Effective landscape lighting can create a strong emotional reaction for homeowners. In many cases, they’re often looking for lighting to add a sense of drama to the property. One of the more practical uses of landscape lighting is to provide security both in path lighting and outdoor living spaces.
But a design focused on safety doesn’t have to skip out on aesthetics.
Start on the path
The first step in for a security lighting design for pathways is similar to many other landscape lighting situations, says Matt Carli, COLD, lead designer at Moonlighting Landscape Lighting Systems, Charleston, South Carolina. You need to think about how the client is using the space.
“Our first thought is ‘How do you get in and out? What’s your main route into the house?’” Carli says. Clients will point out the front or side door, and that’s where the design starts. “Then I think about how you get from point A to point B.”
Andrew Thomas, COLD, CLVLT, owner of Viewpoint Lighting, Sacramento, California, tries to use early conversations on path lighting to educate the customer on what he sees as the main reasons to have a light on a path. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but his design philosophy is to remove lights whenever possible. The first reason is to mark the beginning and end of the path, points A and B. Second, a light should be placed to indicate changes in direction, and finally, any changes in elevation.
“If you’ve got a smooth, clear concrete walkway that’s 4 feet wide, with no steps or movement to it, you don’t need a lot of path lights,” he says. “My aesthetic approach is to only use those path lights where you need them.”
Thinking about how the area will be used is also important for working with outdoor living spaces, says Brandon Kuehler, CLVLT, COLD, president at Light It Right, Katy, Texas. Whether it’s still in construction or finished, get an understanding from the client about what the space is used for, and what they’d like to use it for. Identify the key points and gathering areas, and determine if clients plan to sit outside more often, or if they’ll be seeing it mostly from indoors.
That first design discussion with the client is also a great time for education, says Kuehler. “What they’ll say is, ‘I want to be able to see everything.’ From where you’re coming from in a design standpoint, you’re saying, ‘It’s sometimes better if we can spread it out correctly and you’re not getting a lot of glare.’” A client looking for security lighting will often come in with multiple ideas, some that will just wash out the area. Kuehler always tells the client that their plan is doable, but his approach will be cheaper and better-looking with less glare. “I really try to educate them on that.”
The way that clients think of security lighting is to alert the homeowner or scare people off. Thomas’s approach is to guide the client toward thinking about an outdoor living space design that’s more aesthetically pleasing, and then address remaining security concerns once that’s taken care of.
“My method is usually to ask, ‘How do we make the landscape presentable and usable, and so the client is happy with it?’” Thomas says. “Once we do that, we look at if the design addresses safety and security issues. If it does that, then we stop.” Only if the design doesn’t cover those issues does he add lights to fill in the blanks.
See the effect
When lighting a sidewalk or walkway, landscape lighting professionals aren’t likely to just place lights alongside, says Carli.
“We try to avoid path lighting when we can, just because we’re trying to go for the less visible fixture, or less visible technique,” he says. “We want you to see the effect, not the fixture.”
His designs generally start by looking at the surroundings to see how he can get light to the ground without having it pool into sharp spotlights. One of the better options is to look for nearby trees.
“Usually our first method is that we want to go to a tree, anywhere from 24 to 40 feet up,” says Carli. “We try to shine a light down onto the ground plane to make that safer with a more natural look, as opposed to just having a row of path lights that lead you to the front door.”
That’s not just about aesthetics. Carli says you can get more light from a single well-placed fixture higher up than three path lights.
“If I can save the client a few dollars and add just one downlight as opposed to three path lights and make it just as bright if not brighter, that’s the route we’re going to go toward,” he says.
Using the tree’s height to your advantage can make an aesthetic difference as well, as the lower the downlight is, the more likely it will make a hotspot on the ground, Carli says. The higher you are, the better you’ll be able to spread that light around. If you’re working with a 50-foot tree, placing a light at 40 feet will create a more gentle light than one placed about 10 feet off the ground.
“At the lower height, you’ll have a really deliberate circle of light that doesn’t look natural,” he says. “It takes some perfecting of the craft and being comfortable with heights for a more successful design.”
Working with placing lights in trees means taking the proper safety precautions during installation, Carli says.
“It’s definitely much easier to put a path light in the ground than it is to put a light in a tree, so bear in mind safety protocols,” he says.
Glare and overlapping lights can be a major issue for path lighting as well, says Kuehler. Make sure to use lights that have the proper shielding or shroud to keep homeowners from having to look directly at light sources. Frosted lenses can be useful here, or honeycomb louvers.
“Use the right fixture for the right project with the accessories that will help,” Kuehler says. “Too much light is not always a good thing, especially if you’re on a reflective surface.”
Keep in mind that you’re trying to emulate ambient outdoor light, just guided along a specific route, Carli says. While it may seem like a good idea to just place lights at regular intervals, it makes a stifled design.
