The Landscaper's Guide to Landscape Lighting Design - Part 1

July 30, 2016

The Landscaper's Guide to Landscape Lighting Design - Part 1

Part 1: Objectivity and Planning Your Design


Lighting plays a very large part in a landscape design. Great lighting design will emphasize a great garden, or improve an otherwise dull one. On the other hand, weak lighting design can make a very expensive and well-made garden to be a dull one.

With that in mind, landscape lighting has become a big industry and has undergone major developments in technologies, techniques, and creative designs.

The first part of these series of articles will discuss the objective, types of fixtures, and the design planning process.

First, let's learn about the objective of landscape lighting design.

Objective of Design

Landscape lighting design should always refer to these four objectives:

1. Safety

    The landscape will deal with water and metal-based tool for gardening purpose, and electrification will be a major risk. Low voltage lighting is often a solution, also eliminating unseen obstacles often found in medium and high voltage lightings, allowing safe navigation throughout the premises.

      2. Security

        Landscape lighting provides illumination as security from theft and trespassing, which is always a priority concern for homeowners. Lighting design should avoid glare and blind-spot regions by strategically distributing the lights.

        3. Harmony

        The goal of a proper lighting system is to drive emotional response to the property. Some areas should be illuminated for a soft mood, while others for more dynamic response. The harmony achieved by these accents are what defines a good landscape lighting system.

        4. Functionality

        Typically a residential landscape should be divided into public space (front yard), and private space (backyard). Lighting choices and techniques used should aim for a proper functionality of each area.

        Achieving these objectives are mainly done by three steps: selection of lighting fixtures/types, techniques, and design.

        First, we will learn about various types of fixtures typically used in landscape lighting

        Fixtures for Landscape Lighting

        These are several types of fixtures commonly used in landscape lighting:

         1. Directional Lights

        As the name suggest, the fixtures are typically mounted on the ground and is directed to a certain area, also often called bullet lights. Can be further divided into several subtypes such as:

        •  Directional Area/Path Light
          A hybrid between directional and path (more on that below) light, so is usually mounted on a pole similar to path lighting but used directional mounting on its end.
          • Directional Spot/Wash Light

            Using spot/wash bulbs on a directional fixture to achieve directed "wash" (where wide area of a surface is illuminated) or "spot" (only pinpoint, very precise area are illuminated)

            2. Path Lights

            Utilized to illuminate pathways, hence the name. Mounted on a pole with a canopy on its top end. The canopy can be shaped, and named as "China", "mushroom", "New Orleans", and many others, so if you heard the term "small mushroom" or "large mushroom," the lighting belongs to this type.

            3. Wash Lights

            Usually mounted on the walls, but can also be mounted on the ground with a directional light-type fixture. Utilized to "wash" the wall, illuminating a fairly wide surface area.

            4. Well Lights

            Planted in the ground and directed upwards, shaped like a well when viewed from above. Typically used to illuminate ceiling, or the top of a plant.

            Techniques for Landscape Lighting

            Some of the notable techniques usually utilized in landscape lighting design are:

            1. Mirror Lighting

            Fixtures used: directional lights, well lights

            Use this technique when a still water surface like a pool is available in the landscape. Typically done by illuminating a wall nearby the water, reflecting the light and creating an interesting mirror effect.

            2. Grazing

            Fixtures used: Directional lights, well lights

            This technique emphasized a unique wall texture or unique tree trunks by directing the light to "graze" the object, creating broken, irregular shadows.

            The fixture is placed roughly 1 foot away from the designated wall or tree. Tilt the light away so that the top end is completely illuminated, but the bottom end becomes a blind spot.

            3. Silhouetting

            Fixture used: directional lights, well lights

            Lighting a wall behind a plant or other object so that the wall acts as a backdrop, creating a silhouette of the designated object.

