Archive for the ‘How To’ Category

Lighting lessons + a primer

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

My current lighting class is almost over. Here’s some of what I learned.

First, the traditional lighting that most of us have in our homes – surface-mounted ceiling lights plus a virtual lighting store of table and floor lights – is terrible. The ceiling fixtures glare and create unflattering light on everyone and everything. The table lamps light the tables, but that’s about it.

Case in point: The lighting in my living room now consists of five table lamps (we just kept adding them because it was never light enough) and a ceiling fan with a light globe attached. We never turn on that ceiling globe because it is blinding, so we rely on the five table lamps to light the space. But it still feels dark, even when they are all turned on. When I measured the footcandle levels in in the room, I learned that it really was dark, majorly dark.

Second, although there are a lot of ways to successfully illuminate a house, wading through the enormous selection of luminaires available on the market is daunting. (See my post on indoor lighting for a sampling of firms that sell lamps or luminaires.) These products don’t come cheap either. To fix the lighting problems in my house I’d have to redo every room, tearing out walls, snaking wires, patching, and repainting. If I had time and money, I’d do it; I certainly can’t afford to hire someone else. I hate to think that good lighting may be one of the privileges of the rich.

Third, lighting involves a intense numbers game to distinguish among and choose from the various kinds of lamps on the market suitable for residential installation – from the ubiquitous incandescent A lamp, through halogen, compact fluorescent, and linear fluorescent, to the newer fiber optic and LED lights. Each one of these comes with its own beam spread, color temperature, color rendering index, base type, and photometric data. And then there are all the calculations – watts, volts, footcandles, footlamberts, etc – that one must do, or at least understand, to get the lighting just right. I’m good at numbers, but the sheer volume of all this information has me floored. The lighting professionals may have it all down (plus they have access to computer programs that do the calculating), but if I don’t have a handle on it after two lighting classes, then certainly the un-schooled homeowner hasn’t got a chance. (Commercial lighting is another beast altogether, with still more lamp choices. Because I chose a residential project for my current class project, I didn’t even touch on commercial this semester.)

So what can ordinary people do? Learn a bit about lighting design. Here’s a quick primer.

But first, some terminology. A “lamp” is the trade term for a light bulb. A “luminaire” is the term for a light fixture, often called a lamp in common parlance (e.g. table lamp, floor lamp). Luminaires are designed for specific lamp types, but each type may have a wide range of choices in wattage, beam spreads, color temperature, and ability to render color accurately. A “footcandle” is a measure of the amount of light that reaches a surface.

The main thing to remember is that good lighting consists of four different types or functions of lighting – ambient, accent, task, and “sparkle.” All of these need to be present in a given room or space to some degree, though sometimes one fixture can serve more than one function. The layers of different types of lighting create contrast, and that is what makes lighting exciting.

  • Ambient light is the background light that illuminates the whole room enough to eliminate dark corners and allow you to move through the space safely and perform general tasks. Whether this is low or bright depends on what kind of space it is – it might be lowish in a dining room, for example, but high in a wood shop. Good ambient lighting isn’t obvious. A bright ceiling downlight, for example, may light the room, but it glares in your eyes and creates unflattering shadows. A better choice for ambient lighting is to direct light up to the ceiling and let it reflect back into your room. You can do this with a built-in light cove near the top of your wall, with floor fixtures or wall sconces with opaque shades that shine only up, or even by placing small uplight fixtures on top your bookshelves.
  • Accent lighting is more concentrated lighting, usually directed at specific objects or room details, such as artwork, sculpture, a column, or a plant. Accent lights draw your eye toward the illuminated spot and create interest, but they don’t always provide good ambient light. Most track lighting and some recessed ceiling canisters make good accent lights, with the proper lamp. The beam spread of the lamp you put in your accent fixture will make a difference in the effect you get.
  • Task lighting provides light to successfully do specific or concentrated tasks, such as reading, working with tools, and cooking. Task lighting is brighter than ambient light and is directed where it’s needed, on the work surface. Here is where all those table lamps come into play. They are fine task lights, so long as they are placed so the light doesn’t shine in your eyes and the light is bright enough to see your work. An opaque or dark shade on your task lighting luminaire helps prevent glare and, so long as your ambient light is provided by other sources, won’t make your room too dark.
  • Sparkle is the lighting icing on the cake. For example, tiny white holiday lights and candles add sparkle to a space, as does light directed on a piece of crystal. Although sparkle is less important than the other three, it adds a feeling of liveliness and delight.