“We don’t want to have a runway,” Carli says. “We’re trying to mimic natural moonlight through our downlight.”
Using nearby landscaping can serve a dual purpose, he says. You can light up a pathway for safety while also making a focal point out of a key tree or shrub. It’s important to understand how a fixture throws out light, and the right spacing between them. A good rule of thumb is anywhere between 10 and 20 feet will allow a transition of light to dark to make a design that’s more subtle.
Another effective approach is to stagger light installation back and forth from the left and right sides of the path, says Kuehler.
“It really draws your eye down the path,” he says. “A path is leading to some other space.”
With a more naturally spaced design, it allows the contractor to use that light to create focal points throughout the walk, and to bring attention with specific lighting to areas that require more care such as steps or changes in elevation, he says. Even with those installations, try to use products that will provide light effectively without having a large fixture in sight.
It also creates a rhythm in the lighting that can give the path a narrative and allow it to be more than just a walkway, says Thomas. Try not to approach path lighting just as a mathematical problem but more like a design element. “If there’s nothing to see between two points, let that light draw you in to the next area.”
Whatever you do, avoid placing lights directly into grass, Carli says.
“That’s an easy way to make an enemy of a client,” he says. “They’re mowing their grass or weed-eating or their maintenance company is doing it, and they’re constantly knocking it over or breaking it.”
If you absolutely have to place a path light in the grass, use a heavier bollard light that can withstand a little more traffic, Carli says.
Beacon-style marker lights can be an option to avoid placing lights in grass, says Thomas. One of his best tricks for dealing with an area that needs a light but would require placement in sod is to develop the area into a landscaped bed.
“I’m not going to put a light in the lawn,” he says. “Let’s carve up a three-foot strip, throw in a couple rocks and a couple plants. Now we have something interesting that breaks up the line of the path. It gives us a buffer so we can put the path light there.”
Craft your style
It takes practice to develop the skills to build a signature lighting design that satisfies clients, Carli says.
Talk with other professionals who aren’t direct competition to pick up tips.
While it can be helpful to the contractor to narrow their focus down to a single manufacturer, each is going to have its own strengths and weaknesses, Kuehler says. “I use different suppliers for different jobs,” he says. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all type of thing.” If a contractor sticks with just a single set of products, that limits some of the overall design options.
“The customer is missing out, and I think there could be better products to design things the best way they can be,” he says.
An outdoor living space design should use a focal point or accent to start with and build out from there, Carli says. A signature tree or decorative landscaped area can serve as an origin to develop layers of softer light to blend it together. Seating areas are critical to note so lighting is placed to avoid glare.
“You don’t want a fixture too high overhead, otherwise you’re going to be looking into a light source,” Carli says. Look for structures that can be used to create cover for the lights or introduce a small amount of café lighting to the design. Specify fixtures that will have proper shielding to avoid a “glare bomb.”
On top of shielding, some fixtures have options like frosted lenses that can diffuse the light effectively, says Kuehler. While you’re working with the seating area, also make it a point to take into account other viewpoints. If there’s a pool or water feature, make sure glare won’t be picked up off the reflection. A fire pit or other recessed area can put guests at eye level with fixtures in other areas without the right planning.
Make sure that any lights placed in the outdoor space are installed in such a way that they can be easily serviced in the future should the need arise, says Thomas.
When developing a security lighting plan for an outdoor living space, it can be easy to overlap lights to cover every inch. That actually works against your goal, says Kuehler. A contractor can place just a handful of lights right on the house or the property to make it as bright as possible, but “you want to see people walking up, or see the dark spots in the yard. You’re better off to widen the perimeters and use lower lights and using more of them rather than a super bright light.”
Glare control in that design is also key, especially if the plan is to see more of the property, he says. Hiding the light source while keeping the light in a useful position will make a big difference for clients.
It can be easy to try to compensate for using fewer fixtures by using brighter bulbs, but that exacerbates the problem, says Thomas. It can start a cycle of continuing to push for brighter lights to pick up the dark spots in the design, when what’s really needed is more layers of lower light.
Keep in mind that security lighting doesn’t have to always be on, says Carli. It’s often better to build a design that can operate different lighting sets as the client needs them. For some situations, the client will want general aesthetic lighting for the outdoor living space. Other times, they’ll want a more comprehensive view of the area. Use a smart system or Wi-Fi controls to give the homeowner more direct control over their options.
Remember that even with security lighting as a focus, the outdoor living space is meant to be an area for relaxation, he says.
“When they’re in their outside spaces, they want that atmosphere,” Kuehler says. He suggests dimmers to help provide additional layers of control as the client needs them. “If they’re so bright that when you turn it on it just lights up everything in the backyard, it’s kind of killing that whole atmosphere and elegance that you were going for.”