Ah! the basement! This area of the home is generally given the least amount of attention when it comes to overall design, function and livability. That is, unless you have or are planning to convert the basement area into a family or recreation room that really becomes a part of the overall useful living space in the home.
The basement by its very nature tends to be a dark area since it is located below ground level and has few windows and those are often casement or half windows that are frequently located in window wells, further reducing the outside light availability. Consequently, a major, but seldom considered issue, is the safety factor that results from navigating around a dimly lit area particularly if it is cluttered with storage or other household items that are generally not used very frequently.
One of the first steps to consider in improving the natural lighting in the basement area is to clear away shrubbery or other plants or obstacles to light that are near or adjacent to the basement windows. This simple step can help increase the natural lighting downstairs.
If you can enlarge or even add windows in the basement, this will also help a great deal but for many, this involves considerable expense that may end up near the bottom of the list of projects that need to be funded.
Traditional lighting in the basement usually consisted of inexpensive, practical and ‘only as absolutely needed’ lighting. How many basements can you think of that were equipped with bare incandescent light bulbs or long tube fluorescent fixtures. While these options may have been inexpensive and functional, they certainly didn’t make the basement a very inviting place to spend any time that involved leisure or recreation.
Your first consideration needs to be what the basement is, can and/or will be used for. If you have limited upstairs living space, you may want to think about turning the basement into a recreation area or den. On rainy summer days during school vacation, it might be nice to have a place for the kids to play that is away from the main living area and that offers both you and them some privacy and the freedom to spend time not stepping on each other.
Let’s say you want to convert your basement into a recreation area with a home theater. A combination of track and recessed lighting might be just the ticket. Installing dimmer switches will also allow you to turn the lights down low when watching a movie. If you want all or part of the basement area to serve as a playroom, you can consider bright and cheery light fixtures that are ‘kid safe’ so that the active kids don’t run into safety risks from broken bulbs, etc. If reading or talking or doing crafts is an option you are considering, you can select energy efficient light fixtures that provide a good color balance. A wide variety of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are available that will work in table and floor lamps as well as ceiling fixtures.
Since you are cut-off from natural sunlight in the basement, you should give serious consideration to full-spectrum light fixtures (they used to be known as grow-lamps) that simulate natural sunlight and usually provide a warm sense of well-being particularly to those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Track lighting is inexpensive and attractive and can be used just about anywhere. It can provide both ambient and accent lighting and is very easy to install. Unfinished basements have open ceilings that lend themselves to running new electrical sources to just about any part of the basement and then covering up the work with an attractive drop-ceiling that just about any DIY can install. A word of caution: if your ceiling is 7 feet or lower, track lighting may not be a good option to consider since a 6+ footer runs the risk of bumping into to it and/or having the glare shine directly into their eyes. Recessed lighting is an alternative to consider if you have a low ceiling. If you consider these, try to avoid the harsh look usually resulting from fluorescent fixtures. Instead, you can select recessed incandescent can-type lighting that can be either spot or floodlights. If you use a dimmer switch with these lights you may find the effect very attractive. Keep in mind that you are dealing with older, less energy efficient technology when you use incandescents, but sometimes these are the only practical considerations when you’re dealing with low ceilings.
Here are a few other minor considerations to keep in mind when thinking about basement lighting: You made need additional power sources installed in your circuit box. Consult with a qualified, licensed electrician once you have your lighting plan outlined and if he or she thinks you need to upgrade, heed their advice and have them take care of it. Taking the risk of using insufficient power feeds for your new lighting set-up is simply not worth the bother and the eventual added costs to do some ‘ripping out and upgrading.
If your basement is sectioned off by walls, consider replacing any solid walls with glass blocks that allow light to shine through. Make sure that you have a switch at the top of the stairwell that turns on the main basement lights. Many earlier homes didn’t bother with this and the hazards of walking down an unlit stairway are just not worth the minimal expense involved in having a switch installed at the top of the stairway. You can also consider a switch at the bottom of the stairway that turns these lights off.
If you aren’t going to convert the basement into a full living area and will have some bare concrete walls remaining, consider drapery in a number of places with accent lighting behind or nearby the drapes.
Finally, to make your basement a more inviting area, you may want to consider replacing the traditional solid wood doors at the top of the stairwell with glass doors. These not only permit additional light into the basement, they give visitors the impression that the basement is really a part of the rest of the house.
Installing better lighting in the basement can be a daunting task because most basements, particularly in older homes, were just not intended to be used as living areas and were consequently designed to be minimally functional. Be creative. Look in home and garden magazines and on the Internet for ideas and if you are a social creature, visit friends and neighbors that have done some nice basement remodeling.