Outdoor Lighting Ideas To Turn Your Yard Into A Luxury Resort
The best way to make your outdoor space elegantly enjoyable after dark.
The best way to make your outdoor space elegantly enjoyable after dark.
Last summer, those of us charmed enough to have a backyard to call our own tended our gardens and zhushed our patios with new furniture, maybe even springing for an outdoor rug. When it came to exterior lighting, however, most people aimed no higher than a swag of Edison-bulb string lights and a feebly flickering hurricane candle.
“Outdoor spaces sometimes get overlooked after the sun goes down,” said Memphis interior designer Sean Anderson, alluding to such lame attempts at illumination. This spring, however, as we prepare to host en plein air again, why not tackle outdoor lighting—especially if you’ve upgraded everything else? Beyond a wish to enjoy their private plot at night, homeowners light landscapes “so that when you’re inside the house you can see the garden and not just a black hole,” said Ive Haugeland, founding principal of Shades of Green, a landscape architecture firm in Sausalito, Calif.
The best way to banish murky shadows is to borrow the sort of layered lighting scheme found in professionally designed living rooms. In simplest terms, you want three tiers. Start with the highest level, via lofty lanterns or up-lighting that draws eyes skyward or even chandeliers (yes, weatherproof versions exist; see “Worth Wiring”). Next fill in the midrange with sconces, illuminated plants or sculptures and tabletop portable lanterns. And don’t forget low-level illumination—that is path, understep and underseat lighting.
The cumulative effect should be subtle, not stark, “that feeling of fireflies on a summer night, that sense of discovery,” as San Francisco designer Ken Fulk put it. “The default has previously been an overly lit space.”
At a residence in San Francisco, Ms. Haugeland recently hung two outdoor-rated glass chandeliers beneath a minimalist pergola. To provide eye-level glow, she uplit the knotty trunks of century-old olive trees, then set low LED lighting into step risers for safer sauntering after dark. The chandeliers are “a little over the top, so they’re very fun and playful and what you don’t expect to see outside,” said Ms. Haugeland.
Solar-powered outdoor fixtures are still too dim to rely on, said the landscape architects we polled. A reasonably sized fixture can’t house enough photovoltaic cells to produce anything but a sickly glow. Meanwhile, the latest low-voltage LEDs not only last a long time, they can be easily and cheaply wired. “[In the] 1980s and into the ’90s, landscape lighting was run using high-voltage electricity,” said Washington, D.C., landscape architect Joseph Richardson, who recently uplit the river birch trees surrounding his own Arlington, Va., home. “It meant fixtures were very large and very bulky, and the cost was extreme. You had to run buried conduit plastic pipes through the yard, and if someone were to hit that with a shovel they could be electrocuted.”
Today’s LED fixtures suck as little as 3 watts as opposed to the 35 watts that incandescents fed on, Mr. Richardson said. That means “you can use low-voltage wiring—a small wire that lays on top of soil under mulch,” said Megumi Aihara, founding partner and principal of San Francisco’s Spiegel Aihara Workshop. “You can install [that] after a garden is built, and it would not hurt you if you touched those wires.” (Note: The designers we interviewed recommended hiring a professional electrician or landscape firm to at least install your main transformer, which converts your home’s 120-volt juice to 12-volt power.)
To light her North Carolina yard (pictured on D1) designer Gray Walker turned to low-voltage specialists Outdoor Lighting Perspectives (OLP) of Charlotte. A brick walkway behind her house leads to a small eight-sided gazebo. “You’ve got your path lights to illuminate the ground and then I like to lift the eye up,” said Ms. Walker. Uplit oak trees and Japanese magnolias create a “wonderland” of branches. The path passes a trio of gurgling columnar fountains that are highlighted to provide midlevel illumination, while other lights shine on shrubs, casting shadows on the brick exterior of her Georgian-style home. “This adds a bit of texture and dimension to the wall,” said Mari Zaragoza, production coordinator at OLP. “It was important to not keep everything in the same level, to create as much depth and texture as possible.”
Ms. Walker’s gazebo quietly commands attention at night. Two upturned accent lights shine thin lines of light through its slatted roof for a “glowing effect,” said Ms. Zaragoza. “We really thought this created a natural focal point without it being too overdone.”
