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Quality landscape lighting can add value to any home, notes landscape lighting system designer/builder Mike Gambino, but all too often clients aren’t aware of its benefits. As a result, they’re often inclined to reduce or eliminate it as a cost-cutting measure – a tendency he combats with clear communication about what good lighting adds to any setting after dark.
Quality landscape lighting can add value to any home, notes landscape lighting system designer/builder Mike Gambino, but all too often clients aren’t aware of its benefits.  As a result, they’re often inclined to reduce or eliminate it as a cost-cutting measure – a tendency he combats with clear communication about what good lighting adds to any setting after dark.
By Mike Gambino

The goal of a landscape design is to complement a beautifully appointed home with hardscape, plants and other outdoor amenities.  Once construction begins, however, reality sets in for many clients and they begin making trade-offs to trim costs and manage the project’s bottom line.

Most often, cuts like these take their toll on project elements that swing into place toward the end of a project, where the most significant costs tend to be related to larger plants and landscape lighting.  Smaller plants can be purchased and will grow over time, of course, but lighting isn’t something that will recover or that can easily be introduced later on. It’s an element that needs to be properly designed and planned from the start and installed expertly when the time comes.

Scaling back on lighting occurs because most clients don’t truly understand the value landscape lighting adds to a home with respect to security, safety and aesthetic appeal.  Nor do they have a ready sense of just how important it can be in stretching their enjoyment of their outdoor spaces once the sun goes down.

Communication with your clients, whether you’re a designer or contractor, is the key to understanding the value of a good lighting program.

ILLUMINATING VALUE

Each client has his or her own reasons for wanting an outdoor-lighting system and individual thoughts about what he or she hopes to see and/or highlight after dark.  Some might focus on showcasing the home’s architecture or garden (or both).  Others might have a garden sculpture, beautiful stonework, or a key plant that merits attention as a nighttime focal point.

Whether seen from outdoors or indoors, lighting can be used to accentuate these details and greatly expand the number of hours in a day when they can be enjoyed.  Lighting is also an asset for cooking, dining, entertaining outdoors, enhancing moods or simply drawing people into its midst with a sense of safety and security.

Much of the time, though, lighting is an afterthought for clients who are focused on enhancing their properties with trees, walls, and other landscape features.  Many are apprehensive and will declare that they don’t want lighting because it’ll make the yard look like Disneyland.  

Even those who want lighting very often lack a good understanding of what it’s all about and will need guidance when it comes to even the most basic decisions about what to get and how to achieve the effects they want.  My strategy is to deal patiently with all levels of knowledge and bring clients up to speed at a pace that makes the process clear and straightforward from their perspective.

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Lighting effects can be among the hardest of all design elements for clients to visualize, so I exercise a good bit of patience as our discussions advance and ideas come together.  The results can be spectacular, as in these cases where I forged new visual links between plants and architecture after dark by applying a variety of lighting techniques.

 

Of course, it’s difficult to determine what’s involved in a particular job until I’ve surveyed the property, spent some time with the homeowners and determined their wants, needs and desires.  In assessing a site, I focus on what should be accentuated and what should be downplayed.  I evaluate sight lines, establish focal points and size up spaces in the same way a landscape designer does in planning the hardscape or plantings.

As we move through the property, I do all I can to give clients the information they need to make appropriate choices.  I discuss the fact that, for example, working with views from interior spaces is essential in identifying where light sources will be positioned.  I also bring up key issues that prepare them for what their project will cost, pointing out the implications of the quantity of fixtures and the amount of light they yield.

I talk about using multiple fixtures with low-wattage lamps to offer optimum coverage and about the long-term value of using top quality brass and copper fixtures along with stainless steel transformers that virtually last a lifetime. It’s also important to emphasize the point that an investment in lighting will add value to their property that will benefit them if the house is sold.

MONEY WELL SPENT

Speaking for my company, I insist on designing top quality systems that will perform as promised for the long haul.  The only way I can charge for that kind of job is by preparing clients for those costs – no surprises – and by balancing the discussion with the benefits of having a system that will last a lifetime.

