Lighting the way

Landscape lighting has evolved technically and artistically, and contractors are embracing the options they can sell to clients.

All photos courtesy of Neave Group

A post-installation lighting ceremony is tradition for Michael Mahanna, owner of Evergreen Landscape & Lighting Design in Clinton, N.Y. He brings along a bottle of wine and some glasses, gathers with the client and they enjoy some small talk just before dusk. Then, as the sun is nearing a point where it will dip into the horizon, a timer activates the landscape lighting and the property comes to life.

This isn’t a Clark Griswold moment. It’s a different kind of wow, with subtle lights illuminating plants’ structure, texture and color. The landscape takes on a new dimension when lighting is properly placed and expertly installed.

Sure, clients have seen a demo when Mahanna sets up a display kit to show the value of lighting. But it’s nothing like the real deal.

“What I’ve found with my clients is, lighting is contagious,” he says. “Once we light up the front of the house, they want to light up the back or the sides, or the entryway. And, with LED lights, they’re not going to have to change a bulb for 30,000 hours, and they’re happy about that.”

Landscape lighting technology has evolved significantly in the last five to seven years. More recently the availability of cost-effective LED lighting makes operating landscape lights efficient and easy on the wallet. This is why Mahanna is gradually changing out fixtures he installed a decade ago to LED lights.

“We can do a foundation installation in the front of a home for 22 watts of energy,” Mahanna says. Compare that to a typical halogen that runs about 20 watts per fixture, and up to 35 watts for some spotlights. “Before, clients weren’t sure if they wanted lighting on from dusk until dawn. They’d say, ‘What about the energy bill?’ But now, the energy costs are cut drastically, so that’s not an issue.”

Kris Schmitt, designer at Neave Group in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., says the overall cost of landscape lighting has probably dropped about 15 to 20 percent – but it’s not the pricing that’s a real change. “With LED’s lower wattage, it’s easier to run fixtures, and instead of running a line with eight lights we can run up to 20 without worrying about voltage drop,” he says.

So, clients can go all out with lighting – and that’s exactly what he’s noticing in terms of trends. “One of the newer things clients are asking for is to do the entire property,” Schmitt says. “Before, they’d ask to light pathways or some plants, but now lighting is becoming more of a full-scale outdoor project.”

Landscape lighting technology continues to evolve, particularly with cost-effective LED lights, which last longer and are more efficient.

Lighting trends.

Features in resorts and restaurants that earn oohs-and-ahs from guests eventually trickle down to the residential sector in some form. And, innovations we find in the home gradually move to the outdoors. This is the case with landscape lighting trends as well.

For example, the Edison-style bistro lights that cafes and restaurants string along their patio spaces to create ambiance are now readily available for homeowners to have in their own back yards, and Schmitt is fielding plenty of requests for this type of fixture. “Those lights are taking off, and we’re putting them in pergola structures and in canopies,” he says.

And, as clients with luxury pools opt for sophisticated lighting systems that include color-changing fixtures, they’re considering similar technology for landscape lights. Schmitt sees color-changing landscape lights as an up-and-coming trend. “They’re fun to play with, and people are getting into color with light bulbs inside, so taking that outdoors is a next step,” he says.

As for color, Mahanna isn’t getting too many requests, but he does manipulate white lights to accent plant colors, such as shining white lights on a blue spruce to accent its natural hue.

Tying into the whole-property lighting trend, with “contagious” lighting and clients asking for more of it, Schmitt says, “A big push is lighting the second story of buildings.”

“For two-story homes, we used to just light the foundation with ground-mounted fixtures, but now we are designing the lighting so the whole house glows,” he says.

Rather than a typical foundation lighting package, clients are interested in illuminating features throughout the property. “Lighting trees on the edges of a property line creates more depth,” Schmitt says.

Mahanna is installing more moonlighting by mounting fixtures in trees and casting light on to driveways or landscape features. “In the Northeast, path lights can get in the way during snow removal,” he says. “So, casting the light down from trees is a big bonus.” He describes a lodge property in the Adirondacks with a long driveway. “We put all of the lights up in trees so we can make it easier for grounds maintenance,” he says.

Mahanna likes to give people a trial of what their yards might look like with lighting features, then he’ll take the lights away to show them the difference.

Add-On Advantages.

For clients considering landscape lighting, Mahanna likes to set up a display kit with several fixtures and he’ll leave it on the property for a few days and nights. Then, he takes the display away. “They don’t have it for a week and are like, ‘Wow – that was really nice, let’s do it,’” he says.

Beyond beauty, safety is a significant benefit of landscape lighting with added security and nighttime visibility. It’s a peace-of-mind package.

“In our area, we are lucky to have summer for four months, and most homes go zombie in the winter,” Mahanna says. “So, I sell landscape lighting as a 12-month feature.”

Though, the wow factor piece is often what sells the service. And, efficient LEDs with lower cost of operation are making it easier for clients to justify more extensive lighting projects. For larger lighting projects, Schmitt and his team use a rendering program to illustrate how lights will be placed. “We can do nighttime shots and videos so clients can see what the lighting will look like,” he says.

Mahanna encourages clients to think beyond the initial lighting project a client might be considering – because putting infrastructure in place for additional lighting makes future projects easier. For example, mounting a transformer in a home’s basement for a front-yard lighting project allows a contractor to tap into it later on for a backyard display. “The initial cost is already spent on the transformer, so then all you have to do is run the wiring and plug in the lights,” he says.

“When landscape lighting is done right, it can be a tremendous asset to a property.” Kris Schmitt, designer, Neave Group

During a landscape installation projects – such as putting in a patio or other hard surfaces – Mahanna advises clients to run conduits. “Then, it’s easy access to run wiring underneath,” he says, adding, “A little foresight is a bonus.”

Meanwhile, for exterior transformers, Mahanna works with a supplier that powder-coats the finish to match the exterior of buildings so the equipment will blend. “That is a great selling feature for clients,” he says.

With advanced controls and automation that is simple to use, landscape lighting can easily be controlled via an app on a smart phone or tablet. With proper zoning of lighting, clients can decide how much of their landscape lighting to illuminate. “It gives people the control to turn off their path lights and leave on accent lights,” Schmitt says.

More clients are recognizing the value of landscape lighting and making the investment. “When landscape lighting is done right,” Schmitt says, “it can be a tremendous asset to a property and add another facet to the landscape.”

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