Low-voltage lighting helped Ms. Aihara execute a multilevel scheme in a Los Angeles yard (pictured, above). Perforated metal tubes diffuse light throughout the canopy of deciduous trees, and cast modest pools on the deck and the greenery that surrounds it. Another one of Ms. Aihara’s tricks: Dek Dots from Dekor lighting. “They’re small, half-inch LED dots,” she said. “During the day, they disappear, and at night they twinkle on the ground.”
Don’t wish to deal with running any kind of electrical wiring? You can easily find options that plug into an outdoor socket but are far more aesthetically ambitious than string lights. Examples include articulating floor lamps and hanging lamps like Lightology’s Garota Plug-In Pendant (see “No-Pro Lamps”).
Even better: lights that you can cart around as freely as a flashlight. “We’re noticing an increased interest in rechargeable, free-standing lights that run on LED bulbs and batteries,” said Greenwich, Conn., landscape architect Janice Parker. Check out the cartoonish mushroom lamps from Hay at the MoMA Design Store as well as braided-rope lanterns by Talenti. Both double as tabletop and path lighting. Ms. Parker hangs portable LED lanterns from tree branches or decorative hangers. “You can easily move them around as needed, and guests can use them if they want to go for a stroll.”
Other landscape architects are eschewing visible fixtures altogether, hiding strips of LEDs under stair treads, for example. In the courtyard of a Berkeley, Calif., home, design firm Delaney + Chin tucked wet-location LED tape under a white stone bench as well as in the ground to shine a wash of light along the bottom of a corten steel wall. The goal, as Ms. Parker put it, is to achieve lighting “that you do not perceive as coming from fixtures but naturally from the moon.” Roderick Wyllie of Surfacedesign, a landscape architecture firm in San Francisco, recommends placing fixtures at least a foot away from the plant or architectural element they’re meant to highlight to avoid harsh, unflattering “hot spots.”
Such toned-down design lets us see and appreciate the nighttime sky, notes Mr. Wyllie. Many municipalities are embracing dark-skies policies intended to curb light pollution and lessen the impact on birds, the bugs they eat and other fauna, said Matthew Bromley, a landscape designer in Bedford, N.Y. “We can be impactful without being garish or feeling like we’re in Las Vegas.”
You may not need as many path lights as you think, for example. Mr. Richardson said one of the habitual mistakes homeowners make when they tackle lighting themselves is spacing path lights too closely. “It almost gives you a runway effect,” he said, adding that you can ensure navigability without committing overkill. “I try not to space [them] any closer than maybe 12 feet apart.”
Another interior technology that has moved outdoors: dimming. “There are times when you may want outdoor lights brighter or dimmer for whatever reason,” said Mr. Fulk. Perhaps you wish to bring the lights up slowly as the sun retires. He reports a growing demand for this flexibility. Similarly, multiple designers said their clients love that many LEDs can be tweaked—even transformed into a rainbow of hues—from their smartphones using programs from Lutron Homeworks and Savant.
As with LEDs inside your home, colour temperature, or Kelvin ratings, matter. A bulb on the high end of the Kelvin range, near 6500, will emit a cooler, bluer light. Lower kelvins translate to warmer, softer whites. For outdoor use, Dan Spiegel, who’s also a founding partner and principal at Spiegel Aihara Workshop, advises selecting lightbulbs with lower colour temperatures, around 2700 Kelvins.
Whether you hire professionals or do it yourself, Mr. Richardson recommends starting slowly. You can add extra light sources later. “Once you take the fixture out of the packaging and stick it in the ground it gets harder to return.” For her part, every time Ms. Walker pulls into her driveway at night, she appreciates the effort she’s put into her lighting, she said, from the gazebo to the glow-guided path. “It just makes me feel like I live in a little jewel box.”
Six rechargeable or plug-in lights you can layer into a three-tiered scheme yourself
From left: Hay PC Portable Lamp, approx. $122, store.moma.org; Talenti Tribal Lamp, approx. $1544, Cantoni, 972-934-9191
From left: Inda Copenhagen Table Lamp, approx. $1100, Burke Decor 888-338-8111; Pedrali Giravolta Floor Lamp, approx. $510, shopdecor.com
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 23, 2021.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
There’s nothing more appealing than being able to cool off in your own pool on a hot summer’s day. For many Australians, the idea of a backyard pool is enticing but with so many styles to choose from, the decision is not always straightforward. Considering your budget, the needs of your household, along with the size of your outdoor space is key to achieving the best outcome for delicious days poolside. We take a deep dive into the best in pools to get you into the swim.
