Home & Design December 22, 2008

Gentle Illumination

Lighting your path with common sense

Time was, outdoor lighting meant flipping a switch to turn on the fixture outside your front door. Not anymore. Whether illuminating a house number, a stone fountain, a handsome bronze statue, or the contours of a winding path, light now shines well beyond the entryway.

In fact, most Wood River Valley architects consider exterior and landscape lighting an essential element of home planning and design, typically turning the job over to a trusted landscape architect who is more familiar with design in the great outdoors.

Outdoor lighting serves multiple functions, with safety at the top of the list. Well-positioned lights—placed, for instance, at spots where there is a change in either elevation or direction of travel—can help homeowners and guests navigate walkways and avoid hazards after dark.

The landscape architects who agreed to share “the basics” with us all emphasized the need for lighting to have aesthetic value while meeting its purpose. Unlike indoor fixtures, outdoor lights shouldn’t be bright enough for reading. Nor should they light up the entire neighborhood. New ordinances in all Wood River Valley towns—except Bellevue, where the Planning and Zoning Commission has an ordinance under consideration—forbid lights that shine straight up; the bulb must be shielded with a hood, so light doesn’t diffuse into the night sky.

“Subtle is a good approach to outdoor lighting,” says Ben Young, a landscape architect with Clearwater Landscaping in Ketchum. “You don’t want to look directly at the lamplight. You also want to avoid what I call the ‘California runway look.’ If you’ve got a fixture every few feet like clockwork, to me, it’s like walking down a runway.”

“Lighting for the sake of lighting pokes people in the eye,” adds Dale Bates, owner of Living Architecture. “We already have the most wonderful lighting here naturally, with the stars.”

To illuminate pathways, most landscape architects recommend mushroom lights, which resemble an umbrella or a hat on a stick. Their placement doesn’t have to be symmetrical or regular, and their height can vary from several inches to several feet.

“Sun Valley is a challenging place to do outdoor lighting because it’s covered with snow for so many months of the year,” says Paul Stoops, architectural lighting design expert and owner of Paul Stoops Associates in Hailey.
Although taller can be better in snow country, outdoor fixtures are built to withstand the elements and can be placed low to the ground. The heat from the bulb will melt the snow away, allowing light to shine through.

Since pathway lights are subject to knocking about by snowplows and snowblowers during the winter months, most are installed as low-voltage (approximately 12-volt) fixtures that would provide only a small shock if contacted directly (rather than the jolt from a 120-volt fixture). Such fixtures require a transformer to convert the 120 volts provided by Idaho Power into much smaller amounts.

Wires running to low-voltage lights need not be buried more than two inches beneath the ground and installation doesn’t require the skills of an electrician, making them a good choice for the do-it-yourselfer. They also provide flexibility, as their positions can be changed without much digging. Stoops notes that the slightly greater expense in the purchase price of low-voltage fixtures is offset by their safety and ease of installation.

Outdoor fixtures running from the 120-volt lines inside your house must be buried 18 inches deep, inside a conduit, by a licensed electrician. Still, it makes sense to use 120-volt fixtures to light a gate or a slab of rock featuring your street number, because those objects aren’t likely to move around much over time.

Whether powered by 12 or 120 volts, outdoor lights can be set on timers, controlled by computers or switches inside your house, or activated by motion sensors. No matter what their mode of operation, though, outdoor lighting in the Wood River Valley must aim toward the ground and wear a shield or frosted glass panel.

Aside from safety, outdoor lighting’s main task is to provide a frame of reference and a touch of comfort in the dark. Small bits of light can offer emotional security to homeowners who would otherwise see only blackness when looking outside at night. Comfort does not preclude aesthetics, however, and such lighting can be decorative, too, adding an artistic visual element to sculptures, water features, and gardens.

As American homeowners move away from lighting only our front door and garage, we find ourselves with almost unlimited choices in outdoor fixtures. Landscape architect Steven Job gives the nod to such manufacturer’s names as Kim, Hadco, and BK, and says he also looks on the Internet for designs that will suit a particular client’s needs.

“I have a feeling I want to evoke with the lighting,” says Ben Young. “I get the direction for the fixtures themselves from my clients.”

The guidelines created by the Valley’s cities for functional and considerate outdoor lighting are not difficult to follow. Many lighting manufacturers are well ahead of this trend, designing fixtures that are attractive, practical, safe, and imbued with common courtesy.

Susan Bailey first moved to Sun Valley in 1976, back when Bill Janss owned Sun Valley Company, and Scott USA had a ski boot factory south of Ketchum. Currently writing news for the Wood River Journal, she also writes fiction and poetry, and spends civilized time at the computer, with antelope, deer, elk, fox, coyote, raccoons, moose and mice just a short distance away.


This article appears in the Fall 2004 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.