.

    I’m curious–can recessed lighting in ceilings be a viable option for tiny homes?

    • Vincent January 26, 2013, 10:06 am

      Thanks Carolyn!

      Sure, recessed lighting can work in tiny houses. However, you need some kind of dropped ceiling. I see a lot of tiny houses where the ceiling is the bottom of the insulated roof, and I would never install a recessed light can in that situation — it compromises the insulation and could lead to leaks or even overheating of the fixture.

  • Casey Friday January 25, 2013, 9:21 pm

    Cool drawings, and great article. I just wrote about my lighting plans for my tiny house about 2 weeks ago. I’m using high-end hotels as my inspiration for light design. I’ll be starting the wiring next week!

    http://caseyfriday.com/2013/01/tiny-house-lighting-w-hotel-inspiration/

    Also cool to see Tall Man’s Tiny House in photo-form, as it was the inspiration for the beginning of my pico house.

    • Vincent January 26, 2013, 10:30 am

      Thanks Casey, and thanks for the link to your site, it looks like you’re making good progress on you tiny house build. I hope you’ll share some pictures of your lighting design once you have it installed.

  • sunshineandrain January 26, 2013, 12:02 am

    I totally agree with you, alice h, about outside lighting at night diminishing human night vision. Military pilots and crews and ground crews are provided red-spectrum and very diffuse/dim white lighting during night-time hours. This preserves the human night vision, making it easier, and safer, for the people to see in the dark.

    Any blue-spectrum lighting destroys human night vision, requiring about 45 minutes to recover, so even LED lighting in the blue spectrum is not useful during night-time. 2700 degree Kelvin or less, fluorescent, incandescent, halogen, sodium, etc., lighting will preserve night vision; anything more than 2700 degree light approaches blue-spectrum light.

    Motion-detector lighting in the 2700 degree Kelvin light range is the sensible solution, safe for both homeowner and passers-by and economical for homeowners.

    And this does not begin to address another ‘green’ topic of light pollution.

    some sources for this information follow:

    …high-kelvin bulbs will produce extremely noticeable blue, pink, or purple lighting. HID bulbs with a kelvin rating of 10,000 or higher will produce deeply colored light that will be deep blue at 10,000 kelvin, ramping up to deep purple at 30,000 kelvin.

    Read more: How to Pick the Right Temperature for HID Lights | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/how_8671909_pick-right-temperature-hid-lights.html#ixzz2J2leoN87
    =========

    …Any sudden transition of lighting conditions will greatly impair vision. For example, light flashes, such as from a gun or strobe or headlamp glare, will have two effects. They will adapt the viewer to a higher level of illumination, requiring the gradual slow-phase reacquisition of dark adaptation over several minutes. But they will cause a strong short-term adaptation effect that lasts a second or two.

    Lastly, adaptation effects have large safety implications. Whenever a person transitions from a brightly lit or very dark environment to one of very different luminance, there will be a large visual loss…

    http://www.visualexpert.com/resources/nightvision.html
    ========

    …do everything possible to maximize and maintain your night vision potential. This means either using no light at all, or sparingly using a very dim red light. If you must use a light, even briefly, covering one eye will protect that eye’s night sensitivity while sacrificing the other’s to the temporary “flash blindness.” Flashlights sold to astronomers are universally red, despite some thought that green might be more effective. Rigel Systems makes a continuously variable LED flashlight, powered by a 9-volt battery, that’s available in several color variations. The all-red or red/white light is marketed to astronomers, and green versions are sold to folks who use night vision gear. A simple thumbwheel adjusts the light output.

