Illuminating the Outdoors
In the past, illuminated pathways winding through lush gardens bordered by manicured lawns were the stuff of Hollywood movie sets and estates of the well-born. For average Americans, landscaping meant a few flower beds and a couple of strategically placed torches to take the darkness out of the occasional Saturday evening cook-out.
But no more. An increasing number of homeowners have discovered that home improvement does not stop at the doorstep, and landscaping means more than pruning the rosebushes and replanting the annuals.
“I would say a high percentage of our clientele are homeowners looking to do projects to improve their properties,” says Sid Lisanby, landscape designer for Hillenmeyer Landscape Services, a Lexington-based firm that designs and installs landscape projects for residential and commercial clients throughout southeastern Kentucky. “Increasingly, people are looking at adding lighting for beauty and security.”
According to a 2002 survey conducted by the polling firm of Harris Interactive for the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), more than 24.7 million U.S. households spent $28.9 billion on professional landscape, lawn care, and tree services in 2002. The average homeowner invested $1,170 on landscaping, the study said, with homeowners in the South accounting for 30 percent of the total nationwide expenditures, followed by those in the West accounting for 25 percent, and those in the Midwest and East accounting for 23 percent and 21 percent respectively. Those figures, according to the survey, reflect a $3 billion increase in spending over the previous year.
So why have homeowners begun to pay so much attention to what lies beyond their homes’ thresholds? Because outdoor living spaces are in—and curb appeal counts.
“People are much more sophisticated and educated about landscaping and about adding value to their homes,” says landscape architect Pat Dwyer, president of Dwyer DesignScapes, a Louisville-based firm that serves clients in central Kentucky. “People have traveled more and are used to visiting places where they enjoyed outdoor amenities. And since the stock market has performed badly, people are putting money into their homes to create ‘outdoor rooms’ that offer living space and increase the value of their properties.”
Increasingly, those outdoor living spaces include patios, decks, water features, pools, fireplaces, gazebos, and hot tubs, Dwyer says, designed to allow people to not only spend more personal time outdoors, but to entertain there as well. To do that, outdoor lighting is key.
“Most people do much of their entertaining at night,” Dwyer says. “Even in the summer time, they need lighted areas to do that.”
Low-voltage: easy & affordable
According to Jack Miller, general manager of landscape lighting for the Cleveland, Ohio-based Kichler Lighting Inc., the trends contributing to the landscape lighting boom have coincided with the development of new technologies that make outdoor lighting both affordable and easy to install. Chief among those, he says, is the development of low-voltage lighting systems.
“Low-voltage lighting has changed the industry as a whole,” Miller says. “With 120-volt household current, you have to dig a trench—in some parts of the country as far as 24 inches—to install the lighting system.”
Low-voltage outdoor lighting systems use transformers to convert 120-volt household current into 12-volt current, low enough to keep pets, kids, and other people from experiencing electric shock even if a short develops in the system. The National Electric Code specifies that low-voltage wiring be buried in a trench as shallow as 6 inches deep.
The low-voltage option allows manufacturers, says Lew Waltz, vice president sales and marketing for HADCO Lighting Inc., Littleton, Pennsylvania, to develop practical fixtures that are trendy enough to catch the eye of landscape architects and simple enough for a do-it-yourselfer to install.
“Basically, there are two types of lights landscapers and do-it-yourselfers use in their plans,” says Waltz. “The first kind are what we call bullet lights because they look like bullet heads. They’re made with a number of finishes and designed to be small and unobtrusive as possible.”
According to Waltz, these small, made-to-be-unseen fixtures are intended to bathe specific landscape elements—such as unique trees, plant groupings, gazebos, statuary, or other garden decorations in attention-catching light emanating from a “hidden” source. By contrast, he says, pathway lighting fixtures are made to be admired.
“These are the fixtures that become design elements,” says Waltz. “They’re available in a number of finishes such as antique copper, brass, and stainless steel.”
Just what style of fixture winds up among the plant life and garden ornaments depends, says Jack Miller, on the overall landscape plan and the taste of the property owner. And since consumer tastes keep changing, lighting manufacturers accommodate by adding new fixture designs to their catalogs.
“We add between 25 and 30 new items to our catalog every January, including new fixture designs,” says Miller. “The landscape lighting business is almost a fashion business.”
Beauty & security
But as they lend character to a landscape plan, outdoor lighting systems offer yet another practical benefit as well. Landscape lighting systems—from bullet and pathway lights to decorative post lamps—enhance security around both commercial and residential properties, designers and manufacturers say.
“People are adding lighting for both beauty and security,” says Eric Borden, director of Ambiance Lighting Systems, a brand of Sea Gull Lighting, a Riverside, N.J.-based manufacturer of decorative and functional lighting for residential, commercial, and architectural applications. “A well-lit home is going to deter someone from sneaking around, while giving you better visibility when you’re coming and going at night.”
Just how much homeowners spend on outdoor lighting is contingent on the scope of the overall landscape plan, according to landscape architects and lighting manufacturers, and whether that plan is executed by a do-it-yourselfer or by a professional landscape contractor.
Cost is also figured, they say, based upon the home’s overall value. Designers and manufacturers agree that homeowners generally spend between 10 and 15 percent of their home’s value on landscaping. Lighting represents about 10 percent of that cost.
“The average homeowner is going to spend between $2,000 and $5,000 on lighting and installation for a backyard system,” says Sid Lisanby of Hillenmeyer Landscape Services, Lexington.
However, according to Lew Waltz, that expenditure is most likely to take place over a period of years, as property owners add new plants and design elements to their properties and upgrade lighting systems.
