Shedding some light on the situation | January 22, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - January 22, 2010

Shedding some light on the situation

Uplights? Downlights? Many choices for highlighting outdoor spaces

by Susan Golovin

Tig and Marilyn Tarlton's townhouse turned out to be a true landscape challenge. Because it was built on the site of a former parking lot, they needed to remove two feet of bedrock and haul in dirt, just so something would grow.

And once something did start to grow, they wanted to be able to see it well — even at night.

Working with horticulturist Frank Niccoli, of Village Gardener in San Carlos, they figured out just where they needed lighting to highlight their new plants.

Today, the polocarpus gracilior, a blue evergreen, can be appreciated at night, and a lacy-leafed pittosporum is lit to cast shadows on the porch wall. However, the outdoor dining table gets only indirect lighting because the Tarltons like to use candles.

When approaching a lighting plan, Niccoli advises his clients to spend time looking at their space, determining the safety issues as well as any special parts of the property — trees, plants, rocks, sculpture — they wish to accent. Areas that are not lit are excluded from the living space, he said.

Before he permanently installs anything he puts in a sample. "Even though there are lots of wires, people can get an idea of what it's going to look like."

Niccoli also recommends a three-year warranty as well as using weather-resistant materials. Bronze fixtures are the gold standard.

"You want to see a space that's evenly lit," Niccoli said. "There shouldn't be 'hot spots' surrounded by dark areas. And, if there are dim lights at the end of a rung it's a sign that the lighting was not installed correctly.

"The whole scheme should be unified," he said. That means that existing lighting — such as porch lighting — should be taken into account, and the system adjusted accordingly.

An example of existing light arose in an installation at a Santa Fe-style home and garden in Midtown.

"Our street is very well lit and there's a streetlight right in front of the house," explained the owner, a Niccoli client. Therefore the entry gate requires only two inconspicuous lights.

Another sign of poor execution is glare, which can be minimized with shields. "Lamps should not be shining into your eyes from downlights, often used as accents, hanging in a tree, arbor or from an eave," Niccoli said.

In the Santa Fe landscape a maple in the back yard used to be swamped by the redwood in the adjoining yard. A small accent downlight and one pointing up at the tree now gives it status.

Downlighting is also used to avoid a "Las Vegas effect" and keep the lighting subtle.

Another technique is silhouetting — using uplights aimed at a wall to outline plants, particularly those with interesting shapes. A similar trick called shadowing, using just one spotlight, is very effective with immature plants because the shadow on the wall exaggerates the size.

"We're not landing airplanes," Niccoli said, referring to what he considers a major flaw: the runway effect in lighting a path.

"Path lighting should be the last installed," he said, emphasizing that it is more dramatic if not symmetrical. For instance, the path can be lit indirectly from other sources on the property, such as wall washers that reflect a soft, glare-free ambient glow onto the surrounding area.

Path lighting should effectively eliminate hazards, such as sudden inclines, he said, and to avoid lawn-mower mishaps it is best not to locate lighting fixtures in the lawn.

Of course, the runway effect can be avoided entirely if the path meanders. Ideally, in total landscape makeovers, such as the Santa Fe home, the lighting installer is working with the landscape architect.

Niccoli is beginning to include low-voltage (LED) lighting as a subject for his four-week Landscape Lighting classes at Foothill College, which will next be offered in February.

"The LED light is white," Niccoli said. "This enhances plant color, but you need to use filters to avoid glare and add warmth."

Another way to save energy is to consider switching options. A photocell system, which is activated by changes in natural light, will be on all night and can take a toll on the electric bill. More electric-bill friendly but more expensive to install is a digital device that can be set for specific times and will even reset after a power outage.

Niccoli said that his average lighting installation costs $2,500 to $3,000. However, he vividly remembers a client who was hosting a political function and required a two-week installation with lots of uplighting. That bill came to $22,000.

In choosing a landscape lighting person Niccoli urges people to "go out and look at people's work and talk to the clients. Don't judge from a portfolio because a camera can control what you see."

"Most people know it when they see it, but they don't know how to get there," Tarlton said.


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