Let There Be Light The Functional Beauty of Outdoor Lighting

As recently as the 1930’s, only 68 percent of American homes had electricity. By the middle of the last century however, most Americans enjoyed well-lit homes, and the light had started to spread outdoors as well. Initially, yards and gardens were lit purely for visibility and safety, but once decorative lighting became a reality, there was no turning back. Today exterior lighting provides an exciting way to protect, beautify, and showcase properties, both brand-new and historic.

Simply updating exterior lighting can enhance safety and provide renewed curb appeal for most properties. Technology advancements in low voltage, high-efficiency light-emitting diodes (LEDs) make it possible to actually increase lighting while creating dramatic nightscapes that are both functional and more cost effective. Ultra-efficient LEDs are eco-friendly, using only a fraction of the energy required by the mercury vapor lights used for decades. LEDs can save up to 75 percent in operating costs over other light sources, plus additional savings in maintenance costs thanks to their superior longevity.

Throwing Light on History

Lighting can easily set the mood for social and recreational events while extending the hours residents can safely enjoy outdoor areas. This concept was accidentally discovered in 1700 by King Louis XIV in Paris, The City of Light. The Sun King originally set out to beautify the parks, boulevards, and landscaping in and around Paris—but his urban renewal projects became a target for vandals. In response, Louis XIV implemented an elaborate security system that included 7,000 street lights.

The first reported widespread use of outdoor lights was to prevent property damage, and it worked extraordinarily well—with an interesting twist. King Louis’ innovation created an attractive environment for the city’s inhabitants. Instead of going home or to bed when the sun went down, the residents of Paris took to the streets and developed a nighttime social culture that included new industries and businesses. The classic Parisian street scene of bustling cafes, lively taverns, and chic night-spots would never have been possible had Louis not lit up the evening to protect his projects.

From Lamplight to Lightscaping

Lighting made the difference then and now. It is easy to imagine most condominium residents will be encouraged to enjoy their common areas—indeed, the entire property—more in the evenings when paths, decks, and recreation areas are attractively and safely lighted. Unique architecture, fountains, arbors, trellises and water features are particularly beautiful when enhanced with lightscaping.

That being said, good outdoor lighting involves more than just a couple of amber-colored spotlights pointed at a tree or hedgerow. Expert advice can help a board decide on the types and applications of outdoor lightning. Over the last couple of decades, a whole new vocabulary has evolved to describe lighting designs and techniques. Uplighting, downlighting, path lighting, specialty lighting, underwater lighting and backlighting are just a few of the terms and choices available in the world of outdoor lighting. Fixtures are available in a vast variety of sizes, colors, materials and styles.

Shedding Light on Options

Presently, many condo and co-op buildings are still in the dark in regards to energy-saving exterior lighting. Whether there is an existing system in place, if it was hard-wired at construction or added at a later date are consideration that must be acknowledged. Some systems may allow integration into a newer expanded lighting system, and some may not. Once a board decision is made to investigate lighting options, it is time to consult with a few reputable companies.

“Typically, multifamily buildings use incandescent PAR lamps, halogens, or high pressure sodium flood lights to light their buildings,” says Marilyn Sloane, LC, principal of Energy Efficient Lighting Design in Manhattan. “There's no reason to use incandescents, since they are energy guzzlers and require frequent maintenance. High pressure sodium, think of street lights, although energy efficient, cast an orangish glow and do not render colors well.”

On the savings side of the ledger, low voltage and light-emitting diodes (LED) lights can save up to 80 percent in energy costs, and those margins are only improving with technology.

“A lot of the manufacturers I work with have made leaps and bounds in LEDs, I would have to say that is the biggest advancement I have seen,” says Alex Demidovich, technical project manager of Enterprise Lighting Sales in Manhattan. “LEDs are a fraction of the wattage of traditional bulbs and put out the same amount of light. Those are great energy savers for people—they reduce the maintenance time because they are lasting five times longer.”

While the initial costs of installing LEDs may be higher than other lighting options, the energy savings will be evident in the drastically lower utility bills, says Demidovich. He also mentions that many companies are offering rebates to customers who are installing energy-efficient lighting, providing another reason to make the switch.

With cost comes another consideration. Demidovich says that because LEDs emit more light, you can cover more area with fewer fixtures, further reducing cost. He says that this aspect is a selling point for boards which have smaller budgets but would still like to make some efficient and attractive changes to their lightscape.