    Red or Green-Yellow? The two theories might be summarized like this:
    • To read a map or star chart you need to use your photopic (cone) vision because your scotopic vision will not allow you to read the details. Because you want to minimize flash blindness, you want to use the least amount of light possible, which means a dimmable yellow-green (555 nm) light source turned just high enough to read by. The downside is that you’re affecting the rods along with the cones at this wavelength.
    • Because you’re going to experience a limited amount of flash blindness no matter what, you can limit the effect on your cones by using a wavelength (deep red) that your rods can’t see and won’t respond to. Again, turn up the light only as much as needed to read your map. The downside is that the light required to see will be much more intense than if you were using yellow-green. (Editor’s Note: On many non-military maps, important lines are often printed in shades of red and will be invisible under a pure red light).

    http://www.backpackinglight.com
    The Weird Science of Night Vision: Lighting Considerations for Lightweight Backpacking by Rick Dreher | 2003-11-18 03:00:00-07
    =====

    …Using a red light will not affect the rods. However you should still use it at a lower level or there will be a short period of adjustment for your cones after you go back to the darker environment. This is due to shocking the cones with too much light. There may be after images that take 5 minutes or so to fade if you use any light including red on too high a level. This is a short lived thing however. Dark adaptation of the rods on the other hand can take 30 minutes to an hour or more.

    The bottom line is if what you are really talking about is true night adaptation then red is the best solution to that problem. Anything else is a lesser solution…

    If you need dark adapted eyes which means using the rods (flying an airplane VFR at night) and you need color or reading ability (reading the cockpit instruments) which means using the cones then red will cause the least problems for you…

    http://www.candlepowerforums.com
    Thread: Red light for preserving night vision?
    =====

    …If you need to see directly in front of you or see detail you need red.  Like many myths the red light myth has some basis in fact.  The red truth?

    Why red?  The center 1.5% of your retina (the fovea) which provides you with most detailed vision is packed almost exclusively with red sensitive cones…

    …If you must see detail (reading a star chart, or instrument settings) and can lose peripheral vision (see note 1), then a very long wavelength red at a very low level.  Red really only has an advantage at very low levels…

    TABLE Mil-STD 1472F 5.8.2.2 (table XVI) display lighting
     
    Brightness of markings
     
    Condition of use
    Lighting Technique *
    cd/m2
    foot-lamberts
    Brightness Adjustment
     
    Indicator reading, dark adaptation necessary
    Red flood, indirect, or both, with operator choice
    0.07-0.35
    (0.02-0.1)
    Continuous throughout range
     
    Indicator reading, dark adaptation not necessary but desirable
    Red or low-color-temperature white flood, indirect, or both, with operator choice
    0.07-3.5†
    (0.02-1.0)
    Continuous throughout range

    …Panel monitoring, dark adaptation necessary
    Red edge lighting, red or white flood, or both, with operator choice
    0.07-3.5
    (0.02-1.0)
    Continuous throughout range

    …This is the second most important factor that has been ignored in the design of outdoor lighting, the first being glare!  However this study (in pdf), at the U. S. Dept. of Transportation, is a subjective study of blue tinted headlamps…

    http://stlplaces.com
    ======

    Distraction and Decreased Vision
    • … Blue headlights are so bright that other drivers may be distracted and even temporarily blinded. Drivers with blue headlights are at no advantage either. Our vision tends to be fuzzy in blue light because humans are better able to see in red and green colors. Blue light is especially bothersome in our peripheral vision because of the locations of the rods (color receptors) in the retina.



    Eyestrain and Fatigue
    • Our human eyes and brains use greater amounts of energy to process blue light than other light frequencies. This leads to eyestrain and fatigue. Because we are better suited to greenish light, blue light looks especially bright at night when headlights are in use. The health concerns of blue light-related eyestrain and fatigue are even more pronounced in people who have macular degeneration. Excessive exposure to blue light can cause permanent retinal damage.



    Read more: Health Effects of Blue Headlights | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/about_5185464_health-effects-blue-headlights.html#ixzz2J2hiNcwI
    =====

    • sunshineandrain January 26, 2013, 1:23 pm

      I meant to say, “2700 degree Kelvin or less, fluorescent, incandescent, halogen, sodium, LED, etc., lighting will preserve night vision.”

    • Vincent January 26, 2013, 1:59 pm

      Wow!