What a client ultimately will spend depends upon the type of lighting and how much we install.  Few will divulge (or probably even know) how much they’re willing to spend, but once we’ve reached a point where they know what they want, I price everything out and prepare a bid.

After reviewing the proposal with them, I refine the plan depending on their feedback.  Once that’s done, I can precisely determine costs and will know how many and what type of fixtures are needed, the 120-volt power requirements, transformers specifications and power-cable runs.

As a budgeting rule of thumb, most landscape lighting projects will run between 10 and 20 percent of the overall landscape budget.  But the actual cost will depend on the specifics of the project – the size of the area to be lit, the ratio of trees to shrubs, the extent and layout of hardscape, the intended use of the property and additional elements including artwork and any unique features of the site.   

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The cost of a good landscape lighting program will usually represent a substantial portion of the overall exterior-design budget.  But the value is there after dark, when I call attention to design elements that might just be part of the scenery in daylight hours and make them emerge in special ways after dark as I’ve done here.

 

If it turns out the money’s not there and lighting will be set aside, I urge my clients to have the landscape or irrigation contractor set up empty sleeves and conduits in key places to accommodate lighting in the future.

The key to all of this job planning and costing, however, has to do with the time I spend with the clients, learning what interests them.  To do so, I take them through a process of discovery, acting more or less like a psychologist.  If it’s a couple I’m working with, I always meet with both of them, getting their views and assessing where they see things the same way – and where their views diverge.

I always start my first appointment during daylight hours and sometimes stay around into the evening so I can see the property under light and dark conditions.  To me, daylight is the most important time:  It gives me a better feel for the overall property and its surroundings.

After (and in some cases during) that initial meeting, I refer them to my website or portfolio and a multitude of images showing different architectural styles and lighting schemes.  I ask them to point out things that appeal to them as well as what they don’t like.  Along the way, I often find that their dislikes tell me more than what they do like.

REFINING DETAILS

Through this entire process, I’m very much aware of the fact that most people don’t really know or can’t verbalize what they want or like, especially with something as hard to describe or quantify as lighting.  

Once the process works and we define the overall effects they want, I can finally figure out what will be needed.  For small projects, I can put a proposal together on the spot; with bigger ones, I’ll go back and forth with the homeowners a few more times to refine the design.

It’s often the case that my clients aren’t accustomed to being around good lighting and that many of them as a consequence are a bit afraid that the overall effect will be too bright.  Whenever they head in that direction, I immediately point out that we can install dimmers that will allow them to control the brightness.  

What I’ve found is that clients who start with dimmers tend to have the lights up to full levels by the time I come back to do maintenance.  Partly they’ve gotten used to the brightness, but partly it’s because plant material has grown in and the lights themselves have depreciated a bit, dimming with time and use and becoming partially obscured by lenses that haze over with age.

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Many clients express an initial concern that their yards will look like amusement parks after dark, but a lot of lighting doesn’t necessarily lead to garishness.  In these cases, for example, I’ve set up the fixtures to wash key areas in warm glows while avoiding the hazard of spotlighting specific details in ways that disrupt anyone’s comfort level.

 

In other words, they have a hard enough time visualizing things on day one, let alone anticipating how things will look months and years down the line.  The shock wears off eventually, and the entire process is aided greatly by inexpensive dimmers that ease the way.

On a typical job, I’ll work with a landscape architect or designer who brings me on board to design the lighting.  On larger projects, I’ll ask for a blueprint detailing the hardscape and plant material right down to the sizes of the trees.  With new construction, these details are crucial:  I need to know the type of plant or tree, the container or box size and whether it will be a single- or multiple-trunk tree.

I have a landscape contractor’s license and am intimately familiar with many trees and plants, a fact that gives me a distinct advantage in that I know the growth habits of the trees, their mature sizes, how they are typically maintained, their form and openness, what they’re going to look like in ten years, whether their roots will affect my lighting and various other factors picked up through education and experience.

