From the April/May 2015 Issue:

Bright Ideas

    By: Mary Vinnedge |

Done right, outdoor lighting increases home and landscape attractiveness, function and security

Article Photo
enlarge | Outdoor lighting by Vernon Daniel?Landscape Illumination creates a welcoming atmosphere for this sprawling home. Courtesy of Vernon Daniel Landscape Illumination
Your home oozes curb appeal: tasteful architecture plus a pleasing mix of materials, a beckoning entryway and a killer landscape. Well-designed exterior lighting can help you appreciate your home’s great outdoors even more. “It addresses aesthetics and beauty as well as functional use, safety and security...a sensitive combination of subtlety and drama...creating a warm, inviting feel-good presence for you, your guests and the neighborhood,” says Kurt Snyder, a licensed landscape architect and vice president of Vernon Daniel Landscape Illumination in Livingston.

“It’s the icing on the cake for a house,” agrees Sylvie Mesnier, lighting designer and co-owner of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives in Dover. “Even when the weather is bad and it’s dark, your spirits are lifted when you come to your house.”

And Douglas Miller, president of Miller Landscape Services Inc. in Neshanic Station, says outdoor lighting “can bring a house alive at night.”
Below, they share their do’s and don’ts.

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enlarge | Kurt Snyder of Vernon Daniel Landscape Illumination says this Mendham pool house with a dining area posed a big challenge: Without using ground-mounted fixtures (because masonry surrounds the structure), he had to keep glare out of diners’ eyes. Shielded downlights were key to the solution. Photo by Kurt Snyder
Do start with a great design. Snyder says a successful design “will have a combination of lights and darks for contrast and depth...It should lead one through the property or gardens visually, drawing the eye to the important features while de-emphasizing the less important ones.” Using a portable lighting system, Mesnier lets homeowners test-drive the design; she can make on-site tweaks based on client preferences.

Don’t pinch pennies because you get what you pay for. If necessary, spread the cost with a phased installation. Snyder says the best fixtures are solid brass or copper, but if you’ll relocate relatively soon, cast aluminum—which will corrode eventually—will suffice. “You can go cheaper, but you’ll be replacing equipment year after year,” Miller warns. He says most failures occur at splices, so seek a waterproof connection system.

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enlarge | This Morris county gazebo shows ultrasoft lighting that is “all about mood, ambience and peace,” says Sylvie Mesnier of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of Northern NJ. Courtesy of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives
Do use LED lighting, which is pricey at first but cost-effective in the long run. Snyder recommends it as durable and extremely energy-efficient. Miller and Mesnier agree: He points out that LED bulbs last 10 to 12 years instead of six to 12 months, and she says they use up to 80 percent less electricity. Mesnier adds that LED’s harsh blues are a thing of the past, with soft warm tones now available. She explains that light colors are determined by a Kelvin rating: Early LED was 5000 (higher numbers are bluer), but technological advances have brought it into the pleasing 2700-to-3000 range.

Don’t just place floodlights at the bottoms of trees and walls, Mesnier advises. Because humans see in 3-D, the lighting should add volume—“you want to think about it like a stage set,” she says. Snyder says you’ll usually combine accenting (uplighting) and moonlighting (downlighting), plus techniques such as silhouetting, grazing and crisscross.

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enlarge | At a Livingston home, Miller Landscaping Inc. highlights the branching pattern of a tree. The path light is by Coastal Source. Solid brass fixtures stand up to the elements better than those made of cheaper materials. Photo by
Do light many features in your landscape. Miller especially likes to highlight boulders and stone walls. “Stone is so beautiful,” he says. “You want to bring that out.” In lighting trees, each one needs a specialized lighting treatment depending on its age, species and branching, he says. “You want to show its whole structure, the canopy and to cast interesting shadows.” You also can light statuary, cupolas, sheds, trellises, pool houses, waterfalls and even individual steps. Mesnier says that with brick steps, she will remove a brick and insert a same-size fixture in its place. For safety, paths should be illuminated also.

Don’t overlight, which leads to a harsh appearance that Mesnier calls “a parking-lot look.” And she says you don’t need everything illuminated to improve security: “If you have two houses side by side and one has exterior lighting [even a subtle moonlight effect] and the other doesn’t, the burglar will choose the dark house.” Miller strives for an understated effect: “Use more fixtures and lower-wattage lighting so it’s not blinding.”

Don’t expose light sources, which can create glare, Snyder says. Filters, shields and careful fixture placement can prevent this problem.

Do zone your lights on separate switches. “You don’t want the last light in a long wire run to be dimmer,” Miller says. “You want all of the lights to have the same intensity.”

Do use an automated but easy-to-override system for switching lights on and off. Today’s systems are easy to operate, Snyder says, and Miller points out they lower energy costs. Mesnier says you want to be able to keep the lights on longer for a party or turn them off early if, say, you have to wake up for a 7 a.m. flight. But then the system should reset itself for the next night without your remembering to do so. She advocates a GPS-linked system that has coordinates for your location so it “knows” times for dusk and dawn.

Don’t place lights where they shine in bedroom windows—yours or your neighbors’, Miller says.

Do hire a designer and company with long track records in exterior lighting, and check references, says Snyder, who has specialized in landscape illumination for more than 23 years. The lighting pros recommend that you consider whether the company offers warranties on fixtures as well as quick-response maintenance. The designer should listen to what you want in terms of light levels and functionality. “For example, some homeowners may like it brighter,” Mesnier says, particularly in the back yard if they host parties frequently.

Mary Vinnedge, Design NJ’s founding editor, now writes about home and garden design from Texas. Contact her via or