  • DJ Spell January 26, 2013, 12:07 pm

    I think your article could have used more input on the spread of lights used. LED lights are my preference due to their low energy requirements for the usable lighting they provide. Personal taste is a factor, but those who seek the most efficient lighting solutions, such as myself, light to optimize natural light when practical and use LED for everything else. There are now a variety of LED lights on the market, many of which are being designed with more of the traditional fixture charm. Look at lighting as an investment. You can spend $10-20 more per light to upgrade to LED, but since they require far less energy to use, and don’t have to be replaced as often as CFL light bulbs, LED’s more than pay for themselves in the life of their usage. An easy way to look at it, each LED will use less than one tenth the energy of its CFL counterpart, and less than 1/40th the energy of its incandescent counterpart, so if your tiny home has 40 LED lights, you’ll be using the same amount of energy for lighting as you’d use to light one incandescent bulb. Lighting the whole house for the cost of lighting one small room seems to be a worthwhile investment to me.

    • sunshineandrain January 26, 2013, 1:25 pm

      Thanks for the info on the low-cost-over-time of LED lighting.

  • LaMar Alexander LaMar January 28, 2013, 2:10 pm

    I would suggest people look at LED lighting which will use much less power and does not produce the heat of a flourescent or standard light bulb and will work better if the home will be off-grid.

    I agree that placement of lighting is critical. You can light quite a large space with a small light if it is placed correctly.

    I like small lamps directly over my work areas. Above the stove, over my desk, next to my bed, above the toilet etc. I have 6 lights total in my small cabin.

    Then just a few lights for high traffic areas and one big light to light up the whole place in an emergency which is hardly ever used.

    I would also add that there are self contained solar lanterns that will recharge in a day and provide light all night with no power connection for us off gridders or an emergency.

  • Annie January 28, 2013, 7:27 pm

    I simply use clear-bulb night lights in my 2 bdrms, bathroom and kitchen, and I have a mirror across from them. The whole room is lit up.

    You can also use solar lights in kitchen that have the light on the inside & the small solar panel on the outside for all of your kitchen task lighting. Again, mirrored surfaces/backsplashes will light up the whole room.

    Outside, you can use one solar light, then place a small wall-mount concave security mirror at each end of the house under your soffet — it’ll light up the whole back of the house. Then I put mirrors on the doors to my little red barn shed at the back of the yard, which picks up all the lighting from the back of the house — the whole yard is lit. Smiles, Annie in Kansas City. My light bill is $27 mth, and $10 of it is the customer service charge.

    • Vincent January 29, 2013, 10:55 am

      Annie, thanks for your input! Some people like outdoor light, some people would rather avoid it (per some of the comments above). I think it’s largely up to personal preference. I myself would try to shade any outdoor lights (to reduce light pollution of the night sky) and avoid pointing them towards the street or neighbors’ yards.

      • Lucy January 31, 2013, 3:17 pm

        Vincent and Annie, I live in a rural area and once had a fantastic astronomer’s dream view of the south, north and western skies. (Huge city to the east produces major light pollution). In the last few years, “City folks” have moved out here to escape to the country, but are apparently afraid of the dark. The ridiculous amount of nonstop glaring outdoor lights has reduced the night sky view to a small slice to the north. In my community, my pasture was once the place to be for meteor showers and other celestial events. Now, I am reminded of my aunt’s words of wisdom: “Honey, you can’t move far away enough to get away from Stupid.” I do not understand the thinking of bringing all the bad things about city living with them to the country.

  • Annie January 28, 2013, 7:32 pm

    google-search Solar Shed Lights. Also, 3-day solar lights (off one charge). There’s no reason you couldn’t light your whole house with them. Smiles, Annie in Kansas City

  • Annie January 28, 2013, 7:34 pm

    Home Depot now has night lights with motion sensors for $10. Great for bathrooms, bdrms, etc. If you’re not in there, why light it until you walk into the room? Smiles, Annie in Kansas City

  • Annie January 28, 2013, 7:36 pm

    night lights – 4 watts.

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