A different light

Find the distinctions between great lighting designs for residential or commercial properties.
Photos: FX Luminaire

With its ability to transform outdoor spaces, landscape lighting has become an essential aspect of modern architecture and design at home and in public areas. When it comes to landscape lighting, the fundamentals of design for commercial and residential projects are similar, but the nuances can be as distinct as day and night.

“I think of them as two different palettes,” says John Pletcher, principal at Natural Accents Outdoor Lighting in Kansas City, Missouri. “The design on commercial projects is to highlight the appeal of the building as opposed to the appeal of the home and its landscaping on a residential job.”

Landscape lighting can change the mood of an area drastically. Whether working with a residential or commerical space, consider what it will be used for before developing a design.

Lighting has the power to change a person’s mood and create an action if done correctly, notes Ken Simons, sales manager for FX Luminaire, San Marcos, California. For example, think of a fast-food restaurant as compared to a romantic Italian restaurant. The fast food has bright, intense lighting with a cool color temperature, while the Italian restaurant has a soft, low-intensity, warm light.

“One is for high traffic, and one is for relaxing and spending time,” says Simons. “More time is spent in the restaurant, which leads to more profitability of the high-margin items like appetizers and desserts. Not that one is right or wrong, but each has its own application.”

In many ways, commercial projects offer as many opportunities for creativity as on residential sites. Case in point, Richard Thomas, CID, CLIA, vice president, Westland Landscape Co. Inc., in Liberty, Missouri, has been installing landscape lighting on entryways to subdivisions, which he considers a mix between residential and commercial. For one client, Westland Landscape lit monument signs made of cut metal with colored lights and had a little fun during football season.

“Last year, when the Kansas City Chiefs made the playoffs, we went and programmed the lights to be red on Friday,” he says. “It was something fun to do. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, and I started getting texts on Saturday about the positive response from people in and outside the neighborhoods.”

Whether it’s for commercial or residential spaces, lighting enhances curb appeal, increases safety and improves functionality of outdoor areas. Here, we illuminate the similarities and differences to consider when installing commercial landscape lighting projects.

Competing light sources

In the commercial realm, lighting designers often face a unique challenge: competition with light pollution. Before Pletcher sold the business, he lit a church in a shopping plaza. The church was surrounded by bright street lights and illuminated signage from neighboring businesses. Knowing that no design could compete with the plaza lights, Pletcher focused the design on creating a close-up experience.

“It [the church] had beautiful architecture and a huge steeple,” he says. “It had beautiful gardens, too. We weren’t trying to advertise a business but accentuate a storied building in a plaza area.”

Starting with the few large trees at the building corners, he used downlighting, the first technique he would use on any project regardless of its location. Then, he looked for ways to downlight the building.

“There weren’t a lot of high expanses on the walls of the buildings,” he says. “So, I chose to wash the shorter walls. I decided to light the walls above the shorter walls the same way because I wanted to show the depth of the building.”

When he got into the taller areas, he chose fixtures to project the light further and surface-mounted directional lighting on the steeple. The front of the church featured marble shelving, which he put to work by mounting lights on top of as well.

“You want to bring your attention to the entries, especially in commercial projects,” he says.

Jimmy Kidd, owner of Tranquility Lighting Design in Utica, Kentucky, was also challenged with lighting a church. His design won the 2023 Best of Show Award: Commercial Lighting from the Association of Lighting Professionals for his design on The First Presbyterian Church.

Like Pletcher, Kidd is fascinated with the architectural aspects of the building, and Kidd first considers those features when designing a job. The landscape is important, but secondary, he says. A towering steeple — 70-80 feet tall in his estimation — had to be lit.

He found powerful low-voltage lights and mount them on the gutters, he says. “I had to lay on my belly on the roof to mount them. I learned a lot about linear lighting, dimming and tunable fixtures so I didn’t have to change or fumble around with lamps and could focus on being up on the steeple.”

Before he even thought about climbing up the steeple, he first looked at the existing lighting on the building and considered if and how it could be used to complement his design.

“On any project, residential or commercial, I try to incorporate the lights that are already installed on the building into the landscape lighting design,” he says. “They often have a mixture of 120-volt canned lights or floodlights and I try to match up the color temperatures and complement the existing lighting with low voltage lighting, so it all blends together well.”

Sometimes it requires modification. For example, the front porch featured countless can lights in locations that he could not use, so he made them inoperable.

Preplanning and record-keeping

Most commercial projects are typically designed from plans and bids before construction begins. That means Thomas skips property walk-throughs, demos and one-on-one meetings with the property owner that are typical with residential projects.

“On commercial projects, you might not even have the chance to meet with the project owners up front,” Thomas says. “This process is typically done through construction and landscape plans and emails. It is still important to determine the goal of the project and how the spaces will be used to provide a lighting plan that best serves all the goals.”

Meeting with the owners might be limited for commercial projects but coordinating with other contractors throughout the job is essential. Thomas’s team is currently working on a new Char Bar restaurant and beer garden. The outdoor space includes a patio, artificial turf and landscaping.

“We got the opportunity to work with the electrician to coordinate where each of our lights would be installed,” he says. “I was pushing to have all the lights match, and by working with the electrician, I was able to switch some of his lights over to low voltage because it made more sense. And in this case it was less expensive.”

Work alongside other contactors to make sure the space is correctly prepared for the lighting system installation. Photo:Westland Landscape.

Many commercial construction projects are under development for a year or more before lights go in the ground. Thomas stresses the importance of visiting the project regularly and preplanning each step.

“Everything is under concrete or artificial turf, so we’ve been installing sleeving throughout the summer even though we haven’t been doing any lighting work,” he says. “If we don’t have sleeving in place, then we’re out of luck. It’s expensive to cut concrete or hire a boring company.”

On any job, it’s also inevitable that design changes will occur. Since the lifespan of commercial projects is so long, it’s critical to take good notes and update your proposals regularly.

“If you’re not organized and you have three or four sets of plans because of changes, it becomes difficult for crews to know what is the most current and which one they should work off,” he added. “Spend extra time to do good record-keeping making sure your crews are working off the same set of plans, and that your contracts are up to date so you can bill them correctly for changes.”

Better with practice

Installing landscape lighting in the commercial or residential sector demands a nuanced understanding of the unique characteristics and challenges of each. Commercial lighting is more times than not installed with 120-volt fixtures whereas the residential side is done with a low-voltage system, explains Simons.

“The high-voltage system can be more complex and rather limiting when it comes to any down-the-road additions,” he says. “The low-voltage system is very flexible and can be added on relatively easily if the infrastructure has been properly laid out. Many low voltage systems are done in phases as the budget allows where a commercial site there is often a one-time installation.”

There are also rules and regulations to install each type of system, Simons adds. A high-voltage system must be installed by a licensed electrician, whereas in most cases the low-voltage system does not have to be, according to Simons. With a high-voltage system, the wire needs to be buried 18 inches under the ground, while the code for a low-voltage cable is 6 inches.


“As with anything, practice makes perfect. If someone is used to one style of lighting, the best way to learn the other is to learn by doing.”
– Ken Simons, FX Luminaire


“As with anything, practice makes perfect. If someone is used to one style of lighting, the best way to learn the other is to learn by doing,” says Simons. “It is amazing what can be learned by doing a lighting demonstration. What level of intensity is desired? Is there a need for a narrow beam spread? All questions need to be answered, and the best way to answer them is to turn the fixtures on in the space.”

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in Mechanicville, New York, and can be reached via email.

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