Big light, small package
Highly efficient but expensive, LED lighting has improved enough to make it a practical alternative

LED can lights in a recent Healdsburg remodel by designer Lauren Brandwine. (Note: Only can lights in celing are LEDs)   (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

LED can lights in a recent Healdsburg remodel by designer Lauren Brandwine. (Note: Only can lights in celing are LEDs) (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Rarely has technology so old advanced so far in so short a period of time.

Within the past two years, LED lights -- first developed a century ago but long thought of only as those little red lights that made your radio, calculator and VCR glow in the dark -- have taken a giant leap forward.

Now, the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) formerly used as beacons for electronic buttons and flashlights are bright enough to illuminate an entire room -- and not just with colored lights, but with a quality of white light that is making designers, architects and electricians, suddenly take notice.

Within the past 18 months, LEDs have begun showing up in fixtures ranging from recessed lights to wall sconces to decorative pendant lamps, finally making them an attractive alternative to fluorescent in the burgeoning green marketplace.

"It's the most exciting thing in lighting since the early '80s, when compact fluorescent hit the market," said Lee Cooper, who oversees emerging technologies for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s consumer energy efficiency group.

It is still just the beginning of the LED era, he emphasized. But very recent improvements in the technology are rapidly ramping it into the mainstream.

Interior designer Lauren Brandwein has a strong green aesthetic but, like many of her peers, she found that colors didn't look as good under compact fluorescents (CFLs). And yet with building codes now requiring that half of all wattage in kitchen remodels and new construction be "high efficacy," fluorescent was all but mandatory since there were no good alternatives.

After turning on to this latest generation of LEDs that are brighter, quicker, whiter, and produce a much more accurate rendering of color in their beam, Brandwein has begun using them without reservation.

"Lighting is one of the things you spend the most on in a remodel," she said, standing in a kitchen she recently made over in an Alexander Valley vacation rental. "And yet people just accept it and live with the poor light rendering given by fluorescent. It's a shame after spending the energy and time with your designer and going to the expense of buying all these beautiful materials and not really seeing what color they are."

Tilework, countertops, hardware and cabinets just don't look the same under colder fluorescent light. And yet with the new, bright LEDs recessed in 4- and 6-inch cans in the ceiling, colors appear much as they would in natural light.

The problem was so bad that many people were tempted to do an end-run around the code by switching out the fluorescent fixtures for warmer incandescent lighting after they had been installed and inspected. And that wasn't cheap, since the law requires that the lights be grounded. In other words, you can't simply swap the bulb; you'd have to remove the whole fixture, which could be quite costly if you have multiple recessed fixtures.

Mike Enright, a supervising engineer for the city of Santa Rosa's building division, said that switching out lights has probably eased in the last decade as fluorescent quality has improved. And changes that go into effect later this year will give more options for meeting the code, including dimmers and motion detectors that turn lights off after you leave a room.

LEDs can be as or even more energy efficient than CFLs. The canned, recessed LED lights that Brandwein now favors for kitchens use 15 watts and put out light equivalent to a 65-watt incandescent bulb.

"Right there you're saving 50 watts -- which is significant -- per bulb," she says. And with 11 fixtures inset in the ceiling, the savings can quickly add up.

They still cost significantly more than fluorescent. Kick Buckman of KB Electric in Santa Rosa, working with Brandwein, installed 19 in the Healdsburg kitchen of Roger and Hilary Bartels. He said the price was about $200 per can compared to under $100 for a comparable fluorescent recessed can.

And yet, with a projected life of 50,000 hours, they can potentially last up to 20 years. A typical incandescent bulb is rated to last up to 5,000 hours and a typical fluorescent up to 10,000 hours, according to Buckman.

"So yes, you may be saving energy on a daily basis but you may also be saving a whole lot on not having to replace those lights. Longevity is a nice attribute," said PG&E's Cooper. He noted that the potential savings for municipalities using them in street lights could be enormous, and the beams can be more easily aimed down to the street, doing away with those annoying beams shining into bedroom windows that have confounded sleepers for more than a century, ever since electricity replaced oil.

Greg Courdy, of Energy Plus in Santa Rosa, said the transformation in LED technology just in the past 18 months is phenomenal.

"We kept going to lighting shows but we weren't happy. We weren't bringing them in," he said of the old LEDs. "They were too purple. They didn't have the right color temperature and they weren't giving enough light. So if you went into a showroom it was like walking into a haunted house. It was nasty."

But now he says many manufacturers are offering LEDs, including Bruck, Cree, Juno and Gemini. And the selection is advancing rapidly. They can be found in colorful decorative hanging pendant lights and contemporary sconces, rope lighting and step lighting as well as recessed cans. Some companies like Elite also are making single bulbs. But at $40 a lamp as opposed to $3.95 for a halogen bulb, the upfront cost may still be prpohibitive to many consumers.

Hilary Bartels is happy with her investment. Working with Brandwein, the busy Kaiser emergency room physician, competitive cyclist and mother of two was looking for low-maintenance as well as environmentally sensitive materials and technology for her new kitchen.

She has 19 different recessed LED fixtures in her big open kitchen and breakfast nook, illuminating different areas from over the island to under cabinets.

"It's more than adequate. It's fabulous light no matter where you are," she said. "And I like the fact I'm told I will never have to change a light bulb until the day I die. Not that that's a big issue, but it's nice to know you don't have to worry about one of them blowing out. More importantly, they're green. They use so much less energy."


