Hi, Eric here with Thirty by Forty Design Workshop, today we’re going to be talking about outdoor lighting strategies for architects and homeowners. There are two fundamental points to understand about outdoor lighting. The first is that we actually require much less light in outdoor living situations than indoors, which means the overall lighting can generally be more theatrical and less focused on tasks. The second is that in lower ambient light situations, we actually prefer lower color temperature light that is warmer. It’s actually visually more comfortable. Whether it’s our primal draw to the flickering flame of fire or the fact that warm light renders the skin so naturally, our outdoor design objective is to aim for low, warmly toned lighting levels. Now, let’s get into the general concepts pros think about when considering how to light exterior spaces. The Lantern Effect. We’ll begin with the most basic means of lighting your outdoor areas: relying on nearby structures to act as an ambient light source. I call this the lantern approach and depending on the amount of glazing on your home it’s perhaps the easiest to employ. It also produces potentially the least amount of ambient light for outdoor entertaining and promotes the form and shape of the architecture above all else.
The lantern effect can be quite powerful when it leverages a distinct interior material palette. In this project the warm wood of the Douglas Fir enhances the glow, naturally drawing one in, while casting pools of light onto the adjacent outdoor living areas. It also reinforces the rough, bark-like exterior and warm heartwood interior and highlights the timber frame structural system. Be cognizant of the fact that a bright building next to a dark landscape is a high contrast situation. To minimize this effect, consider supplementing with smaller light fixtures at the far edge of gathering spaces away from the home.
Low lighting levels are most effective. This can also work in reverse when a landscape object, such as this pool, becomes the lantern. Here it’s treated as one large luminous plane. Pools bear special consideration, especially when adjacent to down lighting, which becomes a reflected up-light and can cause glare problems at night. The screened outbuilding in the background and the minimal up-lighting on the fence are equally effective at balancing the pool of light. This brings us to the concept of layering. This space is an excellent example of a well-rounded lighting strategy.
It makes great use of all three: main components of any lighting design: ambient, task and accent lights. For ambient light, the main living space is well lit and provides the general outdoor areas with ample light for gathering. The circulation path to the right uses recessed cans in the ceiling to light the functional pathway. The portable lamps on the side tables offer great task lighting and can help users navigate back and forth. The wall sconce and vegetation lights position to add depth and sparkle to the overall scene and are set at opposite sides of the pool to balance their effect.
Layering light concepts tend to feel the most natural because it’s the way we’re used to perceiving the world around us, which is a mix of dark and light. The ambient interior light of the structure here can be seen illuminating part of the exterior landscape and the pathway following the glazed exterior wall. The architect also has placed step lights to illuminate the outdoor circulation zone. This has the added effect of connecting interior and exterior spaces and reduces the black hole effect we often see with exterior walls of glass. A landscape without any light will make windows appear from the interior as black planes. Lighting the landscape, even very minimally, allows the eye to move and see the illuminated objects outside and not a dark plane of glass. This is an example of how layering outdoor lighting can actually enlarge the perception of your interior space. Path Lighting. Lighting pathways enhance safety and add another dimension to the architecture at night. Night can transform circulation routes into wonderful experiences of syncopated light. The step lights are shown here efficiently light the critical riser areas of these stairs.
Step lights are an essential tool in your outdoor lighting palette because they can be tucked out of the way, recessed in walls or in risers. They can even be completely concealed and used to achieve the hovering effect seen here. Lighting is most effective when it’s used intentionally to enhance design elements. Here we see different sources of path lighting used to suggest movement and highlight the architecture. I particularly appreciate designs such as this that consider the transition between day and night and how that affects our perception. These lights aren’t merely functional; they actually reinforce the project’s geometries and complexities. They complement the dynamic quality of the architecture at night but with a completely different execution. These micro ground recessed lights by BK-Lighting are extremely subtle but they effectively connect outdoor destinations.
Color Temperature. When designers reference color temperature in lighting they’re describing the character of the li
get emanating from a lamp or light source. Temperature is expressed in degrees Kelvin and what’s important to remember is that the lower the number, the warmer your perception of it will be. Open flame is quite warm: around seventeen-hundred Kelvin. Warm incandescent light ranges between twenty-five hundred and three thousand Kelvin while an overcast sky is sixty-five hundred to ten thousand five hundred Kelvin on up to fifteen thousand Kelvin for a clear blue sky. The higher the number the cooler the feel, generally anything above three thousand five hundred Kelvin is considered cool.
