Monday, 5 October 2009

Throwing Light on Garden Design

Many enthusiastic people put a lot of effort into planning their gardens, making sure that it suits their daytime needs, but often, in my experience, completely overlook extending the use of the garden into night time. Having invested money in making a garden such a splendid leisure space, why not make it usable for longer? Not only can a good lighting design offer greater flexibility in garden use during summer months, but it can also provide a magical nightscape as seen from the house or conservatory, adding drama and atmosphere to the whole scene all year round.
There are 4 main uses of outside lighting – functional lighting is used to illuminate areas such as dining and entertaining spaces on patios or terraces, or for leisure areas such as pools, hot tubs, spaces for sitting and relaxing with a book, etc; safety lighting is used to mark paths, steps, archways, walls or other obstacles, edges of pools, trip hazards and so on; security lighting would normally be used in conjunction with motion sensors to floodlight areas such as drives and sides/back of properties and outbuildings, and might also be linked in with CCTV recording, or with automatic gate or garage door systems; decorative lighting is used for creating the nightscape scenes by “painting” light onto trees, plants and hard landscape features - using light and shade, shadows, halos, silhouettes, textures, and, perhaps, colours, to transform the garden views into something which could not be achieved in daylight.
Various types of lights - more correctly called luminaires (technically lamp is the bit which gives out light, i.e. what’s loosely called a “bulb”) - can be used for these different purposes. Some are fixed onto walls or other structures, or even attached to trees; some can be set into a lawn, patio or deck; others are free-standing such as bollards alongside a drive, or as pole or spike spotlights used within planting. There are a wealth of styles for the luminaires, from traditional “coach lamp” and lantern styles through to uber-modern chic; they come in finishes of stainless, copper, brass, or colours like black and green. The lamps used can either be mains voltage or low voltage - using weather-proof transformers located near to the string of luminaires to step down the mains to a level (typically 12v or 24v) which is safe even if you accidentally chop through a cable whilst gardening. They will usually be one of 3 types depending on their purpose – most commonly tungsten-halogen (similar to those used in kitchen ceiling downlights) which offer a very wide range of light output (wattage) and beam spread, and can also be faded up & down with suitable equipment. The second type, LED lamps, are highly efficient and stay cool, so they are especially useful in situations such as deck lights or other places where accidental contact with people or animals is a possibility; they also have a very long lifetime and can give out blue, amber, red & green light as well as white light - devices are available to mix the light colours to provide an infinitely variable range of hues which can even be changed to match the mood or occasion, or can be programmed to create varying colour light shows for parties. The third main type is metal-halide lamps which give out high-powered, intense light used for the uplighting of large trees or faces of buildings.

As an aside, the cheap, solar-powered devices now widely available from garden centres, DIY stores and the like are not really viable for effective garden lighting. While the glow they emit (usually low-powered LEDs) means they themselves can be seen over a relatively short range, they do not have the power to illuminate other objects (e.g. plants, steps, etc. as described above), nor to be seen from any distance. They may just about provide “way-marking” along the sides of paths or “twinkle” lights around a small, otherwise dark, feature which is close to the viewing position. Remember too, if you use these, that they must be in a reasonably sunny area in daytime to charge them up – so no use trying to illuminate a path shaded by trees!

Unless you’re using the units to make a “design statement” (e.g. modern stainless steel on a chic terrace), the aim of a well-designed system is to see the lightscape – the results of lighting featured objects - not to see the lights themselves. Carefully considered lighting achieves this without causing “light pollution” to annoy neighbours or glare to make the scene uncomfortable.
As well as basic on/off switching, modern professional lighting systems can be designed to control all of the system, or specific parts of the system, from a portable, wireless remote control unit, with different zones allowing for multiple options of switching and dimming.
By defining which areas of the garden need lighting - deciding on the type of lighting to enhance each feature, and where lights will be placed for maximum effect - a professional lighting plan will provide a scheme to serve all needs, whether safety, security, functionality or decoration. Ideally, this will be undertaken as part of the overall garden design such that the best synergy is achieved and the practicalities of installing the lighting can be done at the same time as other disruptive hard landscaping work, saving costs against grafting on a lighting design once the “daytime” project has already been completed.
If you would like a free consultation to discuss professional outside lighting, whether as part of a new design scheme or for an existing garden, please contact me via my website.
If you fancy doing a bit of research yourself, there's an online catalogue of lighting components here, along with design advice and hints & tips.

Finally, remember that (in the UK) it is a legal requirement for outside electrical work to be carried out by a competent, “Part-P” qualified electrician. Always ask for the Part-P certificate on completion of the works – without this you may encounter difficulties if you subsequently come to sell your property.

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