Lighting an outdoor room requires the same consideration as lighting an indoor area
Story: Richard Rose
Over the past few years, landscape designers have refined the concept of the outdoor room. While there are many different ways to interpret this concept, all would agree that an outdoor room is a defined area, usually one designed with entertaining in mind, and that it’s a space often used at dusk or during the evening hours. With this in mind, it’s obvious lighting is an important element.
The lighting for an outdoor room needs to be flexible and practical. It also requires detailed planning and coordination so it’s important that your lighting designer works closely with your landscape designer. For a successful outcome, it’s vital that all parties concerned have a clear understanding of how the outdoor room will be used as this will determine the amount of light required, the positioning of the light fittings and how the switching is grouped.
In essence, lighting an outdoor room is very similar to lighting an indoor room. One of the main differences, though, is that with an outdoor room there might not be light-coloured walls or a ceiling to bounce light off, so a more creative approach is needed. You can even be a bit whimsical if the design allows (such as the lighted teepee shown on page 32).
Lighting can be divided into two basic categories: direct and indirect. The latter is usually defined as light that’s bounced off a surface such as a wall. In an outdoor room, the lighting is often a mixture of the two.
Light can be bounced off most surfaces to make it indirect, taking into account that the paler the surface the more light it will reflect. This is particularly relevant when lighting paving or foliage. Sandstone paving, for example, will reflect up to 65 per cent of the light but a granite surface (which is much darker) will only return less than 1 per cent as the rest of the light is absorbed by the stone.
Direct light also needs to be very carefully positioned and the fitting needs to have good glare control. This is typically achieved by a shield or a louvre in the front. Often, features like statues, columns and water features are lit directly. The fittings in these cases need to be located so they illuminate the subject but shine away from the viewing position.
Sometimes you will see lights mounted into the surface of a deck or pathway, shining upwards. This light is wasted as there’s no effect at all until the light hits a surface and is returned to us.
After dark, creating ambience is very important and will be significantly enhanced by subtle lighting. This requires careful consideration of the switching (lights are grouped into circuits and these are switched together). Ensure that task lights — like barbecue lights — are able to be turned off when the task is finished and don’t have to be left on so you can use the other lights grouped on the same switch.
If you want to have a system that’s flexible and gives you the ability to switch on smaller circuits (for greater control and energy-efficiency), try to maximise the number of switches you make available. It may seem a matter of common sense, but inadequate switching is often the biggest barrier to efficient design.
Another tip is to put dimmers in. They are not too expensive and they will ensure you have maximum control over your lighting and the various moods you can create. Just keep in mind that many of the new light sources, including most compact fluorescents and LEDs, can’t be dimmed. It’s therefore important to plan the system as a whole, carefully considering the impact of each light.
The next step is to decide where to put your lights and what fittings to use. Fertilisers and regular moisture ensure that the landscape remains a constantly corrosive environment. It’s important that you choose fittings that are up to the job, usually brass, copper or stainless steel. This should not limit your choice but, as with most things, quality does cost a little more in the beginning but will pay you back over the life of the project.
When deciding where to place the fittings, look to divide them into those that will give you light in three types of locations. These are:
Light for access: Access lighting, as you would imagine, is used mostly on pathways and steps. Remember, we tend to gravitate towards a light source, so by simply lighting a pathway we lead guests along it. Steps must be highlighted for both yourself and guests. Before placing the lights, check that anyone walking up the stairs will not be looking into the glare of the lights.
Light for entertaining: It’s best to wash the paved areas and then accent features to provide some indirect light. The aim is to make your guests feel comfortable without using too much light. Ironically, this is best done by using more fittings but with lower wattage lamps. Try to accent the depth of the garden but without using lights that are too bright as this will mask any views you have. Lighting entertaining and outdoor living areas, as well as pools, really requires the help of a professional if you are to get this critical element of any garden design just right.
Light for security: Where possible, put this lighting on a separate switch. This lighting is usually a lot more powerful and only used to “flood” the area with light if required. It’s simply not possible to use these lights for any kind of entertaining.
Something else you might like to think about is automation. If you’re building a home from scratch or planning an extension or renovation, you should consider your total wiring needs and whether an automated system is for you.
There is one more factor, however, which becomes very important when selecting the type of light — colour rendering. This is a measure of how the light reproduces colour. It may sound trivial and the impact may be negligible when considering solid surfaces, but when it comes to plants we judge their vitality by the colour of the foliage, so it’s something to be considered. The best colour rendering is given by halogen lighting. If you’re using either LED or fluorescent lighting, it’s important to use good-quality lamps as the colour rendering varies enormously.
An outdoor room is a valuable addition to any home and it can sometimes represent a significant investment. If the lighting is right, it will make the outdoor room inviting and comfortable, quickly becoming one of the most often used rooms of the home. And, if you plan wisely, you can ensure you have a lighting system that can grow and adapt as your needs change