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Community and Q&A

Alternatives to recessed lighting in open floor plans?

rocket190 | Posted in Interior Design on

The question is basic….

For those of you who have forgone recessed lighting in your home for air sealing and efficiency reasons, what did you use for alternative lighting?

My floor plan is very open (think 20′ x 40 box), has relatively low ceilings, 8’9″, and I want the area to remain flexible for future floor plan changes. There is no kitchen area, just a very small snack island that will feature a few pendants.

For all their issues, can lights are a nice option for providing even lighting across an open area without having fixtures dangling down from the ceiling.

I will use some perimeter cove lighting and a few lamps, but I don’t think these are of sufficient output to light this large area. In my mind, multi-bulb dome lights that are commonly used in baths and bedrooms would seem out of place. Fluorescent strip lighting would make the area look like an office.

Also, can anyone explain why an airtight IC rated recessed light is more difficult to achieve an airtight seal than a 3.5″ round recessed ceiling box?

Please post pictures and ideas. Thanks!

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  1. Expert Member

    Even the big box stores have a quite nice range of low profile ceiling fixtures now. Try and locate them with two things in mind: where you want the light and thinking of the ceiling as a design composition where they are the features.

  2. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #2

    How about led cable lights with the cables close to the ceiling? You can add fixtures or move them around until you get the light where you want it. Four strands should do it.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    I agree with Malcolm. There are some attractive fixtures that bounce most of the light off the ceiling while still allowing some of the light to filter downward.

    But if you really light the look of recessed cans -- I don't -- install false framing under your ceiling air barrier to create a 9-inch deep service cavity. You can hide your recessed cans in the service cavity, and install drywall on the new framing. You'll still end up with an 8-foot ceiling.

    Even though this is possible, I don't recommend it. Keep the 8'9" ceiling, and choose fixtures that direct most of the light upward.

  4. onebassist | | #4

    We're in the process of building a kitchen with no recessed lighting and attic space above. has some great fixtures in their "flush" section. Many alternatives to the multi-bulb dome. It's a look that works particularly well with older houses that were built before can lights.
    In addition to the air sealing issue with IC cans, they also put a 5 or 6 inch hole with a heat source in an unconditioned space. You can pile on insulation, but it's a weak spot in the envelope.

  5. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #5

    I'm not sure why you don't think cove lighting will work here. As long as the coves are at least 16" below ceiling height you get very good wall-wash and ceiling reflections out of it.

    Dimmable LED or dimmable T8/T5 fluorescent work great for being to set the ambient light levels with NO GLARE (unlike recessed down lighting or surface mount ceiling fixtures), and you can use other fixtures/lamps for task/accent lighting etc. In my 13' x 22' family room I have a single 22' cove along one wall and 6 R40 recessed cans. I literally NEVER turn on the recessed lights (my kid does sometimes, when he wants the place to look like its on fire), and use lamps for reading, etc. Similarly, in the kitchen there are cabinet-top uplighting, and under-cabinet task lights, and four R30 recessed cans, the latter of which only my kid uses.

    Downlighting in general is WAY overdone, and it's not just recessed lights. Downlighting when done without a comparable amount of uplighting reduces visual efficacy at any given ambient light level due to the glare that it brings. With enough uplighting that glare is minimized, since the contrast between light intensity at the fixture is no longer several orders of magnitude higher than the field of ceiling surrounding it, but it doesn't go away completely.

  6. rocket190 | | #6


    I apologize....My original post referenced cove lighting when I was envisioning sconce lighting.

    If I'm interpreting you correctly, your cove lighting runs the length of your room and is sufficient to throw light 13' across the width of your room? Do you have continuous rope lighting in your cove or evenly spaced fixtures? I've never lived in a residence that used cove lighting extensively. It makes a killer ambience when dimmed, but I wouldn't have considered it for primary lighting.

    Seeing as my room is rectangular, I could conceivably put a cove on each side of the room, and the reflected light would cover the 20' width of the room?

    One ceiling finish I'm considering is ship lap wood over air sealed gypsum board or taped plywood. Obviously a plastered ceiling would reflect a lot more light than ship lap wood. Any thoughts on how this would factor in?

  7. Expert Member

    Rick, Don't forget what portrait photographers know: we look much better when lit from the side :)

  8. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #8

    The cove lighting in my house is all dimmable T8 fluorescent. The family room has cathedralized ceilings, and the cove is ~8' from the floor with another 5' of wall above it for a VERY effective wall-wash and ceiling reflectance. It's plenty of light for most activities, but my 91 year old mother-in-law with macular degeneration needs a reading lamp to play Scrabble in there. (But that's not much different from other spaces, eh? ;-) )

    In the 13.5' wide living & dining rooms with 9' ceilings the coves are about 7' from the floor (following the same visual line of the door casings), with about 18" of wall-wash above the coves. While it's more of a light-stripe across the top of the wall and somewhat less-even than in the family room, running them at full-bright would be too much ambient light for dining or hanging-out (but great for finding every last crumb under the table when cleaning up.) In the dining room we have a pendant centered over the table (three 5 watt cold cathode bulbs), and in the living room we use a table lamp or a floor lamp for reading, though there is a pair of 11W R30 LED recessed lights over the couch that my mother-in-law needs for playing Scrabble on the coffee table.

    With cove lighting the wall & ceiling finishes matter, but not as much as you might think. The dining room wall paint is a fairly subdued pale brown, the living-room a pale blue. The ceiling paints in those rooms are NOT some high-efficiency titanium white, but rather a low-glare latex eggshell. A full width cove allows you to throttle it up & down enough to deliver just about any ambient level you would ever need (unless you painted it all a very dark midnight-charcoal or something.)

  9. dburgoyne | | #9

    You can still get "recessed" lights by using the ultra-thin LED recessed lights. They install into a regular ceiling "4-O" box. I installed watertight ceiling "4-O" boxes and sealed around wiring penetration, and around ceiling penetration, sealing off any air escaping into my ceiling/rafter bays. They come in nice warm colors too.

  10. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #10

    We used dozens of the small LED recessed lights in the house I just finished. Very easy to air seal and, as you say, good colour rendition. I think they will change how we think of recessed lights. Pot-lights are dead.

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    Here are links to two GBA articles on these slim LED lights that mimic recessed lighting fixtures:

    Rethinking Recessed Lighting

    Canned Lighting Conundrum

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