Even a couple of small changes in lighting can make a big difference in the feel of a room. Here’s what I’m going to try in my house until I have the time, energy, and money to chop up my ceilings and walls to run some new circuits.

  • Buy a bunch of small plug-in spotlights to place here and there. For instance, one on top the bookcase aimed toward the ceiling of my living room should provide some much-needed ambient light. One on the floor shining up behind a plant should do the same and yield some interesting shadow patterns.
  • Check my existing recessed ceiling fixtures to see if I’ve put the correct type of lamp in them so they’ll function as the accent lights they were meant to be.
  • Hang a big square of light-colored fabric below some of those glare bombs in my ceilings to try to diffuse them (far enough away so it doesn’t get hot).
  • Replace some of the ceiling downlights with tracks or fixtures that direct the light upward.

The most important thing I learned, however, is how crucial lighting is. An otherwise fabulous space will be boring in the wrong lighting and, conversely, a well-designed, layered lighting plan can perk up even the plainest space. Lighting breathes life into architecture.

Macaroni and cheese

Saturday, May 20th, 2006

Time for some comfort food. I’ve tried a number of recipes for one of my favorites, macaroni and cheese, but always come back to this basic recipe. As with any project, use good quality ingredients for the best tasting result – organic butter and whole milk, fresh flour (King Arthur is the best), and great tasting cheese.

Serve this with a nice salad of tender lettuces and baby leafy greens and a balsamic vinaigrette and a cold glass of orange juice!

Macaroni and Cheese

  • 1 lb elbow macaroni
  • 1/2 c. butter (1 stick)
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 4 c. milk
  • 1/2 tsp. dried mustard or up to 1 tsp. Dijon mustard (optional)
  • A few shakes of cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 10 oz. extra sharp cheddar (I like Cracker Barrel New York Aged Reserve Extra Sharp White Cheddar, in the black wrapper)
  • Salt and pepper

Bring a big pot of water to a boil, add about 1/2 T. of salt to the water, then cook the macaroni according to the package directions. Be sure to stir the macaroni from time to time so the pieces don’t stick together. Drain off the water.

While the water is coming to a boil and the macaroni is cooking, heat up the milk (on the stove or in the microwave), but don’t let it boil. Grate the cheese coarsely (a food processor with a grater disc works fast for this).

Melt the butter over medium-low heat, then stir in the flour with a whisk (this is called a roux). Turn the burner down a bit and let the roux bubble a few minutes (continue to stir) to cook the flour a bit. Don’t let it brown. Stir in the hot milk all at once, stirring vigorously with the whisk to smooth out any lumps. Whisk in the mustard and cayenne if you are using them and let the sauce bubble gently for about 2 minutes.

Remove the sauce from the stove and stir in the grated cheese. Stir until it is melted, then add salt to taste. Stir the cheese sauce into the cooked macaroni and taste it again to see if you need more salt or a grind or two of black pepper.

You can eat it as is, or you can put it in a baking dish, sprinkle more cheese or some buttered breadcrumbs* on top, and bake it for 20 or 30 minutes at about 375 degrees. The baked version is less creamy and has a crusty top.

Serves 4-6.

*Buttered bread crumbs: Heat up some butter in a small skillet, stir in the crumbs, which you make from good quality bread. Forget about the pre-made crumbs from the grocery store, they’re no good.

Chicken stock

Monday, March 6th, 2006

If you cook, you need chicken stock. It’s the basis of many soups, sauces, and other dishes and an ingredient used in cuisines all over the world. But all chicken stock is not the same. To get a good chicken stock, you can’t just pick a can off a shelf. You have to make it yourself and you have to make it from the best ingredients. It really makes a difference.

Chicken stock is, then, much like design. Both are basic and both require the best ingredients. To achieve a product or process that works and doesn’t create harm, you must design it right. To know how to design it right, you need a thorough design education, quality materials, and time for creativity.

As a student, I’m building up my design pantry. I’ve got the chicken stock down pat.

Here’s my recipe for chicken stock:

    Chicken Stock
  • 1 whole fryer, preferably organic free-range
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, washed and cut into 1″ pieces
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in quarters or eighths
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
  • 1-2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp thyme leaves or a handful of fresh thyme sprigs
  • A handful of fresh parsley
  • About a Tbs of salt (to taste)

    Remove any giblets from the chicken’s cavity and wash the chicken well under cold water. Wash the neck and giblets too if you want to add them to the pot. Some cooks don’t like to add the liver, but I don’t think it matters.

