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Techniques for Landscape Lighting

Phillip Meeks | Landscape Lighting


When properly done, it?s the most profitable and least competitive of all the professions I know of,? says Nightscaping President Bill Locklin. What he?s referring to is landscape lighting, and while those most profitable and least competitive aspects can be alluring, it?s the when it?s done properly that separates the amateurs from the, well, enlightened.

For professional landscape contractors seeking to expand their offerings, aesthetic and functional landscape lighting is a good opportunity. For some contractors, the gift to visualize a good lighting layout comes naturally. This isn?t to say, though, that talent can?t be acquired. Common sense plays into the equation just as much as an artistic bent. One only needs to compare and contrast a few bad examples with good ones to develop a greater understanding of what quality lighting is all about.

Bad examples
As with anything else, there?s the wrong way to do it. President Andy Sykes of Garrett Churchill in Abington, Pennsylvania, notes three common mistakes he sees in the lighting work of non-professionals:

  1. ? a front walk runway with path lights on both sides, every three to four feet;
  2. ? hot spots in which fixtures are too close or are improperly aimed;
  3. ? too many or too few fixtures, making it difficult to adequately light any element and thereby making elements seem one-dimensional.

?In the green industry,? Sykes says, ?we all have the tendency to say, ?yes, we can do that? if a client asks us to do another aspect of a project. The truth is that unless you have read a few books and/or attended training seminars on landscape lighting, you will never really understand the best way to reach the desired results.?

Drew Heinold, co-owner of Atlantic Landscape Company in Wilmington, Delaware, has also seen some poorly executed lighting schemes. ?We see too much emphasis on lighting individual objects and features, and less emphasis on creating a look that stands out without making objects stand out. Too often, we see less-than-interesting features get too much attention from lighting, and an impressive home or stately tree gets left in the shadows. Too much directionally-aimed lighting furthers this problem.?

A landscape designer with DeSantis Landscapes in Salem, Oregon, Dan Fahndrich sees a failing in that many companies don?t take a good look at their lighting system when it matters most: ?Too often, the lighting is installed by the crew during the day, and no one made a nighttime visit with the client to adjust the lights properly, and to simply enjoy the effects with the client. No matter how good you are, there should always be a nighttime visit to make sure you have achieved what you set out to do!?

So, there are those companies out there who are doing a great deal of landscape lighting and doing it poorly. On a more encouraging note, Locklin believes that, even with mistakes still being made, the industry is becoming more adept at lighting, for the most part. ?I think that [contractors] are getting to know what plant materials, right off the bat, can be successfully illuminated, and they?re learning ? as far as techniques are concerned ? more and more about how to produce a permanent installation rather than a temporary cord set.?

Quality, more or less
Before one can identify techniques necessary for installing quality lighting, one must first determine what constitutes ?quality? in this discipline. In Heinold?s eyes, ?Quality starts with a broad outlook and focus on the overall lighting ?portrait.? It continues with the use of quality fixtures and transformers and a thorough installation.?

Sykes believes in quality, and in ?educating customers as to what is truly available and, in some instances, showing that to them in the form of a demo.? Furthermore, he sees quality as ?installing fixtures that will last, and assuring voltage at the fixture that will provide optimum lamp life.?

Knowing what your clients want is a very basic part of the larger picture, but it?s a part that gets overlooked. ?When you want to sell a lighting job, or when you want to really impress someone,? says Todd Hostetler, senior account representative with Cascade Lighting, ?I think the most important thing is not so much the perspective of what everyone else is going to see, but the perspective of what the client sees from inside the home.? Remember that your clients will be seeing your work from their bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms or dining rooms, and that?s quite a different point of view than a person cruising by the home at 35 miles per hour.

Generally, the ?less is more? approach holds true in landscape lighting, but Locklin jokes that too many contractors tend to notice the two Ferraris parked in the garage, and then base their estimate on that. Instead, he encourages professionals to explore the simple question, ?Why light??

?Is it for entertainment? Security? To show-off? Whatever it is,? he says. ?Then, pick out an area that your client is particularly fond of, and use four, five or six fixtures to really do that right. So, you and the client are now on the same wavelength. If he says ?I like it? or ?I don?t like it,? you know what to do. At least that?s my style. That?s what I teach.?

