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10 year logoBy Bruce Zaretsky

‘Those of us who are designers and builders of full-scale outdoor environments . . . face a distinct challenge: In our work for our clients, we are expected to provide the outline and details for a huge range of project elements, from watershapes and patios to plantings and walkways and more.’

That’s how Bruce Zaretsky began his On the Level column in WaterShapes’ November 2007 edition. ‘That list, at least so far as clients are concerned, also includes appropriate lighting, but that is not always something on which we focus. Indeed,’ he wrote, ‘lighting design is seen as a specialty even by those who tackle almost every other project feature – and there’s no problem with that unless it inclines you to make lighting an afterthought.’ He continued:


‘Quite often, consideration of landscape lighting happens only at the end of a project – so it’s often the first plan component that gets cut out when budget concerns arise. I would argue that both those conventions are wrong – that is, lighting should never be an afterthought and should never be one of the details deleted from the punch list.’


‘Yes, lighting can be installed at the end (and usually is, for all sorts of practical reasons), but it’s very important to have a plan of attack almost from the beginning so you can run wires below hardscape and place transformers sensibly. And yes, lighting is a specialty often best left to the experts, but it’s always been my belief that more of us should get involved.’


‘[There are] three basic solutions to the lighting challenge: First, there’s mood or effect lighting, which is meant to make various components of landscapes look good after dark – by uplighting a tree to show off the beauty of its branch structure, for example. Second, there’s lighting to indicate elevation changes – as with steps or slopes – and mark entrances to walkways or define the edges of watershapes. Third, there’s lighting for safety, as by highlighting the edges of sweeping driveways or eliminating reasons to fear dark places.’


‘In some cases, these functions overlap, as when uplighting reflected from the bottom of branches and leaves (or downlighting out of trees and other overhead structures) serves to illuminate a pathway. Indeed, in most cases lighting takes all three of these functions into account simultaneously – although it’s safe to say that most of the visual drama comes from deliberate effect lighting.’


‘As I see it, working with these functions even in basic terms is better than not providing any lighting at all.’


‘Getting to know . . . fixture types and how they’re used is a straightforward matter of working with them for a while – a learning curve I would not suggest inflicting on your clients. In many cases, your own backyard is the best experimental ground: Pick up some fixtures and be diligent in figuring out those situations in which they work best.’


‘I never rest with what I’ve seen or what I think I know. To this day – after more than 20 years of installing landscape lighting systems – I still move fixtures around in my backyard on at least a monthly basis, just to see what effects might show up.’


‘[E]very client who asks you to do a full-scale exterior design will expect lighting to be part of the package. If the budget isn’t large enough to hire a lighting-design specialist or if there’s a chance that a project will be completed without any lighting at all,’ he concluded, ‘I see it as our responsibility to do what we can to ensure nighttime enjoyment of our work.’

Bruce argued strongly five years back that lighting should be a key design/construction consideration right from the start of a project. Has this approach penetrated to your own practice? Let us know what you think by commenting below!


Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky & Associates, Inc. a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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