Photo Credit:  David Wakely

Recently I interviewed Gregg Mackell of 186 Lighting Design Group, Anne Kustner Haser of AKLD Lighting Design, and Lana Nathe of Light Insight Design Studio about their expertise in residential lighting design. The designers gave insights into challenges, best practices and trends within the residential lighting design world.

The discussion began by acknowledging the changes that COVID-19 has made to the industry. There was unanimous agreement that the residential lighting design business is booming. Gregg referenced the unprecedented volume of phone calls and RFPs about new projects saying he’s “never seen anything like it!” Anne explained one reason for this boom saying, “People can work anywhere now, and they’re realizing it and accepting it. They just want to get away from the big cities and now they can build anything, anywhere they want.” There has been unprecedented movement away from cities due to this new freedom to work from anywhere. She continued, “They’re realizing if they spend more time at home, they want to invest more in things done well and things done right.”

Photo Credit:  David Skalko

While the Pandemic has increased leads and heightened business, there are a few challenges that have arisen too. Slow lead times, shipping inefficiency and plants shutting down due to COVID-19 have proved to be a major issue for lighting designers across the board. “We are just now starting to aim all of the projects that we were supposed to aim for the holidays last year,” Gregg remarked. Many projects have been significantly delayed while waiting for shipments and designers have found themselves respecifying entire projects due to product evolution and manufacturing plant closures.

With so many people now working remotely, there has been more emphasis on home offices. Now, the designers have had to prioritize creating an optimal space for daily zoom meetings and heightened screen time. Lana mentioned the importance of illuminating vertical surfaces in a room in order to create a nice backdrop for these virtual meetings. Anne adds that something as simple as a luminous table lamp in front of the person actually does a great job with vertical illumination of the face. Gregg then highlighted his own best practices saying, “I usually try to design task lighting from the ceiling to light over the front edge of the desk and the sides, so if you’re looking at anything reflective the reflections go away from you, not towards you.” This way, when a person is working from a desk all day, they are not distracted by reflections on their screen. He also tries to incorporate ambient, indirect lighting that pairs well with the task lighting.

“They’re realizing if they spend more time at home, they want to invest more in things done well and things done right.”


Anne Kustner

Because these designers are not strictly tied to residential projects, and also work on general hospitality projects, they understand the differences between the two. Anne commented, “Residential design is a bit of a different industry than what you see with commercial.” All three designers believe that human centric lighting is evolving in the home setting. Lana referenced a recent project, saying, “I had a client who happens to be allergic to blue light, so I had to be sure everything was warm dim and controlled.” Being able to meet the needs of a client by taking into consideration the effect that lighting has on humans has become a much more prominent concern. I then asked about the prevalence of lights in the home changing over the course of the day to match the sun. Gregg responded, “It’s something that we’re playing around with a lot more. We have multiple projects in design right now with circadian rhythm lighting.” He continued, “The dynamic aspect of lighting is probably something that’s here to stay in the residential world.”

“I had a client who happens to be allergic to blue light, so I had to be sure everything was warm dim and controlled.”


Produced by Sam Koerbel, Lytei

One element that residential lighting designers must take into account is dimming efficacy and appearance. Lana comments that when using warm dim with different room settings—it is viewed differently from the exterior of the home—looks incohesive from the outside. Consistency is important to designers, and sometimes the warm dim presents this issue. Anne then harped on problems regarding daylight bulbs (5000K), and how many people do not realize that when you dim LEDs, they do not warm up at all. However, she also experiences problems with warm dim. She comments, “I have found success with warm dim in areas where you have lots of wood and stone. But when you have white walls, the warm dim looks orange.” She has struggled with this natural and seamless transition of warm dim that manufacturers haven’t got quite right between the 3000K and 2000K LEDs. She added, “Usually the amber pops on too soon.”

When working with LEDs, the designers have discovered a way to minimize the sometimes flat and sterile nature of these lights. Anne explained, “We have found that when you have a room full of LEDs and then you put incandescents or halogens in the lamps or chandelier, there is something about it where everything is right in the world.” Gregg agreed, saying that sometimes all it takes to combat the “LEDness” in a room is to add one halogen or incandescent bulb to the design. Anne adds that it is possible that this technique may fill a part of the light spectrum missing in LEDs. The three designers agreed that having a combination is extremely effective.

One trend that Anne has noticed in the lighting design world is that the apertures are smaller than ever before, while the lumen outputs are higher. Anne explained that she used to use a lot of MR16s, and now she has replaced them with 1000 lumen downlights. These housings are much smaller, yet she is getting much more light out of them. Gregg and Lana then commented on the extreme technology evolvement that they have witnessed in the industry. Gregg mentioned the newer magnetic tracks that allow you to snap in a variety of light heads which can then be aimed effortlessly. Lana then referenced a product that has solved so many problems for her: the Ecosense Lighting TROV Flex LED strip. She contended that this 10-degree LED strip is flexible and makes grazing/washing in smaller detail profiles much simpler with the 3 various controlled narrow beams…which you do not get from a standard 120-degree strip, which was the highlight of 2020.

“The real issue now is that the people making lights are the same people making phones and computers. They think that every 18 months they have to come out with a new thing.”


Gregg Mackell

New technology brings about solutions, but also challenges. Gregg admitted, “It’s hard to take some of these new technologies that have all of that intelligence built into them and try to make it work across different rooms in a house.” Gregg then highlighted the problem he has noticed due to the fast-moving pace of technological advancements. He explained, “The real issue now is that the people making lights are the same people making phones and computers. They think that every 18 months they have to come out with a new thing.” This fact sometimes forces designers to respecify entire projects when they realize a product has been discontinued or is out of date. Gregg then said that this challenge is compounded when lead times and shipments are delayed: “It is a constant everyday battle to stay on top of multiple deadlines and projects, and then also deal with extended lead times.”

According to Anne, another problem within the lighting industry is the lack of standardization and consistency with LEDs. She explained that because every manufacturer uses different chips, the same rated Kelvin temperature varies. She “now has to get samples of every fixture for a project to make sure they all look good together.” Gregg agreed that LED color consistency is lacking and that it poses a problem. He communicated how difficult it can be to find LEDs in different fixture types that match in color and that “you can’t bill the client” during the trial-and-error process.

Gregg added, “In commercial lighting design, the two driving goals are almost always budget and schedule. In residential, the driving factors are getting the details right, making artwork pop and making spaces feel comfortable and glare free. We still have to deal with budgets and schedule, but they’re not the top priorities in residential lighting design.”

Overall, the designers agree that residential lighting design differs in many ways from commercial. Working with a client on something as intimate as their home and successfully executing a project proves to be extremely gratifying. Gregg commented, “In residential, you’ll get people who will challenge you.” It is a space that necessitates creative solutions to reach your goal and meet the needs of your client.

This article was originally featured in the April issue of designing lighting (dl)