Residential landscape lighting design is a rapidly growing business that is transforming the way people think about the space surrounding their homes. No longer is landscaping limited to one neatly trimmed hedge, one manicured lawn, and one glaring flood light on the garage.
New ideas and new technology are extending our living space beyond the walls of the home. Experts say the three most important words in landscape lighting design today are “less is more.” That doesn’t mean you can’t have a hundred or more fixtures in your outdoor lighting scheme. It means the end product of those fixtures must be subtle.
“In the great majority of settings, we are ideally trying to produce an effect approaching moonlight, lighting from above, soft and subtle, with a natural feel to it,” said Mark Oxley, president and chief executive officer of Outdoor Illumination, which serves the Washington, D.C., area.
Uplighting can be dramatic but is mostly used to highlight architectural detail or a particularly beautiful specimen in the garden.
“Uplighting has its place, and [it’s] an important one at that,” Oxley said. “But when you look at the yard as an extension of the living area of your house, you want to produce an environment that makes the resident feel comfortable and at home. Brighter lights for security or showcasing architectural features should be on the perimeter of the property. The softest lights should serve as a transition between the perimeter and the living area.”
Michael Galli, founder of Metamorphosis Landscaping in the San Francisco Bay area, said the yard can be a second living room when landscaped and lit properly. He established his full-service landscape business 26 years ago, but didn’t get into landscape lighting until the mid-1990s. Since then, lighting has become the most lucrative part of his company, bringing in more revenue than fencing, plant material, or any other business segment. He has bookings for lighting installations a year out.
The industry average for installed lighting is $200 to $250 per fixture on the ground and $300 to $350 in the air. Galli said the industry average for a residential lighting installation is between $3,000 and $4,000, but his company’s installations routinely bring in 10 times that much.
While a number of developing technologies are moving into landscape installations, some are not yet fully
suited for all outdoor uses. The MR16, a halogen light invented in 1975, still is the grand old dame of landscape lighting designers. Multifaceted mirrored reflectors (MR) concentrate their light into a desired beam spread
and allow fixtures to be smaller than those using other types of lamps.
Oxley said the MR16 nicely sets off plants and skin tones and can be directed. Galli said it offers versatility, cost effectiveness and usability.
The MR8 is another halogen option with a diameter half that of the MR16. It has a smaller cone of light and is intended for smaller fixtures.
The light-emitting diode (LED), however, is primed to be the new star in the landscape lighting universe.
“Eventually, LEDs will take over every current alternative,” Oxley said. “Lamp manufacturers are working on LEDs that will be able to be used in current MR16 systems. At the moment, however, LEDs are not yet bright enough for many applications.”
Oxley said LEDs can now effectively light a variety of landscape features, including paths, steps and even underwater settings. Ultimately, he said, LEDs will be bright enough to use in street lamps. In fact, some companies already are marketing lines of LED street lamps, such as RUUD Lighting’s Beta Lighting division.
Fiber optic lighting also has limited use in landscape design. It has the ability to illuminate multiple locations from a satellite source. That makes maintenance of the system easier. Lamps are changed at the source with no tree climbing required. Galli said although fiber optics have drawbacks, high cost among them, they can be used in pools, water features and even in stringing “star fields” hung in trees.
Speaking of stars, Galli points to another technology, called BlissLights. These incorporate laser and optical elements to create a lighting effect much like a universe of moving stars.
“They are somewhat costly, but they can create a stunning effect,” he said.
Light selling tips
So how do you convince a homeowner to spend several thousand dollars to light up their yard? According to both Oxley and Galli, the best way to convince a potential customer is to show them the real thing. Oxley said he either takes clients to other Outdoor Illumination installations or he demonstrates the effect of various lights in the customer’s own yard.
“There is no way to adequately describe the dramatic effects lighting can have on a property,” he said. “Wavering customers can be turned around pretty quickly if you show them exactly how lighting can make their home more attractive and livable.”
Galli goes a step further, He rents a bus, loads it up with prospective clients, and gives them evening garden tours of Metamorphosis projects.
Once they see the potential for their own yards, Galli said, customers easily accept other selling points of landscape lighting, including the creation of a new living space, providing another area to relax, eat dinner, or entertain friends; an increase in property value; lower energy costs; and improved nighttime security.
Security is a concern for many; fortunately, security and landscape lighting go hand in hand. A resident feels more comfortable in a lighted area after dark; a criminal feels less comfortable.
“More often than not, warm lighting around the front and the back of the house and along walkways will discourage a burglar or other criminal from entering the perimeter,” Galli said.
However, motion-sensor flood lights, while effective for many commercial applications, produce unfriendly glare and contribute to light pollution.
“Outside of high crime areas, most burglaries are committed in the daylight, when the family is at work and at school,” Oxley said. “So, floods are overkill in many cases.”
He added that if a flood light is necessary, dimmers can be added to reduce harsh light.
In addition, dimmers, timers and remote controls can create a system with much flexibility. Galli said a client of his gets rid of troublesome in-laws by pushing a button that gradually dims lights across the garden in 10-minute increments until they are sitting in the dark and realize the party is over. Flexibility and functionality combined.
Considering yard work
When considering a landscape lighting project, contractors should ponder a number of issues. First and foremost, Galli said landscape lighting is half art and half science. The electrical work is the science; the rest of the job—deciding where to use up lights, down lights, light washes, focused beams and dimmers—is art. Contractors not comfortable with that side should call in a specialist. They should also try a few smaller jobs before tackling a project where inexperience could cause major headaches for both the client and the contractor.
Both Oxley and Galli said there are parts of the job to which the average electrical contractor might not be accustomed, e.g., climbing trees, digging trenches and working at night. There is no way to avoid any of the three. Both Outdoor Illumination and Metamorphosis have their own crews to dig and climb, but electrical contractors getting into landscape work for the first time might want to consider hiring young day laborers with strong backs and good balance to take care of the nonelectrical aspects of the job. Subcontracting is another option.
Oxley said prior to climbing the first tree or digging that first trench, he tries to manage expectations. That means getting all parties—the contractor, the owner and other decision makers in the home—involved. He said he has done installations in which the planning was handled by one partner with the full assent and blessing of the other partner.
“Everything was fine until the job was done and the person not involved in the planning comes home and says, ‘This is not what I had in mind.’ That’s a disaster.”
An unsatisfied customer, however, is not the norm.
“At the outset, almost every customer will ask me, ‘Are you sure we need that many lights?’” Galli said. “But when the job is done, they’ll often say, ‘How can I add more lights?’ Once the customer sees the improvement lighting makes in their property and quality of life, money becomes less of an object.”
Metamorphosis Landscaping returns to every installation to re-aim and re-bulb, that is, to fine-tune the original system.
“Customers love that,” Galli said. “It helps us cement good, long-term customer relations.”
HAMILTON, a former vice president of communications for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, is a freelance writer and artist living in Parkton, Md., and can be reached at email@example.com.