            4. Wall Washing

            Fixtures used: Wall wash light, directional lights, well lights

            Providing an even, broad illumination on a wall surface. Sometimes the technique is utilized to illuminate the whole surface of a house. The easiest means to achieve this effect is to use a designated wall wash light, but can also be achieved by directional or well lights

            5. Backlighting

            Fixtures used: directional lights, well lights

            This technique is used to "wrap" the edges of an object. Typically achieved by using two lights behind an object by a roughly 120-degree angle. Usually used on uniquely shaped trees.

            6. Shadowing

            Fixtures used: directional lights, well lights

            In opposite of backlighting, this technique illuminates a plant or an object in front of a wall to create a shadow on the wall itself. Used to accentuates an otherwise plain wall pattern.

            Keep in mind that landscape lighting techniques ar not only what listed here. More basic, common techniques like path lighting, step lighting, and wall lighting should be self-explanatory.

            On the other hand, newer, more creative techniques are being developed every day, and are only limited by your imagination.

            Designing Your Landscape Lighting

            Now we come to the fun part, designing your landscape lighting.

            The design process is always about creativity. But the thing is, human minds tend to be confused by their own ideas.

            Thus, we break down the design process into smaller steps to help manage your creativity:

            1. Setting Objective

            The first and foremost thing to do is set the design objective, and should be based on the four objectives we discussed before. If you are working with a client, you might need to discuss further on what they have in mind.

            After you got a clear objective, you need to translate it into a set budget. Put it all in a clear writing, you'll never know when a note will help you along your journey.

            2. Walkthrough of the Property

            View every angle and pay attention to every detail.

            How's the overall composition of the area? Is there any distinctive, unique or beautiful object or area that you can use as a focal point? Is there any repeating pattern you can emphasize, or accentuate?

            It's time to start painting the scenes and searching for ideas, have fun.

            3. Marking the Spots

            After you got the idea for fixture placements, mark the planned places. You can use colored flags, papers, or anything you preferred. Use different colors for different fixture types and write down the beam spread type and wattage on each flag.

            4. Sketching

            Either a rough sketch or a professional one with software, it will be very important to provide you with a visual cue. Label each important area, make notes for every fixture placement.

            If you can get ahold of the area blueprint, it will greatly help you in determining the exact distance for each wire. Make notes for power supply locations.

            If a blueprint is not available, you have to make a measurement yourself.

            5. Planning Your System Requirement

            Now it's time to calculate the detail for wire sizes, required transformers, the number of fixtures and lightings, and any other materials you may need.

            Make a worksheet and write down each wire run, where is the location of the wire run? What fixture type are you going to use, how many, and how many wattages?

            With those data, you can then determine the next step.

            6. Wire Sizing

            You will need direct burial wire to connect transformers with lighting splices.

            There are typically two sizes or direct burial wire you can use, #10/2, or #12/2 (American Gauge).

            How to determine which one to use? You can read all the theories and formulas here.

            But to make it simpler, here are a simple set of rules:

            • If the wire run consists of more than 100 watts of load, you'll definitely need to use the #10/2
            • If the wire run is less than 100 watt in load, use #12/2 if it's less than 100 feet long, otherwise, also use #10/2

            Other wire sizes such as #8/2 can be used, but it is extremely expensive, and it's better to use two #10/2s in place.

            7. Transformer Sizing

            Choosing the right transformer type can be a confusing task. For a more technical approach, you can use HyperPhysics' calculator (a very complete one indeed) to calculate with precision.

            For more practical approach, we will use a two-step process:

              • Calculate the total sum of the wattage of all lamps.
              • Your total sum should be no more than 75% of the transformer's capacity. Meaning if your total sum is 225, you should use the 300W capacity transformer.

              To Be Continued

              The design process is all about managing your creativity, helping the smooth execution process later on. By following these simple plans and steps, you should be able to start designing your landscape lighting in no time.

              In the next part, we will discuss the technicals involved in the installation and execution processes. So, stay tuned!

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