Vaulted ceiling lighting can present challenges but, when you do it properly, the effect can be wonderful. Ultimately what you want is the feeling of airy space. The height of a high sloped ceiling can create this, even with a relatively small footprint, but you also want to be able to adapt the mood so you can feel cosy.
Here’s some lighting consultant advice:
Rip Up the Lighting Rule Book
We’re told that there are four main forms of lighting an interior. These are Task, Decorative, Ambient and Accent lighting. I suggest you rip up this outdated rule book and start afresh!
Nowadays, with modern lighting techniques, lights aren’t so single faceted. Task lighting morphs into accent lighting – take low floor washes illuminating steps, for example. Decorative lighting can serve as ambient light and who wants just functional task lighting when it can be pretty as well?
So start from the beginning, forget labels, and think what you need.
- The space should be bright and lively when necessary – such as on a gloomy day, or when you’re cleaning the area.
- You want to emphasise the height of the vaulted ceiling without unbalancing the room. More about that later.
- You want to be able to focus more light on certain areas, such as reading, eating, preparing food etc, without compromising the atmosphere of the entire space.
- You don’t want all the light to be coming from the same direction – this will give a flat feeling. The key to perfect lighting is layering.
I’ll break it down and make it simple.
Vaulted Ceiling Lighting Methods
Every space is individual and you can’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. So you should start by assessing the space. Stand back (if you are in the space) or analyse the plans, elevations and cross-sections.
- Are there any beams? Are they metal or wood, functional or feature? Can you fix any lighting to them? Would you want to?
- How does the sloping ceiling look? What’s the construction? Tongue and groove, simple plasterboard? Are you wanting rustic, country, or sophisticated feel?
- How many skylights will there be and where will they be located?
- Where’s the furniture going to be situated? This is easier to work out for a kitchen but for a large multi-functional open plan area situated under a vaulted ceiling, it needs some forethought. It’s not always vital to know for living room areas in the early stage but the more you plan, the better the effect.
Note: It’s not unusual for kitchen islands to be situated directly under roof lights, This can be lovely during the day but can present challenges for lighting in the evenings, especially if it’s a working area. Worth considering if you’re in the early architectural planning phase.
Downlights in Vaulted Ceilings
As a lighting consultant, I’m often sent plans for my design work, where the initial lighting has been marked up, and I’m surprised at how often downlights are marked into a vaulted ceiling lighting plan. I would generally avoid this for the following reasons:
- Putting downlights into the pitched ceiling can compromise the insulation in the roof (depending on the construction). LED downlights don’t like having insulation packed around them, otherwise they’ll overheat and won’t last. Consequently, you’ll need to move the insulation away from the fitting which will affect the insulating properties in the roof above.
- Most downlights have limited tilt (20-30 degrees) compared to the degree of a pitched roof. If you’re putting downlights in the underside of a sloped ceiling you want to ensure that the light points downwards, and doesn’t shoot across to the other side of the room. This is pointless and creates glare.
- If the vaulted ceiling is high, you would need to ensure that the downlights emit a powerful punch of light to travel the distance. Check the lumens.
Lighting Tip: The way around using downlights is by using surface mounted spots but use these with discretion. Preferably use spotlights with dark baffles and where the light source is set back. This will help reduce glare.
Vaulted Ceiling Pendant Lights
Well selected pendant lights can look great in a vaulted ceiling but it’s worth bearing the following in mind.
Size matters. Feature pendant lights need to be large. What looked big in the showroom, or when you saw it online, can look the size of a pea compared to the large space once it’s installed. And then it’s too late!
Lighting Tip: There’s a lot to be said for a large piece (or pieces) of cardboard and a pair of scissors. If you cut out the approximate shape of the pendant light and hang it, or hold it up, it will give you a sense of proportion before you commit to buying a hanging light.
Large feature pendant lights can be heavy so make sure you’ve allowed for reinforcement in the ceiling during the building stage.
For a lightweight, impressive light fitting in a contemporary space the Norm 69 Lamp XX Large (78 cms) by Normann Copenhagen creates a powerful punch without a huge price tag. Smaller ones are available but you will need to put it together, or get someone to do it for you.
There are all sorts of rules (again!) about the height you should hang a pendant light in a given space. Forget them. Each location is different, each occupant of the building is a different height. Ensure you’re on site when the electrician’s hanging the lights. If you can’t quite decide on the height, opt for lower. You can always shorten the lead later, but it can jar if a feature pendant light is set too high. Rather than bringing the source of light down towards the living zone, the light can hang around in the ether.
Lighting Tip: If you want to have a better idea of the height you would like to hang the light, draw an elevation to scale, with the height of a person (personalised if appropriate) and an outline of the size of the luminaire. That should give you an idea of where you would like the bottom of the light fitting to hang.