All of this information enables me to be more effective in determining what lighting will be needed.

DOING THE WORK

Once on the job – preferably in the planning stages rather than at the tail end of things – I immediately coordinate with the general or landscape contractor to put cables in the ground.  I also work with the electrician and with the control-system installers to set up switching systems inside the house.  

Cable installation is obviously important, but to me a meeting with the electrician, the control people and the homeowners is crucial to determining power requirements and how they want the switches to work in managing various exterior zones or areas.  Once that meeting ends, the other trades know how to set things up for me so that even if I’m away for many weeks or months until it’s my turn on site, everything is laid out and ready for me to start.

A key subject behind these discussions is load requirements and the fact that, in my opinion, separate circuits must be devoted to the landscape lighting system.  Building this into the budget from the start is important for avoiding comments such as, “Had we known, we would have planned for your electrical requirements and switching systems.”  Without this forethought, the lighting installer can be plagued by limitations to a point where it compromises the ability to light exterior spaces effectively.

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Working with large, voluminous trees in the context of nearby structures is a distinct challenge in lighting design because the focus can’t be on the trees alone.  In these cases, for example, I’ve highlighted the trees’ looming presence while making certain my clients and their guests can safely navigate the areas around them.

 

A good landscape lighting contractor will know all of this going in and will make certain his or her needs are fully registered – a point to take into consideration in finding the right person for the job.  Another selection factor, naturally, involves taking a careful look at past projects.  

A third key, in my view, is finding someone for whom lighting is his or her only business, not just a sideline.  Lots of electricians and landscape contractors install lighting as part of broadly based businesses, but few call it a specialty.  I look at it this way:  If their lighting work isn’t a key source of their referral business, it’s not likely they comprehend the nuances of landscape lighting as well as a true specialist.

You also want someone who knows lighting systems and components and all about maintaining them – and for the most part you want someone who is willing to service what they install through the years.  A professional with this kind of focus and long-term commitment will know how fixtures hold up to the elements and to the abuse of gardeners, how they will need to be adjusted as plants grow and what it takes to clean them.  

It’s just like having a car that you don’t take in for regular service:  It may perform well for years, but when it needs repair, the cost will generally be higher.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

In bringing a lighting designer/installer in on a project or referring him or her to clients, I suggest the regular due diligence – a portfolio review, a list of past jobs and, most important, a visit to a job completed a number of years earlier.  Poor installations and cheap systems don’t pass the tests of time, so you will quickly be able to determine the level at which he or she operates.

 

Quality Counts

One of the hallmarks of a good lighting installation is that the fixtures are hidden and only the effect is visible. Fixtures that can be seen or, worse, shine directly into observers’ eyes not only defeat the purpose of the lighting but may actually discourage homeowners from coming out into the yard or even turning the lights on in the first place.

Seeing how a designer or installer handles these issues is critical to making the right choice in bringing a lighting expert into one of your projects.

Landscape lighting is difficult to photograph, so pictures in portfolios and websites can be deceiving. Try to have them arrange for you too see one of their projects at night. Even if you can’t gain access, a drive by the front of the property can tell you much of what you need to know.

-- M.G.

In general, I suggest avoiding a lighting person who makes his or her own fixtures.  The ones he or she makes from PVC may be inexpensive, but the long-term costs will be substantial.  And it’s unlikely they’re UL approved – the baseline for quality.

 

Talk with the lighting designer or contractor about aesthetics, too.  Walk out into the garden and ask how he or she would light specific plants and trees.  If he or she says, for example, “That’s a bold, leafy plant with a wall behind it, so I’d silhouette it by placing the light source behind it while illuminating some of the wall on the backside of the material and keeping the face in darkness,” it’s a sign you have someone who is knowledgeable.  Also discuss practicalities:  You want someone who thinks about lighting steps or pathways for safety and knows how to use lights to define key spaces while de-emphasizing secondary ones.