And while early-generation LEDs gave off an unflattering, glare-producing blue light, recent improvements have made them much warmer and more aesthetically pleasing. “If you go to a retail store and buy a cheaper fixture, it will most likely be the ugly blue color,” says Joel Ergas, a principal at Forbes-Ergas Design Associates in Manhattan, “but improvements have been made to the intensity and the color, so the argument about ugly LEDs is getting outdated. You may have to spend a little more to get the good color LEDs, but they are available.”

When the reduced cost of maintenance and replacing bulbs is added in on the savings side it goes a long way towards balancing installation expenses. Technology advancements in low voltage and LEDs make it possible to actually increase lighting while creating dramatic nightscapes that are both functional and more cost effective. Ultra-efficient LEDs are eco-friendly, using only a fraction of the energy required by the mercury vapor lights used for decades. Lighting can easily set the mood for social and recreational events while extending the hours residents can safely enjoy outdoor areas.

Another opportunity to save on installation is with quality fixtures. Aluminum fixtures were often used in the past because they are inexpensive and readily available but the material does not react to weather well, and replacement costs can add up. Quality fixtures in brass, bronze, and copper have always been available but now these fixtures come at reasonable pricing and many carry a lifetime warranty. Since aluminum has a relatively short life span, higher quality fixtures may be the better investment. Cathie Daly, a principal at Design East Inc. in Medford, New Jersey, says that she is seeing many boards upgrade to nickel fixtures to give their building a more trendy and modern look and enhance curb appeal.

Small Lights, Big Changes

Besides the larger lights in the facade, canopy or security lights, buildings can also opt to illuminate their walkways and landscaping elements. Ergas describes a recent project at the Churchill condo complex in Murray Hill in Manhattan in which his firm installed rope lighting under a small retaining wall in the circular driveway of the complex. The effect was an ethereal, continuous walkway that was attractive but also provided extra light when entering the building. They also installed LED lighting to backlight a modern sculpture. “It provided good light, didn't take up much space, and was good for the outdoors,” he says.

Exterior lighting can have many applications, whether for safety or aesthetics.

“There's no one-size-fits-all solution. It requires multiple solution for each particular thing you are trying to accomplish,” says Ergas. “But I do think it enhances the value of the building, just like when you renovate lobbies and hallways, exterior lighting really enhances the value and curb appeal.”

When to Call In the Experts

With the constant advancements in lighting and installation challenges, exterior lighting is not always a do-it-yourself project. In addition to a licensed, bonded, certified electrician, a board will want a company with experience and expertise in landscape lighting design and installation; most companies will offer free consultations and a design rendering. It is always prudent to view properties and/or projects the bidding company has completed.

“It's really difficult to add lighting in some instances but not difficult to consult with a design specialist,” says Daly. “If you are going to go to the expense of reevaluating your curb appeal, typically I find 70 percent of those selections are done by the maintenance staff in house at a really low cost. When they replace lighting, they are usually doing it with the same dated fixture. Rather than doing that, at a really low cost you could hire a professional designer to make those decisions appealing and cost effective to you.”

Daly mentions that designers may be more familiar than board members with the current market trends and innovations in exterior lighting and can steer clients toward a lighting decision that is appropriate for their taste and budget.

Before calling in a landscape lighting professional, board members should prepare a list of questions and expectations in order to achieve the biggest impact for the budget. The up-front sticker price can seem high until the greatly reduced operation and maintenance cost are figured into the return on investment (ROI).

A board may also want to consider moving forward in stages depending on budget constraints. Safety lighting issues will most likely trump aesthetic lighting but reviewing the entire property up front can prevent costly do-overs.

Ergas suggests that boards can implement or update exterior lighting as part of an exterior maintenance sequence.

Expense may be a concern for many boards but it is important to think long-term.

“Everyone is conscious about finances and that often gets in the way,” says Sloane. “However, improving lighting is one upgrade that starts paying back as soon as it is installed. Additionally, once the payback has been met, the building continues to benefit from lower costs, and we all know electric costs aren't going down.”

Landscaping and ground maintenance is often one of the largest expenses facing an condo or co-op community yet the results go unnoticed 50 percent of the time. When lightscapes are created with well-placed lighting, a property is showcased and the results are almost magic. A properly illuminated building increases curb appeal 24/7 and adds real and perceived value to the property.

Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.

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  • Great article!
  • Emmi about your Lights ? on Monday, May 14, 2012 4:19 PM
    This all sounds very good.I ,m in Florida and the Bugs <mosquito< are bad.our Lights have not been cleaned or changed.for 6 years Made Pics and E Mailed them to the Board. But i got Abusive Language as my Answer.Also my Dues is 235.25 a Month.We have over 600 Units