Outdoor environments are as diverse as we are; from simple decks with BBQs, to pools and fire pits. But each exterior space has a purpose, to extend our living space into the exterior yard. So to make these spaces more habitable we add lighting; whether it is via tiki torches, candles, Christmas tree lights or even glaring security lights. Our intentions are good—the results, maybe not so good. Some not really illuminating the table or seating area, and some over lighting and glaring in our eyes so we can see nothing beyond the circle of light.
Often when I am asked how I would light their yard I like to start with a very simple thought: “Since it is an exterior living room I would light it like an interior living room.”
When we light our living rooms we illuminate the vertical surfaces, to make the room appear bright and inviting. Perhaps we highlight a piece of art or special memento or keepsake. And then we place lamps or lighting for specific tasks like reading in our favorite chair or practicing the piano in the corner. We don’t just light the floor for a single task. We layer the light to give us the ability to use our living room in different ways, during different times, with different guests.
We should think of our outdoors spaces in similar ways: ambient light, accent light and task light. Stop to think what spaces you want to use in the evening hours. How do you want to use those spaces? What are some events that you might host and who are the guests you might invite? What areas do you feel need additional security or safety (e.g., stairs, level changes, pool edge).
But safety does not mean you need to blast light from an unshielded socket mounted to the side of the house. In fact, this lighting approach can be less safe. Huh? Well, our eyes are capable of seeing over great variations of light—but not all at once. Our eyes need to adapt.
Think about sitting in a movie theater when the lights start to go down and everything feels really dark. But when you get up to go get popcorn it is easy to find your way out. But coming back into the theater from the bright vending area you again have difficulty seeing your way to your seat. That is because our eyes adapt over time to the darker environment, the pupils dilate to allow the little light available in.
When we look into a bright light our eye constricts, reducing the amount of light allowed in, to protect our eyes. Consequently, under a bright source our eye is constricting and therefore as we look out into the remained of the yard everything seems really dark.
If we softly illuminate the surrounding vertical surfaces (e.g., trees and shrubs) and appropriately light the task surfaces, allowing the eye to adapt and not constrict, we will have a more comfortable experience and enjoy our exterior environments more. Sometimes the old adage “less is more” is a real truism. Especially when it comes to light output. We evolved to be able to see and hunt by the light of the full moon. We don’t need brighter light, but if we are subtle enough, we can light our exterior environments to be our outdoor living rooms.