ALMOST EVERY PRODUCTION builder offers upgrades on the decorative lanterns that light up garages and doorways. But when it comes to low-voltage landscape lighting, buyers are often left in the dark. That's because, like a professional landscape plan, outdoor lighting has traditionally been an afterthought. And by the time buyers have wrapped up their interior choices, there's little money left to spend on pricey outdoor amenities. However, as the trend toward outdoor living has evolved, so too has al fresco lighting. Thanks to a growing spectrum of affordable, easy-to-install night lights, the consumer affinity for indoor technology is beginning to extend into the garden. As homeowners get creative, it's not just decks and driveways that are being lighted but also paths, plants, trees, and the houses themselves.
“More and more people are living outdoors, in the space we once thought was used just for parties,” says Judith Sisler Johnston of Judith Sisler Johnston Interiors in Jacksonville, Fla., who merchandises about 50 builder models a year. She points out that courtyard homes, which have become increasingly popular in recent years, are another reason for builders to include outdoor lighting in their options programs.
“A courtyard is the space that all the other rooms of the house look out onto, so it has to be the most special room of the house,” Johnston says, “and lighting plays a big part.”
PAINTERLY APPROACH There are subtleties to good lighting that go beyond lining up path lamps like soldiers. Lighting designers use it like architecture to focus the eye away from an unwanted view, wash away streetlights, or create interesting shadows. In that sense, some aspects of outdoor lighting are like the powder room in their upgrade appeal: It's a chance to impress guests with a bit of drama and whimsy. Builder Jim Ash, owner of The Pineapple Corp., says his buyers often purchase low-voltage uplights to show off a specimen Italian cypress or a 50-foot live oak tree that's been preserved on the site. His company in Jacksonville, Fla., builds about 30 semi-custom homes in the $600,000 to $1 million range each year, plus a dozen or so custom homes priced from $500,000 to $5 million.
“We pre-wire the front and rear yard and place switches inside the house, so any kind of lighting is always available,” Ash says. “The low-voltage requirement is real easy to do at the end of the job; we just make sure we have conduits through the driveway and sidewalks.” About one-third of The Pineapple Corp.'s buyers spend up to $15,000 on custom mercury vapor lighting, which the builder outsources to John Watson Landscape Illumination in Dallas. The combination of high- and low-voltage wiring creates a soft, glowing light that washes down through the trees and imitates twilight or moonlight.
New legislation is prompting manufacturers to develop fixtures that direct light downward and reduce light pollution. Chris Primous, product manager at Progress Lighting in Spartansburg, S.C., says communities in some parts of the country are requiring homes to be Dark Sky compliant, meaning that the fixtures must eliminate glare. And California's new Title 24 legislation, along with the Energy Star program, is creating a buzz about energy-efficient outdoor fixtures. Progress Lighting is making a motion-detection light that fits inside a decorative porch lantern, an energy-saving alternative to the industrial-looking lampholder devices mounted to the corner of a house.
“The fixture is installed near the front entry,” Primous says. “Since it's activated only by motion, it saves energy costs.” He adds that incandescent bulbs are being replaced by the energy-efficient and longer-lasting fluorescent luminaries, and that fluorescent technology is creating smaller ballasts that can fit into conventional fixtures.
Whatever the application, Sisler Johnston advises builders to offer outdoor lighting fixtures that complement the houses' color, scale, and styling. No black fixtures on a sandy-colored stucco house, for instance. And no Tuscany lanterns on a cottage-style home. And she's seen beautiful two-story elevations ruined by 12-inch fixtures. “Most fixtures that mount to the outside of a home come in different sizes,” she says. “Getting a professional consult from an interior designer who's looking at proportion, color, and style will add value to a home in the long run.”
POINTS OF LIGHT The Pineapple Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla., partners with a local Nite Lites franchise to offer good-better-best low-voltage outdoor lighting packages as well as customized plans for more elaborate landscape features such as pools and fire pits. The well lights, which are recessed into the ground, illuminate an area 5 feet wide and 25 feet high. They're placed 12 inches from the house's foundation and shine straight up, grazing a house's architectural details and surface textures. Micro spotlights illuminate smaller-scale features such as a Japanese maple, fountain, or statuette. And spotlights, which throw a narrow beam of light 50 feet into the air, are used to uplight or downlight tall trees.