“Landscaping is one of those things that is ongoing over the time people are staying in their homes, which is currently averaging about seven years,” Waltz says. “People often start with inexpensive lighting kits because when they begin that’s all they can afford. But over a year’s time, those fixtures get damaged—either chewed up by the snow blower or the lawn mower or damaged by the weather—and people find they can replace the entire system for the cost of replacing one fixture. So they replace the whole system.
“Well, they do this a couple of times and then they say to themselves, ‘There’s got to be something else out there that will hold up better.’ That’s when they invest in a higher quality system,” says Waltz.
According to Jack Miller, a low-end system that often comes from home centers, where kits containing four lights and fixtures, wiring, and transformer, can be had for an average of $200. Meanwhile, professional-grade lighting systems, which homeowners can install on their own if they desire, are pricier, but built to last.
“It depends upon who is doing the installation,” Miller says, “but a professional system with four lights, heavier-gauge wire, and a bigger transformer will cost about $700, including installation. The difference is quality, as the more expensive system is made to last a long time.”
New LED technology
While landscape lighting manufacturers are looking toward creating new fixture designs to satisfy their clients’ appetites for the aesthetic, they are also looking ahead to new technologies to illuminate them. On the horizon, manufacturers say, are systems that use light-emitting diode (LED) technology to create brighter light, more efficiently, over a lifetime of 100,000 hours of use. Though the technology is already in use to illuminate radio dials, digital clocks, and motor vehicle lights, its use in landscape lighting is not yet practical, manufacturers say. (See LED story in this month's The Future of Electricity column.)
“LED lighting lasts years and is very efficient,” says Jack Miller, “but the LED crystals don’t emit a lot of light. Also, while the red, green, and blue LED lights are inexpensive, the white ones—the ones you want to use for landscape lighting—are still very expensive. So, even though this is the technology everybody is excited about right now, it will take a while before we see it in widespread use.”
Whatever new technology brings to consumers’ landscape lighting options, manufacturers and designers say client demand for new products isn’t likely to slow down. That’s partly because landscaping is the single most obvious thing homeowners can do to make the most of the outdoors and bring beauty to the curb as well.
“There are all kinds of improvements you can make to your house and no one is going to see them except for your family and friends,” says Miller. “Beautiful landscaping can be appreciated by anybody just driving by.”
EXPERT ADVICE FOR LANDSCAPE LIGHTING
Whether your plans are drawn by a professional landscape architect or spring from your own mind, the experts say there is much to consider in plotting and installing a quality landscape lighting design. Here’s what they recommend—especially for do-it-yourselfers—before beginning that outdoor lighting project.
Do your homework
Lighting manufacturers and landscape architects say nothing is more critical for do-it-yourselfers than doing some homework before committing to plants, product, or structure.
“The first thing I tell people is to do some research,” says Lee Carbone, owner of CopperMoon, an Atlanta-based maker of copper landscape lighting fixtures. “There are books out there and all kinds of resources. And even though lighting is something people have to play around with before they settle on a final plan, they should understand what kind of atmosphere they want to create.”
Less is more
Cultivating that atmosphere means taking into account the space available for the landscape project and choosing plants and decorative elements judiciously, says landscape architect Pat Dwyer of Dwyer DesignScapes. Statuary, birdbaths, ponds, unique plants, even decks, patios, and pathways are all candidates for enhancement via outdoor lighting systems. But, he warns, it’s important to choose fixtures that are compatible with the overall architectural look of your home.
“People sometimes have a tendency to overdo lighting,” Dwyer says, “especially when it comes to pathway lighting. Everybody’s seen driveways that look like runways for small airplanes. A good rule of thumb is less is more.”
Sharry Waldeck, manager of Frank Otte Landscape and Design Group in Louisville, also cautions do-it-yourselfers to choose lighting fixtures carefully. What is trendy today may fade from favor when fashions change, and more than a few of those cute little turtle light fixtures may be too many.
“People tend to overdo with fixtures,” Waldeck says. “One or two really unusual fixtures may be enough. A classic design usually works better.”
Location, location, location
Landscape lighting is accent lighting, designers say, so lights should be positioned to call attention to a few outstanding design elements and should be used to illuminate outdoor living spaces such as decks and patios. At the same time, Eric Borden, director of Ambiance Lighting Systems, a brand of New Jersey-based Sea Gull Lighting Inc., recommends planning those elements for locations close to the electrical source for ease of installation.
“Keep the power supply as close to the house as possible,” Borden says, “so you have access to electrical outlets. Also, lighting near the house also serves as security lighting. Aside from that, the best thing you can do is invest in a good, quality lighting system that will stand up to the weather.”
Even the highest quality systems require minor but regular maintenance, Borden says. Homeowners need to replace bulbs when necessary and clean lenses to ensure the highest performance. In addition, says Lew Waltz of HADCO Lighting Inc., low-voltage lighting needs looking after to ensure it lives up to its reputation for safety.
“When people say low-voltage wiring is ‘safe,’ they still have to remember that light is a byproduct of heat,” Waltz explains. “To prevent a fire hazard, low-voltage fixtures must be kept clean—free of leaves and other materials that may ignite even with low amounts of heat.”
Landscaping is, according to both designers and lighting manufacturers, one of those projects homeowners should undertake in stages. New decoration elements, new plants, even major additions such as ponds and waterfalls that may not have been part of the initial plan may all become part of the outdoor design over time. “Landscaping is one of those projects that are never really finished,” says Waltz. So the experts warn to build flexibility into the plan.
LANDSCAPE LIGHTING RESOURCES
For a guide to manufacturers of landscape lighting in this feature—many with design tips and dealer location—and how to locate professional landscape contractors in your area, click here: Landscape Lighting Resources