Home Design

There’s more to landscape lighting than fashion runway path lights along the front walk, or blinding security spotlights trained on the garage doors. Outdoor lighting professionals know just how to paint key exterior features with light and make them memorable.

“Outdoor lighting is done wrong so many times, it’s just kind of an abused art,” says John Pletcher, owner of Natural Accents (naturalaccentsllc.com), a lighting-design and installation company in Liberty, Mo.

“No lighting at all is better than bad lighting,” he says. “But a landscape that is properly lit invites you in and becomes a work of art.”

Of course, outdoor lighting can make a home and yard safer, but well-designed path lights can do more than simply show visitors the way to the front door. They make the approach more intriguing by setting up plays of light and shadows. The fixtures are often hidden, so you find yourself enjoying the surroundings, not counting the lights along a path.

“Homeowners often think the purpose of garden lights is to improve the public face of the house, but they should do more than that,” Pletcher says. “Well-designed lighting should connect the home and the garden from inside, too, by bringing out views from the windows. Well-designed and installed landscape lighting lets you enjoy the fullness of the seasons long into the night.”

Good night lighting is three-dimensional, according to Pletcher. It gives a garden depth and drama. He calls bright lights “glare bombs” that spoil the landscape instead of enhance it.

“You don’t need a lot of light,” he says. “You can keep very low light levels and it can still be gorgeous.”

Pletcher recommends working with a professional who can suggest what to light, how to light and what kind of fixtures are most appropriate.

A big project might cost thousands of dollars, but many homeowners choose to work in phases. Instead of taking on a big project all at once, consider working with a designer on small areas, concentrating on the views from a kitchen or bedroom window, and expanding the scope of the job over several years.

An important part of a well-designed lighting system is a good control system with an anatomical timer. This takes the guesswork out of when the lights should come on. A professionally-installed control system can sense when sunset begins each day of the year and turns the lights on at the perfect time for that season. In the winter, the lights come on early, and in the summer they come on late, when dusk naturally occurs.

“The nice thing about the system, too, is they know when sunrise is,” Pletcher says. “So you can time them to come back on at 5 a.m. and program them to turn off at sunrise, also based upon the time of year. That’s the beauty of a control system with an anatomical timer.”

When it comes to home lighting systems, the do-it-yourself approach is not recommended, Pletcher says.

“I often remind people they can also cut their own hair, but it’s an awful lot better when you go to someone who knows what they are doing. The same is true with your outdoor lighting.”

He adds that lighting is art.

“For example, to light a tree, you don’t use one fixture,” Pletcher says. “One fixture tends to make an object look flat. We see in 3D so we need to light in 3D to show how the element really appears. There is a very big difference between flat lighting and three-dimensional lighting,”

When getting started, its best to take a wide view of the entire property, and then select several elements out of the scene and work to pull it all together using layers of light, Pletcher advises. Dramatic effects can be achieved by layering varying light levels in which the stronger elements will be the brightest lit in the scene, and lower light levels are in areas between the elements.

Every good lighting design has foreground, mid-ground and background lighting. That’s how to create a scene that’s comfortable and inviting to look at.

photos: Oddstick Studio, George Gruel