Nothing beats this classic pool design. With the ability to cross styles of architecture from Hamptons to mid century modern and minimalist design, the rectangular pool is a ‘one size fits all’ style that adapts to most needs, from swimming laps to splashing about with the kids. Go as big as you can manage on acreage or shoehorn it onto a suburban block for a clean, classic look that’s hard to top.
A popular choice where there are views of the water or bushland to enjoy, an infinity pool gives the illusion of having no edge. Also known as rimless, overflow or zero edge pools, the water flows over the edge of the pool into a catchment basin that sits below the waterline, out of sight. A great choice for elevated positions where the pool can create a visual bridge between the house and the view, an infinity pool is particularly expensive to install and run thanks to the continuous need to pump water from the catch basin.
Designed to mimic the natural environment, lagoon or freeform pools have fallen out of favour since their heyday in the 1980s. Despite the name, they are often available in standard sizes in fibreglass or concrete and are characterised by their curved, asymmetrical shapes. Slides and waterfalls are popular accessories to this style of pool while landscaping is typically tropical, in keeping with the oasis-like environment.
While the name might suggest that this style of pool is aimed at hard core swimmers, lap pools are a great choice where the obvious location for the pool is long and narrow. If doing laps or water therapy is the main purpose for installing the pool, consider installing swim jets which create non-stop resistance to swim against. A lap pool should be at least eight to 10 metres long to be useful.
Nothing beats being able to cool off in your own backyard over summer and what plunge pools lack in space, they can make up for in amenity. While swimming is probably out of the question, plunge pools are generally easier and cheaper to maintain than their larger counterparts, making them an attractive option for heating and cooling. They also have the obvious advantage of being able to fit into most backyards.
Another great option where space is an issue, spa pools, also known as spools, offer the best of both worlds, with a spa area integrated into all or part of the pool. Known in some places as a cocktail pool, they can be a great solution for those who like to entertain or simply passively enjoy the water. Costs are generally a little less than a conventional pool and more than a dedicated spa.
For those who love the integrated look, perimeter overflow pools are a stylish choice. Designed in line with the edge of the deck, the water gives the impression of overflowing at all edges for a sleek, minimalist look. Water is captured and recycled in channels around the perimeter. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, this style of pool can be pricey to install and run. For level sites though, it’s the ultimate in swimming luxury.
While conventional pools are kept clean through the use of chemicals such as chlorine, natural pools rely on moving water (via a pump) and biological filters such as plants to maintain good water quality. It’s a style gaining ground in Australia, where water quality is naturally quite high, making the move to natural pools easier, and more homeowners become interested in chemical-free options.
The great advantage of this style of pool is that excavation is often minimal, which means less disruption – and less cost. Strictly speaking, there’s any number of materials available for construction, including fibreglass and concrete, but the above ground pool is probably most often associated with the old-school modular pool with liner from the likes of Clark Rubber.
If you’re looking to add a little drama to your home, a glass walled pool could fit the bill. Essentially an underwater ‘window’ in recent years, architects have specified glass walled pools to be viewed from inside the house, with the benefit of drawing natural light through the water into internal spaces. An engineer will specify the exact thickness required to take the weight of the water but expect it to be at least 12mm thick.
The type of pool you choose will depend on your budget and the size and style of your yard. Fibreglass pools come in a range of shapes and sizes and are faster and easier to install than concrete, mainly because they are made on the factory floor and delivered to site. Concrete pools take longer to build but they are customisable and can be finished in high end materials. Often, the decision can get down to how long you intend to stay in your property in terms of how much you want to invest.
If you’re talking about construction, excavation is often the big cost that takes owners by surprise. Make sure you understand excavation and tipping costs before signing a contract. Filtration, decking, tiling, fencing and landscaping can all add significant cost to the construction and installation of a pool. In terms of running costs, solar energy can be a good way to offset expenses.
Again, this will depend on the size of your outdoor space, your lifestyle and the people who will use your pool. A family of four will have different needs to a couple who prefer to enjoy a dip at the end of a hot day. Choose a size that allows everyone to move around freely while keeping in mind that the larger the pool, the greater the time and money required to maintain it. Pool sizes in Australia have shrunk in recent years but popular sizes for family pools range from 7m by 3m up to 9m by 4m. Speak to your pool builder about the best – and safest – depth for your needs.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’