Thinking Outside the House

Like its counterpart inside the house, the role of exterior residential lighting is growing and becoming more sophisticated. Many people are no longer content with the traditional lamp post or utilitarian wall-mounted fixture by the front door. They are seeking new lamp technologies, more fixture styles and a greater ability to ward off intruders. Plus, they want their lighting to be planned and installed using professional lighting techniques. Although it may sound like they’re asking for a lot, what they’re really asking you to do is to bring an indoor mindset to an outdoor environment.

“People are trying to make the exterior of their homes an extension of the interior,” said Patricia Rizzo, M.S., adjunct associate professor and residential program manager of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center, Troy, N.Y. “We’re seeing a tendency toward more interior-style fixtures designed to withstand the outdoor elements.”

As several homeowner demographics continue to invest in comfort and convenience, lighting is leading the way for traditional indoor living areas, such as kitchens and family rooms to extend beyond their drywalled spaces to patios, porches and yards. At the same time, lighting technologies and techniques are rapidly expanding aesthetic applications with the added bonus of saving energy.

What’s the purpose?

Not all outdoor lighting is created equal, say experts, and many times it misses the mark because too few fixtures are tasked with too much work. Outdoor lighting for single-family or multifamily dwellings generally serves one or a combination of three main purposes:

  • Aesthetic: illuminates the architecture of the house and landscape

  • Security: illuminates the grounds near the house or driveway entryways

  • Utility: illuminates the porch and driveway to help people navigate safely to and from the house

According to Eric Moser, OSRAM Sylvania Commercial Lighting engineer, people interested in lighting their properties typically have tried to use one or two bright fixtures to achieve all three categories. For instance, in the past, the installation of a floodlight over the garage was intended to cover security and utility. However, the light levels for those two categories do not necessarily need to be bright to be effective.

“Floodlights are good for safety, but they don’t always highlight the house and the architecture. Some of today’s trends are not only using more light sources, but splitting out those three main categories and using different light sources to achieve the various lighting objectives,” Moser said.

LEDs highlight facades

Lighting designers and homeowners are driving a hot market for exterior facade lighting from wall-mounted fixtures flanking the front door and concealed ceiling fixtures in entry overhangs to illuminated columns, water features, sculptures, walkways, driveways, trees, landscaping walls and planting beds.

One of the fastest-growing and innovative technologies making its way from commercial applications to the residential market for facade lighting is light emitting diodes (LEDs). LEDs are increasingly sought for architectural applications due to their design opportunities for increased control and dimmability as well as color changing and control properties. LEDs figure prominently into the Residences at Riverbend, a 37-story high-rise residential tower, which houses condominiums and townhomes in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

Completed in 2005, the external appearance of the building was a key design element since the structure is a prominent feature of the city’s skyline. Architects designed the building with an elegant concave facade that mimics the meandering course of the Chicago River.

“We needed a lighting solution that would not only enhance the unique design of this building, but one that would also meet our practical needs,” said Norman Radow, president of The Radco Cos., the building’s developer. “LEDs are both energy efficient and have extremely long life, which helps us keep our utilities and maintenance costs low.”

Mitchell Kohn Lighting Design used 16-foot lengths of io Lighting’s mini compact linear blue LED luminaire to illuminate the exterior of the high-rise. Each of the building’s floors is flanked by a 2-inch-by-16-foot ledge, on which Kohn installed the fixture, which is only ¾-inch by ¾-inch in cross section.

“The reason the Riverbend project worked so well is the beam angle on the fixture is just 10 degrees and creates a blade of light that grazes up the wall,” Moser said.

From an energy standpoint, the fixtures draw 3 watts per foot. Moser’s energy calculations show the entire installation will consume approximately $500 annually.

In fact, Moser believes a small twist on the application would be a boon to the single-family residential market. Typically, Moser pointed out, homeowners uplight the front facades of their homes, however, mounting the small fixtures inconspicuously under a home’s gutters could produce a lasting effect.

“I think these lights would work well in a residential setting where you could graze the whole facade of a home and highlight the texture of stonework, columns or trees. LEDs have excellent cutoff, so you wouldn’t have a lot of stray light in your yard or glare in a neighbor’s yard, and due to their long life, owners would only have to change them as frequently as their siding,” Moser said.

Controlling security

Consumers have become increasingly aware of their surroundings and safety/security conveniences before entering their homes. One of the more significant trends Lutron Electronics has helped develop involves remote control of exterior pathway lighting from the car, driveway or sidewalk to the home’s entryways.

AuroRa, a preprogrammed, wireless, radio frequency lighting control system, is designed to provide operation of entryway lighting from a car, patio or bedside. The AuroRa package was enhanced this year with a new security package that provides visual alerts to neighbors and rescue vehicles during in-home emergencies. In the event of an alarm, all indoor lights controlled by the AuroRa lighting control system will automatically turn on to full bright, while all of the entry lights controlled by the system will flash.

In addition to system controls, many individual dimmers are available for exterior control, depending on the application. A home-owner may want the exterior lights to come on at sunset and turn off at dawn or other fixed times, or he or she may want dimming to 50 percent at midnight and a motion sensor to trip a pathway of light.

“Take time to fully understand a homeowner’s intent. Also, take note of the types of landscape lighting, especially when they’re low-voltage because magnetic low-voltage and electronic low-voltage have different load types and require a different type of dimmer,” said Tom Murphy, Lutron product manager.

A changing landscape

Rizzo and other lighting experts say several factors are affecting product development for residential exterior lighting, including energy conservation, sustainability, light pollution sensitivity, safety, lifestyles and aging adults with changing visual needs.

According to Denise Fong, IALD, principal for Seattle-based Candela, the industry is accommodating consumer concerns. “In some parts of the country, energy savings and preserving the night sky are very important issues. To address this, many manufacturers are labeling their products as ‘dark-sky friendly,’ which means all of the light is directed below 90 degrees at the ground plane, and/or ‘Energy Star,’ meaning a fluorescent source or a source more energy efficient than incandescent,” Fong said.

Any type of outdoor lighting will create a measure of spill light, but using the right fixtures can play a proactive role in reducing spill light, preserving dark-sky traditions. Lighting fixtures equipped with exposed lenses or diffusers generate some degree of light pollution. To limit light pollution emitted directly from the fixture, the light must be directed downward through optical designs that employ shields and visors.

Clearly, manufacturers are looking outside the home for new developments, and luckily, it’s also an area of revenue growth for the electrical contractor.   EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached at




About the Author

Debbie McClung

Freelance Writer

Debbie McClung, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa.

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