Note the warm interior incandescent lighting and how it contrasts the much higher color temperature outdoor light in the atrium space. The lighting design plays up this contrast between warm and cool on the interior and exterior with a blue-hued underwater lighting scheme. This pool, lit from within, is the focal point in this exterior landscape. Using color at night can render striking effects, especially when it’s a cool tone such as this blue. Because our eyes actually use the roads (which we have far more of in our eye) to sense blue light and not the cones, we actually require a far lower amount of blue light to perceive it. This is especially true at night, which means very little is needed in an outdoor situation. Here the pool has a very strong visual weight even though it’s not overly bright. Using this type of colored lighting alone wouldn’t be very effective because it doesn’t render depth very well. In order to perceive depth, we use shadow. To solve this here they’ve introduced accent lighting to establish shadowed zones and enhance depth perception.
The vegetation in this landscape is lit to lend depth to the composition and a sense that the pool is part of a larger order and not the bounding edge. When we light the perimeter of the landscape in an outdoor setting it actually helps to enhance the sense of privacy by giving us greater visual control of our surroundings. Object or Sentinel Lighting. By highlighting specific elements in a broader landscape we’re able to draw connections and by extension understand the scale of a space. The steel wall seen here is washed with up-lighting to mark an edge of the outdoor space and create a contrast of light and shadow.
It essentially acts as a sculptural, large outdoor luminaire. In general, whenever we can create shadows in a landscape we enhance our perception of depth and the understanding of three-dimensional space. Note that space between isn’t lit at all, it relies on the reflected light from the wall. Establishing territories in the landscape, whether they be architectural or simply small splashes of light, can be the only order one needs. By extending the reach of our architecture into the landscape we visually claim that space and make our interior spaces a part of a larger outdoor order.
This is a good example of how a simple object placed in the landscape can define a destination or remote territory with very little effort. The small moon globes are minimal but effective. Fire. This is a wonderfully organic light source that can provide some or all of the lighting in an outdoor area if it’s centrally located. Consider a gas or bio-ethanol fireplace for convenience, lower emissions, and no smoke. They make for comfortable gathering spaces. And the color temperature of firelight is even warmer than incandescent. It helps to have a screen element nearby to keep wind interference to a minimum. The screen is another opportunity to layer light and render color too. Even a simple fire pit as a gathering point can extend the utility of an outdoor space. This one acts as both gathering space and a sentinel in the landscape. Wall Washing.
This project employs recessed alcoves as a lighting element in the landscape. Hiding the light source and using reflectors to bounce or wash a particular wall surface creates subtle effects, appearing almost as a waterfall of light here. Used as part of a layered lighting scheme it highlights form, material, and movement. Using dimmers in an exterior lighting concept can adjust for changing weather, season and use. This also helps to conserve energy when very little light is required and can be dialed up or down to improve safety for guests of all ages. Up-lighting. This grouping of trees is a wonderfully subtle gesture in the landscape pinpointed by small up-lights.
Lighting their canopies provides an exterior layer as viewed from the interior space. For deciduous trees the effect of up-lights changes throughout the season adding another layer of interest and connecting interior to exterior. Up-lighting is dramatic and should be used sparingly. Lights pointed upward into the primary line of sight can be uncomfortable so take care to use lower wattage lamps, use shields and position them out of nearby seated sight lines if possible. Be sure to use a dimmer to mitigate the effects of glare and to control intensity. Up-lighting isn’t allowed in many parts of the U.S. anymore because it’s a primary source of light pollution. Be sure to check with your local regulations. In closing, it’s important to discuss light pollution. Dark skies are becoming ever more difficult to find in the world. Whatever lighting strategy you select for lighting your home and the surrounding landscape it should always be respectful of the environment and your neighbors.
Light pollution is caused when photons of light strike particles in the air. This creates a glowing fog around our metropolitan and, increasingly, our suburban areas. Many cities and towns have begun introducing dark sky ordinances as a way to control the unwanted consequences of light spillage. These ordinances require light shields, no up-lighting, and a specific lighting plan to be submitted for approval prior to permitting. I urge you to try and incorporate outdoor lighting in your home because it can enhance the architecture and your enjoyment of the outdoors. But consider a plan with a small footprint. Use only the light you need, which is not only more comfortable for you and your guests but it’s a better use of electricity. And it will preserve the view to the night sky for future generations.