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Lighting a Two-Story Great Room

The Lighting Doctor explains how pendant lighting fixtures and recessed down lights work together to light a two-story room.

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Q: I have a two story great room with an open floor plan. Currently four recessed lights, installed by home builder, provide horrible ambient light that is dim and yellow. We are planning to upgrade to something else that provides more brightness and white (daylight) color. What is the best option from your perspective? LED flood lights versus retrofit with Cree lights versus something else? I am concerned about the heat generated — I do not want to have to hire someone to come out and change the bulbs in a couple of years. Any specifics on lumens, type and color would be greatly appreciated.

A: Yes, four recessed downlights are a terrible way to light the two-story space. Just changing out the light bulbs will not do much to improve the quality of light. These downlights cast harsh shadows on family and guests. They also don't provide any kind of ambient light/uplighting to show off this two-story expanse at night.

My recommendation would be to install one or two pendant light fixtures, depending on the shape of the room. If it's a square, use one fixture, if it's a rectangle, use two fixtures. These will create a secondary ceiling line so that people feel more comfortable in this very space. These can provide both fill light for the space as well as a decorative element.

I'd also recommend that you replace the recessed downlights with adjustable versions so they can be directed towards art and tabletops instead of on top of people's heads. It is very possible that you can retrim the four existing recessed fixtures with adjustable trims. You can use 12V or 120V recessed fixtures with LED MR16 bulbs. These are rated to last 25,000 hours and are available in a variety of color temperatures. My recommendation would be to take a look at various color temperatures to see which one works for you — 2700K is the color of incandescent light at full brightness; 3000K is the color of halogen light at full brightness; and there is also 4000K version, which can look a little clinical in a residential setting but is very popular in commercial. 

I would also endorse adding some floor and table lamps to add another layer of illumination, but that’s just me. I want it all.

Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead is an educator and author on the subject of lighting design. His work has been featured in many magazines, including Architectural Digest, Home & Garden and Esquire. He has appeared as a guest expert on HGTV, Discovery, CNN and Martha Stewart Living Radio.

His Latest book Beautiful Light outlines how to create successful and subtly beautiful LED lighting designs for homes and gardens. Available through Amazon and Rutledge Books.

You can see his entertaining 1-minute instructional videos at furniturelightingdecor.com. And you can follow him on Instagram:  @randall.whitehead


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