February 28, 2009

A winning kitchen
Leipheimer-Gunn remodel creates 'edgy' space with classic country touches

World-class cyclist Levi Leipheimer and his wife, Odessa Gunn, recently remodeled the kitchen of their northeast Santa Rosa home.  (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / PD)

World-class cyclist Levi Leipheimer and his wife, Odessa Gunn, recently remodeled the kitchen of their northeast Santa Rosa home.(CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / PD)

When Levi Leipheimer invited his new cycling pal Dan Boyle over for some expert advice about sprucing up his aging kitchen, his vision was pretty limited. Maybe some fresh paint over the old oak cabinets, he figured, would at least help lift the room out of the 80s.

But one suggestion led to another and another. When the dust settled months later, Leipheimer and his wife, Odessa Gunn, had a completely new kitchen.

It wasnt so bad before, the laconic Leipheimer says, but its a lot better now.

The race to remodel became a team effort, but in this case Leipheimer, one of the worlds top cyclists, was happy not to take the lead. Boyles wife, Lauren Brandwein, a designer, wound up leading Leipheimer and Gunn through what can be a difficult and time-consuming course. Undertaking a major remodel means making a plethora of decisions beginning with the most fundamental of all: Just what is the overall look you want to achieve?

The first challenge, says Brandwein, was finding a way to marry Leipheimers minimalist tastes with his wifes ranch-girl lifestyle.

The most interesting part for me was Levis wish to have everything clean and linear and kind of edgy, said Brandwein. And yet Odessa has a different taste. She turned out to be more rustic country.

Brandwein bridged the design gap with a look that is very modern and yet softened by a few natural elements. The dressed-down cabinets are so dark they are near black. Two strong pendant lights from Restoration Hardware over the massive limestone slab are retro and yet contemporary at the same time. The tiny glass tiles in the backsplashes, in a shade of midnight blue with a hint of green, also have a timeless look.

All those smooth, hard surfaces are softened by two key features: a series of reclaimed beams running across the open ceiling and a unique sliding door on tracks, evocative of a barn door, over the pantry that Boyle hancrafted of heavy plank boards and wrought iron.

Initially Boyle had planned only to work with the original low ceiling. But in order to remove a large unattractive recessed lighting fixture he had to remove the Sheetrock and re-frame. Once exposed, it was obvious the natural roof pitch was far more interesting and really opened up the space.

Leipheimer and Gunn, who have maintained a home base in Santa Rosa for the past decade while traveling the globe they also have a part-time home in Spain, where Levi trains moved to this larger, 5-acre aerie in northeast Santa Rosa about three years ago.

Design-wise, the house had issues. Leipheimer conceded that it was probably dated even when it was built in 1994. It was all white walls and oak.

It wasnt the exact house we wanted, he said. It was the location we wanted.

While there may have been too much oak inside, the cyclist said he loves the living oaks beyond his windowpanes.

Were right in the canopy and the views are great views here, he said, gazing out into a thicket of leafy branches.

The property appealed to Gunn, who was looking for space to accommodate her growing family of rescued animals, which now includes two horses, goats, rabbits, turkeys, cats and dogs. But for Leipheimer, who has won the Tour of California three straight years, and four times has finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France, it is also situated in a sweet spot for cycling.

This is the perfect spot in the county, in my opinion, he said. I can go in any direction and not have to go through traffic lights.

In the past three years, the couple has slowly made cosmetic changes to the house, like new lighting fixtures, doors and hardware. But its the kitchen that is the heartbeat of any modern home.

When remodeling, homeowners can easily fall into the trap of buying into bells and whistles they may not need or even use. Brandwein did what a really good designer will do she interviewed both Leipheimer and Gunn and came up with custom elements to suit their individual needs.

For Leipheimer, she created a handy storage drawer right in the kitchen so he always has a fresh supply of new water bottles at the ready. It is deep enough to allow the bottles to nest vertically and has a separate space for lids.

The cyclist also likes to work in the kitchen. So the limestone island features a discrete little office hub where Leipheimer can pull up a stool and sit with his laptop to check e-mail and surf the Net. Brandwein also designed a handy hidden charging station for electronics right above the water bottle drawer.

If kitchen islands approximated real geography, this one would be not a tiny atoll but something closer to Australia. Its large enough for seating as well as food preparation and conceals appliances a small beverage refrigerator and microwave and tons of storage on all four sides.

Gunns favorite elements are the small, 30-inch Wolf Range with snazzy red knobs for a pop of bright color.

I love it so much I kiss it, she says with a smile. Just look at it. Its the cutest piece. So stylish and adorable and beautiful.

Of the two, Gunn is more the cook. She finds herself preparing pastas, salads, fish tacos and other high-fuel foods for Leipheimer, who needs to pump 6,000 calories some days into his compact 5-foot, 7-inch frame to keep going. A vegetarian herself, she also whips up home-made vittles for her many animals, full meals of chicken and broccoli and rice or sweet potatoes.

Finding the wood beams for the ceiling was the best part of the project. Not just any would do. Gunn wanted the salvaged wood to have a story. They traveled down to Heritage Salvage in Petaluma several times looking for just the right ones. What they settled on was old fir reclaimed from the old Ice Harbor Dam in Washington. The sliding pantry door was milled from wood recycled from a water tank at Dominican College in San Rafael.

Boyle and Brandwein made small changes in the layout of the room to make it more spacious and functional, like removing a large glass-doored cabinet that consumed one wall. That freed up more space for the island.

Leipheimer and Gunn spend too much time on the road to entertain frequently, but they like to throw open their doors to friends a couple of times a year. That may well mean another holiday party, to really put Gunns stove to good use.

Said Leipheimer with a grin, It will be nicer to have it with this kitchen.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.



October 24, 2009