Recessed LED lighting in an old home

zagyzebraJanuary 2, 2014

I completely gutted the interior of my 1931 home, but saved the stone exterior and the interesting interior architectural features. I'm about ready to start the rough plumbing and thinking about electrical which will come after that.

I'm very torn about the recessed LEDs that seem to be in EVERY home now -- both old and new. To me, they look like lighting strips on a runway in the ceiling, particularly in large rooms, and feel out of place in homes with distinctive old architectural detailing. When I see them in a house that looks old, I feel like someone is trying to make their home look old, and failing because the lights are a dead giveaway that it isn't truly old. But heck, even the bonafide 1921 guest house I'm renting has them in every room, along with low voltage wiring.

My husband hates them. But I understand the efficiency and ease of them. And they are definitely nicer than the old ceiling mounted overheads. I can see them working in soffits, perhaps hallways, maybe over the stove, over desks, to light stone fireplaces and perhaps art, and as four-corner lighting in smaller rooms with lower ceilings.

In general, what are your opinions on the use of recessed lighting in historic homes? Do they seem out of place, or are they acceptable in limited, strategic use? Nowadays, would people rather have recessed lighting on dimmers (as a real estate agent I know claims) than chandeliers, sconces and pendants? Or is there a divided camp between the lovers of modern and new and the romantics who pine for the old? Should I aspire for a mix of old and new, or just forget about the recessed lighting altogether (which is what my husband would prefer)?

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I actually like recessed lighting, even in historic homes. My house is a 1905 bungalow and we've installed recessed lighting in the main living areas and bathroom as we've done the renovation.

The main reason being I like light, and a lot of it so going without it and relying on wall sconces or table lamps isn't really enough for me - but it's really to each their own. My friend just bought a renovated bungalow that had no recessed cans and only a few ceiling fans with light kits for ceiling and wall lighting... seeing hers made me glad I'm putting in abundent light.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2014 at 1:23PM
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I have them in my kitchen, installed by a previous owner, and I have never considered taking them out. I like light in work areas like a kitchen, and these fixtures give me plenty, and I don't see how I would get as much light without them.

That said, I don't like the look in other areas of an old house. In the living areas I like table and floor lamps.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2014 at 1:40PM
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Even if you prefer table, floor and picture mounted lamps, they don't give off much light so the price you pay for this kind of older lighting is a dimly lit interior especially for artwork and task areas. I don't like sconces other than in hallways or any kind of central overhead lights especially the glare of fan mounted lights.

To me it should not be immediately apparent where the lighting is coming from when you enter a room and the smaller diameter recessed lights can achieve that effect even thought they usually must be closer together. I use them to light walls and other important features rather than open floor areas or peoples' heads in order to open up the space and allow light to bounce off the walls and back to furnishings and the floor.

I often use adjustable halogen pin-spots where a clean ceiling is desired in the middle of a room. In a dining room they can be dimmed to light just the table so that candles on the table appear to be the only light source.

I dislike the appearance of recessed integral LED fixtures but sometimes use incandescent recessed downlight fixtures with retrofit LED spots. The color of some of them is acceptable but they create very harsh and sharp shadows which can be uncomfortable for some people.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2014 at 4:05PM
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Renovator - my daughter just finished having her ceilings plastered, and in one room temporarily placed incandescents in all but 2 of her new recessed cans; in those are the LED's that belong there. I could not pick them out. She only buys the very warm ones (also dimmable and expensive, but worth it) She has washes, points, and general LED warm recessed lights in her other rooms, and we both love the look. I do think it makes it much more useful to be able to dim.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2014 at 8:52PM
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I think the light quality is fine but the sharp shadows are tough to live with. In my office I sometimes need to turn on an incandescent light to provide a more relaxing environment. But they save a fortune in electricity.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2014 at 2:41PM
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If Billy jumped off a bridge would you do the same???? Just because you have them in the rental and you've seen them elsewhere, that does not mean you need to follow suit.....

I live in a very bright victorian with absolutely NO recessed lighting. We have a mixture of lighting that includes chandeliers, table lamps and floor lamps. Properly placed you should not be living in the dark.

I must admit that i am an old house snob before I say the following....

I literally cringe when I see recessed lighting in an old house where period detail exists. It's like of like lighting up the Mona Lisa with an airport spot light, horribly horribly wrong.

I do have the small ones in my 1980's townhouse which I like, used in the kitchen exclusively, but it's a 1980's townhouse...and that said, we often just use the 1913 light fixtures in that kitchen because it's such nicer lighting.

In a kitchen you can do under cabinet, in cabinet, over...heck light the floors if necessary, but spot lights on an antique ceiling?????? yucky yucky yucky

And yes, I am an old house SNOB. Don't now ask if you can remove your windows and put in new'll make me cry.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2014 at 4:35PM
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Zagy, if you have gutted the interior of the home, ie removed all the plaster, it really doesn't matter what lighting you use.

The old house is gone. igloochic said it quite well.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 11:50AM
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jmc01 - I gutted the ceilings but not the original wood ones, and much of the period detailing will remain. We have gone to great pains to introduce old mirrors and tile from the 1920s and 1930s. The old faux bois and stone wood burning fireplaces are there. The old rock exterior walls of the house are still there, as are many of the original gothic windows and doors. Much of what we are introducing is custom made and will be sensitive to the period of the original house (1931). All walls and ceilings will be plaster. Some of the original lighting fixtures can be recycled. So it will be a new/old house encased in old stone on the outside. We are attempting to keep this restoration in sync with the original spirit of the house (a fairytale castle because, really, that's what it is). So when you've got the old aesthetic in place, and that which you are replacing is an attempt to duplicate what was originally there, then it still has that "old house" feel, just with state-of-the-art upgrades.