It?s useless to use 50 fixtures when 15 will do, and in fact, such overkill can have a notably negative impact on your business and the profession as a whole.

Within the same philosophy, it?s true that many clients will want to minimize the impact of fixtures as much as possible, and one option is to use fixtures that are already camouflaged. Greg Elliott, vice president of sales and marketing for the Ontario-based StoneAge Lighting, explains how the company hollows out actual granite, marble and limestone rocks to make light fixtures and speakers that blend in well with the landscape. ?During the day,? he says, ?the fixtures themselves just turn back into rocks, and you can?t see them anymore. A nationwide tendency is to build with the natural landscape.?

Techniques for quality lighting

Once the contractor has a firm grasp of what the client is expecting, it?s then imperative to study the landscape?s features and choose those products that bring the client?s ideals to reality. It?s all about seeing the big picture.

Says Fahndrich, ?We look very closely at the safety issues, existing or planned landscape features, architectural features on the property, and the ambience we are hoping to create. Once we have worked through these issues with the client, we focus on the proper fixtures and products that will give us the best flexibility, lowest maintenance and deliver the results we are looking for.?

Choosing the lighting technique that best serves that purpose can be tricky, but there are rules of thumb that can be invoked to make the contractor?s life easier. According to Hostetler, grazing is most effective when one of the goals is to highlight the texture of a brick or stone home. Backlighting is good when the combination is tall shrubbery with a light-colored house. Downlighting, or moonlighting, is the technique that Hostetler ranks as the most common and most effective in many situations. ?If you have a tree in a backyard or beds that run along the driveway or some interesting beds in the back of your home,? he says, ?then rather than putting 10 or 11 path lights up along there, they?ll use three or four directionals that are up in a tree 20 or 30 feet, and they downlight with those. That allows you to put a 20-foot circle of light out there to bring out a lot of the color without having the sticks everywhere.?

A landscape contractor may also use an effect called crosslighting, where an object is illuminated from more than one angle. ?You not only illuminate the front side on both aspects, but you may get some nice shadowcasting behind that,? explains Tony Cunado, quality control manager for Vista Landscape Lighting. ?Shadowcasting is another relatively popular lighting technique where you may have a fixture in front of a short bush that will cast a nice, big shadow on a wall behind it. Give it some drama and give it some depth. Another effect on that same theme would be silhouette lighting, where you would have a fixture behind the structure, the fixture pointing at the viewer, so you have the outer reaches of it well lit, but the fixture itself may not shine all the way through.?

Regardless of the specific technique, planning ahead is always a wise practice, since plants have been known to grow. Says Sykes, ?We always design a system to carry the wattage we anticipate for the future. If you are lighting a newly-installed landscape, you?ll need to look at the plants and determine how much they will grow and what you will need to light them in the future. If you don?t want to install the fixture now, at least run the wire for it while you have everything opened up.?

Once everything is installed, don?t neglect those minute adjustments, positioning the fixtures until perfection is achieved. Says Heinold, ?Small adjustments can make a big difference in what the client sees.?
Young companies shouldn?t be intimidated by landscape lighting. Despite the fact that lighting takes a good eye on the part of the contractor, Cunado feels it?s a skill that can be learned and refined over time. ?My recommendation is to try to acquire a couple of broad-reaching fixtures, a couple of fixtures that will hold an MR-type lamp, which is a projector bulb.

Utilizing fixtures like that with a good capacity can ? by holding them, strapping them to trees, putting them in the ground ? basically simulate a bunch of looks on a small scale.?

Each job will hold its own unique set of challenges, but this technique will enable the contractor to lay a good foundation for his or her lighting skill.

Lighting imperfections may be more subtle to clients than in other landscape components. When something isn?t quite right, they may not realize that the fault lies with a minutely misadjusted fixture or a shrub that has outgrown the original lighting scheme. You?ll be responsible for viewing the scene through the client?s eyes, and then helping him or her see the details through yours. That?s what any artist must do.
?Lighting is a very beautiful addition to just about any landscape, just about any budget,? says Cunado. ?My comment to any new contractors who might be interested is don?t be afraid of it.?

September 2002

 
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