    Combine all ingredients, including the neck and giblets, in a deep stockpot and add enough cold water to cover the chicken by about 1-1/2″. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and slowly simmer, uncovered, about 1-1/2 hours or until the leg feels really loose when you wiggle it and the meat is tender.

    Pour the stock through a strainer into a large bowl or pot. Taste it and add more salt if necessary. That’s your stock. Use it now, or seal it in containers and freeze it for the future.

    Let the chicken cool until you can handle it, then pick all the meat off the bones, discarding the skin and bones and anything unappetizing (give this part to your dog, but never any bones!). This is easier if the chicken is still warm than if the meat has completely cooled. Now you have several cups of wonderfully flavorful cooked chicken to use in another recipe or freeze for later.

Ideas for the chicken: chicken noodle soup, chicken pot pie, chicken enchiladas, chicken salad, creamed chicken on toast, chicken sandwiches, chicken and rice casserole, etc.

Adapted from my mother’s recipe. Happy Birthday, Dani!

Building a resource library – tips for students

Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

Contract magazine’s website has a useful article entitled How to Build and Maintain a Design Library, by Katherine Sutton (December 16, 2005), full of how-to tips for creating a design library to house materials. As she points out, the problem is to balance the need for hands-on experience with diverse materials with the high cost of the real estate required to store them all. The article is a must-read for designers starting their own businesses or students contemplating doing so.

Even students who don’t plan on starting their own businesses will find Sutton’s article useful. Although my school has a resource library, it’s usually in disarray, has a limited choice of materials, and isn’t open all the time. Most of what is there is outdated and has been thoroughly pillaged by students assembling their sample notebooks for Textiles class. Besides, if you are like me, you need your materials when you are working on your project – usually in the middle of the night – and don’t have time to drive back to school, compete for a parking place, and discover that the school resource library is closed or hasn’t a single sample of what you are looking for. As a result, I’ve started my own student-sized resource collection in the corner of my living room.

Here’s what I’ve done (and some tips) without spending much money (people who want their houses to be designer-perfect, stop reading now – you’ll be appalled):

  • I cleared out and repurposed a couple of bookshelves (and made a nice book donation to my local library). These particular shelves were originally salvaged from an office move (or maybe found on the street on garbage pickup day – an excellent way to get free stuff, by the way, if you’re not too picky). If you don’t have any spare bookcases, fairly inexpensive shelves are readily available, as are stackable crates and boards on cement blocks – use whatever is cheap and available.
  • I positioned these shelves to create a nook, which became my “studio,” and hung some fabric on the back of the shelves to make them look a little less junky from the rest of the living room.
  • I outfitted my shelves with folding cardboard magazine files to hold the product literature and magazines I’ve collected, vaguely grouped by categories. If you have deeper pockets, you can get some better looking and more durable plastic or metal magazine files at places like Staples or The Container Store.
  • My samples are sorted into cardboard boxes, again by category – textiles, sustainable textiles, glass, flooring, wood, metals, etc. The cardboard boxes are an inelegant but free solution. Having run out of shelf space, I tucked these boxes under my drafting table (found for $10 at a yard sale). Again, if you can afford it, you could find something more attractive than cardboard boxes.
  • My T-squares, long straightedges, and rolls of bumwad are stored upright in a cardboard wine box with the dividers intact. Again, not elegant, but servicable.
  • Realizing that a set of flat map drawers was way over my head, I purchased two cardboard flat storage boxes from The Container Store. At 3″ deep, they slide under my sofa and hold my drawings.
  • Storing the presentation boards is a problem. For a while I could slip them behind my stereo speakers, but now there are too many of them, so they are in the way. I’d put them under my bed, except that’s already full.
  • I have a large toy closet that I may convert to a materials library, if I can find the time to clean it out and some other place to store the toys. You may have a closet or even an armoire that would make a better library than your living room.

When I’m ready to select materials for a project, I can quickly pull out all this stuff, find what I need, and start to play. I can usually find something either just right or close enough to suffice until I can head to the computer and locate new materials. For new things, I order samples directly from the manufacturers or through Tectonic Studio. Sometimes I admit I’m a student when I place orders and other times I say I’m with BellDesign, depending on my gut feeling about which is likely to be more successful.

Periodically, I go through this collection and haul what I no longer like or want off to the resource library at my school. My little library may be less elaborate than what I’ll enjoy after I graduate, but its usefulness definitely outweighs the junk factor.