This is my opportunity to build in recessed LED or halogen lighting if I want, and I am still in a quandary about how appropriate this kind of lighting is my new/old home. If the "old home" aesthetic is there, but the old home has been restored and upgraded, then is modern recessed lighting appropriate or not?

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 3:14PM
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jmc01, the house was gutted first by a fire.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 6:56PM
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Thanks for explaining.

You say this: "We are attempting to keep this restoration in sync with the original spirit of the house (a fairytale castle because, really, that's what it is). ..."

I picture sconces and chandeliers with fairytale castles. Somehow, LED and/or halogen don't fit the image you've provided.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 8:06PM
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We are almost finished with a expansion of our 1908 kitchen. There is no way I would have put in any kind of pot lights, canned lights, LED, etc. I hate the look, especially in old houses. We have school house lights and a retro 5-light fixture; our kitchen is 20' long and this is plenty of light, no dim areas at all. This is a personal preference, but in our town, old homes go for a premium, and the more historic details, the higher the value.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 5:35PM
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fairy tale make it sound so charming. Now go look up the word "charming" and "pot lights". See if you find a reference tying either together???

Powermuffin's last sentence should sway you if pure taste and aestetics don't..... "in our town, old homes go for a premium, and the more historic details, the higher the value"

We low balled offers on many homes that had done horrific "updates" including pot lights and "shudder" 12x12 ceramic tiles in victorian kitchens. We paid a premium for a house that wasn't abused.

People who love old homes don't pay a premium for pot lights.

Please don't do this to the lovely home you describe. It's literally pain ful to read. You equate your home to a castle...well let's talk about a princess...cinderella tried on glass slippers, not nike's. They lack charm in the same way a pot light does.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 1:26AM
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We are in the middle of renovating our 1940 kitchen and although I don't like pot lights at all, we are using them in a few places for task lighting. I just could not come up with a good alternative for certain areas.

In my last house I had very high ceilings in the kitchen and it worked very well to have fluorescent lighting on top of the cabinets and also up under the cabinets. The lights on top washed over the wall and ceiling and gave very pleasant indirect lighting, while the under cabinet lights took care of any shadows on the countertop. Housings for both sets of lights were not directly visible when you were walking around the kitchen

I have also found that good floor lamps provide a similar effect since they project upward and the light washes indirectly over the ceiling, and at the same time they project down and outward through the shade.

However, my current kitchen has about 100" ceilings and it did not seem that over-cabinet lights would have enough space for indirect lighting. Has anyone found a good way to get indirect kitchen lighting with standard height ceilings?


    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 5:53AM
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In my townhouse (1980s) we have lighting strips in the upper cabinets which all have glass doors. The doors are not clear, but a hazy gold. The lighting is the same thing we have under the cabinets, these cables onto which you clip tiny little lights (that put out a lot of light, but you can choose exactly where to have it). Because the upper cabinets have wood shelves, only the top shelf is actually illuminated when they are on. It provides a similar glow to what you describe with your over the cabinet lighting. The ceilings are only 8'. Let me see what I have for a pic....none show the lights on, but they're in these upper cabinets. The cabinets over the doorways do not have glass in them (too small of a door) but the other reason is that they hide the transformers for the cabinet lighting.

We of course also added lighting beneeth the hood for task work. It's a nice area to work in more lighting when you need it. We will do the same in our victorian kitchen (which will have a similar range, just larger). In the vic we'll hide the hood in a wall nook so the lighting will be a must!

One other thing I did was to use fixtures that both illuminate up and downwards. Note the light over the table (which is out for repair here) is similar to the lights in the rest of the kitchen but the globes are open on the base verses the top. These are all 1913ish maybe 15 can't remember.... fixtures that I restored.

They provide a great deal of light (they're also on dimmers) and each is on it's own switch so they can be bright task lighting or soft mood lighting. Another valuable lighting lesson I learned is to switch everything separately if you can so that you have options, verses "BOOM" Light everywhere. A switch is such an easy thing to add and so valuable. In the vic we have extras that we've added that are electronic so that you don't have to have the switch in the middle of a wall, but instead I keep them in a cubby in the wooten (they're wireless).

We do have tiny pot lights in this kitchen. We rarely use them as they're so freaking glaring and obnoxious. I learned a valuable lesson in that there is really no need for the ugly things in a well planned lighting scheme, in a historic home or a modern one. If I ever put a light in a pot again it's going to be in a sidewalk, and no where else LOL

Electronics and updating in an old home are always such a thought provoking subject. Obviously some have stronger thoughts than others LOL (Old house snobs in particular) but things can be made useful and "modern" without ruining the house. In our victorian we have a modern heat pump system (two commercial systems actually) which heat and cool each room as it's own zone. I dial it up on my iphone to change the temperature etc. Very modern, and it's all hidden in pelmets, amoires and floor registers. No one notices it aside from noting that they're shocked how warm the house gets given it's a victorian with no insulation. :) It can be done if you just put some thought into it!

    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 1:04PM
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