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Properly planned and installed, light can make a room feel larger or warmer, and can even improve your mood.

"Years ago, they just slapped a centre light in the middle of the room and that was that," says Chris MacQuarrie, casting her eyes around the room. "No thought was given to lighting, but now ceilings are getting higher, rooms are getting bigger and one fixture just doesn't cut it anymore."

We're standing at the entrance to what Brian and Marta Twohey refer to as the "Chocolate Room," a grand living space that was recently added on to the picturesque heritage property they own in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. The home, built in 1792, was the birthplace of Sir Robert Borden, Canada's eighth Prime Minister-or as Brian Twohey casts him, "The man on your hundred dollar bill."

This room is nothing short of spectacular, and it's clear on this grey late fall day that the lighting in this space has been designed with careful consideration. A huge fixture featuring a stunning alabaster shade (the shade is made of stone, not glass) casts a warm glow from the centre of the room. Individual pot lights ring the perimeter, each throwing a gentle beam that makes the tasteful artwork stand out subtly from the deep brown walls. A small floor light gives a corner fern and its neighbouring painting a faint shimmer, and an upturned lamp stands ready to brighten a corner of the comfortable seating area.

The room is part of a major addition to the house, which was undertaken in 2004, five years after the Twoheys bought the property. MacQuarrie is a certified lighting specialist, and the owner of Atlantic Lighting Studio in Wolfville, and she was consulted early on to help design lighting plans for both this new section of the home and the restoration of the heritage wing.

Lighting Dos and Don'ts

  • Do light the perimeter of a room with recessed lights (particularly in corners). This will "open up" the space and make it appear larger.
  • Do over-light a space and add dimmers, rather than under-light and be left with little flexibility.
  • Do use compact fluorescent lights over incandescents because they use less power. A 23-watt CFL in a 60-watt socket can actually provide as much light as a 100-watt bulb without exceeding the fixture's maximum wattage.
  • Do equip your bathroom with task lighting as a fixture on either side of the mirror. Overhead lighting creates unwanted shadows. Also, consider putting a sealed light in the shower or over the tub.
  • Do consider energy-efficient LED. The technology is improving rapidly. Formerly cold and unappealing, light emitting diode lighting is warming up and becoming an attractive alternative to incandescent and fluorescent lighting. LEDs that can last up to 60,000 hours are now available as replacement bulbs for some recessed halogen fixtures. Currently very expensive, these bulbs are likely to come down in price soon.
  • Don't forget to take the height of your ceiling into account when purchasing hanging fixtures. A fixture that hangs down three feet from an eight-foot ceiling won't work in an open space (although it might work over a dining room table).

Her expertise proved to be invaluable. "I remember trailing Chris and Marta around as they went from room to room," says Brian, recalling the early design phase. "Chris was asking, 'What is this room, and how are you going to live in it? What kind of pieces do you have; where is your art going to be?'" All, MacQuarrie points out, key questions homeowners who are planning to build or renovate should ask themselves. "And how old are the people who are using the room?" she laughs, "because as we get older, we need more light."

Many homeowners are beginning to realize that small improvements in their existing lighting can have a big impact on way they enjoy their living spaces. "Lighting can really change the feel of a room," says MacQuarrie, "whether it's warm and cozy, or whether it's really bright, making people feel fresher and more wide-awake. Lighting can definitely change people's moods."

Máiréad Fegan, a junior design consultant at Norman Flynn Design in Halifax, agrees that lighting is one of the most important elements in the design process. "We always say that lighting is the jewelry of the space. If you don't get your lighting right, then you're not going to be able to showcase any of the other details that you've put into the design."

There are three major categories of lighting to consider when working out any lighting plan: ambient (or general) lighting, task lighting and accent lighting. "General lighting refers to that overall light in a room," Fegan explains. "Task lighting is lighting that's functional. If you have to chop or read, it's the light that you're using to complete something. Accent lighting is more for the pieces around your room that are features, and it's just as important as the others, because that's where the visual interest comes from."

Chris MacQuarrie's careful questioning of the Twoheys helped them make some important decisions with regard to accent lighting. Brian Twohey points to a painting that hangs in the main foyer, featuring quaint wooden houses on a snowy evening hillside. Three recessed lights cast a warm glow over the work. "Look at the lighting in the windows," he instructs, as he brings up the dimmer. Even in the middle of the afternoon, the painting takes on a lifelike glow that transforms the mood from chilly to cozy. "As the day gets darker it's amazing," he says admiringly. "We knew we'd hang a picture there, because we've always had pictures there, but the effect on this work is just stunning."

He's hit on a key to great lighting, because if there's one thing that all lighting experts agree is essential, it's this-dimmers, dimmers, and more dimmers.

"Dimming a light can dramatically take the light from task lighting, say in a kitchen, to ambient lighting for a dinner party," says Máiréad Fegan. Her colleague Bruce Norman takes this principle one step further. "We often suggest three different light sources on three different dimmers in one room so that you can change the whole ambience," he says. "It changes the whole feel of the room." An added bonus is that dimmers not only set the mood, they can save energy as they do it.

But if there's a single room in the home that demands particular attention when it comes to lighting, it's the kitchen. Chris MacQuarrie's design of the Twohey's kitchen incorporates the concepts of ambient, task and accent lighting, and the Twoheys couldn't be more pleased with the result. "We live a lot in the kitchen," says Marta Twohey. "We have a couch in there, and it really is the central point of the home. It's probably one of the darker rooms, but it has wonderful lighting. We have two beautiful multicoloured lights hanging down over the sink that are Italian glass, and they add a focal point. We have a basic ceiling light over the kitchen table, and we have undercabinet lighting for task lighting. We also have rope lighting around the ceiling, just for a bit of softness. And all this is adjustable using dimmers."

MacQuarrie's advice to all homeowners is to consult with a lighting expert-before they get the walls and ceilings finished. "It's difficult when people come to me after everything is done," she says. "If you don't have advice, or you don't know the ins and outs of what types of fixtures provide what kind of light, you can end up with some mistakes. And if you come after the ceiling is up and painted, there's not a lot we can do. In the planning stage is the best, because we've made changes to people's houses just by the questions we've asked."

"Lighting would have been the one area that I didn't have any expertise in," admits Marta Twohey, "so I was quite nervous about it. When you're renovating, you've got this one chance to do it right, so I was very glad to have Chris to consult with."

"She had to figure out the future," Brian chimes in. "And then light it. And you can see that it's quite powerful now," he says, dimming the lights in the Chocolate Room. "It has really all come together."

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