"We try to feature the effect, and not the fixture," says John Bowers, owner of the Memphis franchise of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives, a national chain of landscape and architectural lighting designers. "As best we can, we try to make the fixtures disappear."
Bowers is standing outside a model home in Collierville, showing what his company can accomplish. He indicates a row of halogen spotlights mounted in black plastic canisters recessed into the ground, close to the front wall of the house. The beams point upwards and emphasize the rugged, uneven texture of the brickwork. Similar canisters in the yard spotlight a pair of trees and the brick posts of a wooden fence. Nearby, a pair of umbrella-shaped copper fixtures outlines the front walkway.
All the lights are linked by low-voltage wiring that runs in narrow trenches. At the model home, the wiring is threaded beneath the driveway, but there was no digging involved; the wire runs through a sleeve inserted beneath the concrete. "Our goal is to get in and out, without the customer even knowing we've been there," says Bowers.
The company's website is quite eloquent about what it can accomplish with just lightbulbs and wires: "Our lighting designers approach each home as a blank canvas, drinking in the architectural details, landscape highlights, and open spaces before crafting a lighting design that draws attention to all those things. The results reflect your desires, from creating an airy space for play, to announcing the majestic façade of your distinctive home."
The process starts with a lighting designer meeting with the homeowners to determine their needs. Do they want outdoor lighting for security? Are they trying to emphasize architectural features of their home, or the landscaping? Do they want to illuminate walks and pathways? "They sometimes have a good idea of what they want," says Bowers, "but other times we offer suggestions."
After showing the customers the selection of products available — and there is indeed a surprising variety of light fixtures on the market today, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and materials — Bowers rigs up a test installation, with everything connected to a battery.
Then it's time for the presentation.
"They actually make software so you can simulate the effect," he says, "but to me, there's nothing better than to have the homeowners in the front yard when I plug it in, and they go, 'Wow.'"
Any tweaking — moving lights around, or adding additional fixtures — can then be done before the underground wiring is put in place. Many of the lights, such as the recessed well lights in the yard, can be angled so the beam shines directly on the tree or wall, or just glances off it. "That means you can adjust the intensity of the light," says Bowers, "without having to adjust the voltage or wattage."
All the wires lead back behind the bushes to a toaster-sized, wall-mounted transformer, which in this case reduces the normal 120-volt power line into 12 volts.
"Because the voltage is so low, these are very energy-efficient systems," says Bowers. "It's not like having a bunch of regular floodlights or spotlights mounted all over your house, operating on regular line voltage."
The model home has half a dozen well lights and only two path lights. Bowers has worked on other projects that are considerably more complicated; one house in this area employed over 100 lights. "But they were drawing attention to various things on the grounds — decks and pergolas," he says. "We even had lights in the trees there."
A typical installation begins at around $2,000.
The lights on the model home are controlled by a simple dusk-to-dawn sensor, but some customers opt for a special infrared remote control, which allows them more control over individual lights, and even the timing of them. They can set it, so the driveway lights turn on when they come home and then switch off later, among other options.
"We've found that people around here are pretty conservative about lighting their homes," says Bowers. "In fact, most of our customers are under 50. The older customers seem to prefer a lower profile with their lighting; they don't want to stand out. But if they want something special, we've got jillions of different fixtures for them."