By contrast, inexperienced installers will have a tendency to avoid specifics and will make broad recommendations about using uplights everywhere in ways that demonstrate no control or understanding of the site’s specific features.  If he or she suggests using one light per tree, run as fast as you can in the other direction.  Most trees require multiple lights to reach their potential, and each one may require several different approaches and types of lighting.

I also suggest watching for key tools of the trade.  Real professionals have amperage, ohm- and voltmeters to help them in installing low-voltage systems in particular.  This equipment determines if the required 11 to 12 volts is reaching each lamp – critical for proper load balancing – and are required tools for anyone performing landscape-lighting work.

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When a tree is the distinct star of the show, the possibilities open up in all sorts of challenging ways.  As I’ve done here, you can highlight canopies or interesting branch structures or trunk configurations.  It’s all about adding value and extra hours to the homeowners’ experience of their outdoor environments – not something that should be dismissed as an afterthought under any circumstances.

 

Also look for those who recommend the use of 12 to 15 volt variable-tap transformers rather than standard 12-volt models for their low-voltage systems.  (Personally, I suggest using a UL 1838 listed transformer, which among other safety features limits secondary output to 15 volts.)  Generally a 12-volt transformer is only good when all lights will be placed within 20 or 30 feet of the transformer with a minimal load.

As fixtures are added, the installer needs to determine how much voltage is actually getting to the fixtures.  Using undersized cable, connecting too many fixtures per cable or putting too much distance between individual fixtures on the same cable run will result in power readings outside the desired 11-to-12-volt range.  Transformers placed long distances from fixtures can also result in undesirable results and additional installation costs.

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

When I start a project, I’m onsite at 7 am and sometimes don’t finish until it’s dark.  Each day on the job, I try to get something operational to give my clients a legitimate sense of progress.  This also gives me instant feedback on whether I’m on the right track or not and if what I’m doing will require a different approach.

 

Maintenance Issues

I firmly believe in maintaining the lighting systems I design and install.  I’m able to do so with confidence because I believe in using quality products.  

I know that environmental exposure wreaks havoc on lighting fixtures.  If I use top-quality equipment manufactured by reputable companies, a regular maintenance program puts me in a perfect position to ensure each system’s longevity.

At a minimum, I visit clients twice a year to change out lamps, and I usually offer this service free of charge for the first year.  After that, I provide service programs that include pruning away foliage that interferes with the lights.  I’ll also adjust timing controllers, clean lenses and get rid of the residues of fertilizers, rain, bird droppings, mulch and soil – any of which may affect system performance.

Keeping in regular contact with clients enables me to ensure that they are happy with their lighting systems.  It also positions me to recommend additional lighting as needed – and to collect referrals to friends and family who might benefit from my services.  

-- M.G.

Working in this focused manner and showing daily progress reduces the number of hours I spend on the job and offers clients instant value of a sort that generally inclines them to add more lighting as I go – especially when I make the simple, honest point that it’ll be more cost-effective for me to add things while I’m on the job initially rather than later.

 

But there are limits to what I let clients do and to the degree of input I’ll take when it comes to selecting the type and number of fixtures.  I give them a range of choices, but I’m always aware that what they don’t know may cost them down the line.  It’s my job to make the choices and communicate the reasons for those choices with clarity and confidence.

Occasionally at the end of a project I may have a client who is uncertain with the outcome for one reason or another. Since it is all brand new to them, it sometimes takes a bit of time for them to become accustomed to their new after-dark environment.  In these cases, I always suggest that they live with the lighting as is for a few weeks.  If they’re still unhappy, I make every attempt to satisfy them, but very rarely does it go that far.  

More often than not, in fact, once they spend time in their newly lit spaces, they find that the lighting actually works for them.  I’m not surprised when this happens – just proud of a job well done.

 

Michael  Gambino owns and operates Gambino Landscape Lighting Inc. in Simi Valley, Calif.  A graduate of Adelphi University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he has been a California-licensed landscape contractor since 1990.  In 1995, he began specializing in high-performance low-voltage landscape lighting systems that he designed and built to last by himself.  For more information, visit his web site:  www.gambinolighting.com.

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