Make sure you choose a pendant light with a long enough flex. Many chandeliers and hanging lights come with 2 metre length cords, or sometimes even shorter than that. Depending on the height of your vaulted ceiling, this wouldn’t allow the full drop that you really need. Many designer lighting companies will supply a longer flex on request so worth checking out.
As well as checking the specification in terms of length of cord, you should also make sure that the luminaire is dimmable. Some chandeliers or feature lights look wonderful, but they come with built-in LEDs and will often state that they are not dimmable, or require a specific dimming protocol. I would always advise that you’re able to dim hanging lights.
Don’t forget the space above a feature light. If you choose say, a metal luminaire, there won’t be any light transmitted to the space directly above it. This will create a heavy feeling whereas ideally the space should feel light and airy.
Lighting Tip: A feature pendant light that emanates light down, as well as outwards and upwards will have a softening effect on the whole space.
Creating Atmosphere with Vaulted Ceiling Lighting
Accentuating the height of a cathedral ceiling or pitched roof can look impressive but it needs to be done delicately. If you over-light the height, the balance of the room will be affected, and it can make the room feel cold. The best solution is to factor in soft lighting to wash upwards, and ideally be able to manipulate this by using dimmers.
This can be done in various ways
- 1.Use linear lighting set into coving around the room, or just beneath the sloping ceiling. Take it down slightly so that the source of light isn’t too tight to the slope, in other words so the light can breathe and has room to travel further up the slopes of the vaulted ceiling. I like the lighting coving supplied by Orac Décor.
- Linear light can also work when fitted to the top side of the cross beams running across the room or set above kitchen units or shelving to give a soft glow upwards.
- Use surface spots that can tilt upwards to highlight the height of the room, as well as some being angled down to focus light onto specific areas below. These can either be fixed to the ceiling, or cross beams which will mean that the light source will be nearer the surfaces to be lit.
- Wall lights, especially up/down architectural wall lights, can chuck light up onto the sloped ceiling which can be very effective.
- Punchy inground LED uplights can be set into the floor and therefore wash up onto part of the ceiling. This can look particularly impressive if there’s texture on the walls. They will need to be punchy though and generally, the narrower the beam, the more distance the light will travel.
- I’ll sometimes use a series of floor washers, placed high, upside-down to wash onto a sloped ceiling. It’s a simple but effective technique.
- And if budget is an issue but you would still like to emphasise the height in some way, you could use a simple wall uplight such as the economical Parma 200 by Astro Lighting.
What to consider with Vaulted Ceiling Lighting
Location of Rooflights
If you have a rooflight situated over a kitchen island or dining table, you’ll need to light this at night, or even on a gloomy day. If you choose a bulky light or lights located under this skylight, you’ll find that on a sunny day a shadow will be cast on the surface below. You may find this irritating.
Fixing a Pendant Light to a Vaulted Ceiling
As I warned above, if you want to hang a bulky, heavy chandelier or pendant light to the sloped part of a vaulted ceiling, or the apex of the vault, you’ll need to warn your builders so that they can reinforce the point where it will hang. They should also be able to construct boxing for the light to hang from the apex, and fixings to go behind the ceiling rose of any pendants hanging from the slope, so that they sit straight. This will look neater.
Lighting Circuits and Dimmers
By allowing for various circuits with vaulted ceiling lighting you’ll be able to manipulate the atmosphere with the use of dimmers.
It’s wonderful having a lofty space but when I’ve visited clients after everything is finished, they often remark on the noise quality. With hard surfaces, everything can reverberate to the extent that scraping a chair can grate on the nerves. Luckily there are several pendant lights on the market that can help soften the noise, and when they also come with built in style they serve a dual purpose. I’ll put an article together on the best of these lights but meanwhile you can’t go wrong with these fabulous Nur Lights by Artemide. They’re big and bold and will help absorb the sound. A win-win on both sides.
Maintenance of Pendant Lights
It’s always worth thinking about how you’re going to clean the fittings or change the lamps (bulbs) when needed. Even if a fitting takes long-lasting LED bulbs, you’ll still need to change them from time to time. Not so bad when the vaulted ceiling is accessible by a ladder, but more of a consideration for super-high areas such a high vaulted area over a stairwell where you would need to set up scaffolding.
Now with modern insulation techniques, vaulted ceilings are featuring more and more in modern homes. There are also the existing classical buildings and barn conversions that cry out for clever lighting. Even bedrooms in new builds are often set into, what would have been the attic in previous eras. These can present challenges, not only with lighting, but also storage and bathroom design. But here I’ve only covered the lighting. More articles to come.
Claire Pendarves originally qualified as an interior designer and is now a lighting consultant with over 20 years’ experience