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I once knew a woman named Anne. Anne was gray. I don’t mean simply that her hair was gray. In fact, it was not. I mean quite literally that Anne was gray. Her cheeks were gray, her lips were gray, even her voice was gray. No matter what Anne was wearing, it looked gray. Anne’s demeanor was gray, too: she didn’t walk, she trudged. Anne was in a job that she loathed. It had so completely drained life from her that she resembled the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. But Anne used to have a job that she loved. And once, quite by accident, I got her talking about it. Suddenly, color rose to her lips and cheeks. She became thoroughly animated. Even her eyes danced. And her speech was full of passion. It was like someone had plugged her in. She was positively electric. The starkness of the contrast between the two Annes became a permanent picture of the difference between working for the sake of work and doing what you are passionate about.
Flash forward seven years. I am in a new city. All my thoughts are consumed by the work of getting a total garden renovation off the ground. The doorbell rings. This is Contractor 4 or Tommy, The Lighting Geek. He’s come to talk to me about landscape lighting. I am thoroughly unenthused. Yeah, I need lights- but that hardly makes it center-plate. And I am already weary of the walk-throughs. Contractors 1 – 3 have shown up, looked at the space, some design renderings, and some magazine clippings and said, “Yeah, I can do that.” Then, Contractors 1 – 3 threw numbers out that were based on I still don’t know what, especially since the numbers were all over the map. I can’t even tell you that I understood the “that” that these contractors were so sure they could do because they had neither written down anything that we’d talked about, nor broken out any of the numbers. This project that my husband and I were so excited about has become a chore as permanent as laundry. So now I’m Anne, doing something that feels like a burden. I trudge to the door, feeling very gray indeed.
As I swing the door open, a crisply dressed fellow holding a clipboard with blank paper greets me. This looks positive, but I am too contractor- weary to allow myself to be pleased. Besides, lighting is not a major piece of this project. Even so, I brace myself for the drill: I invite him in; I do my little presentation of space, renderings and magazine clippings; then he tells me about something unrelated that he’s just done on another job.
Wait. This one is actually responding to what I have to say about what I want. He’s asking questions. I’m surprised. I’m surprised because he’s asking anything at all. I’m doubly surprised because I hadn’t thought about the job the way the questions require me to. Yet the questions are common sense. Of course I want my contractors to consider who is going to use the space, when they will use it, and what they’ll use it for. Certainly that information would be weighed if I were renovating a bathroom or kitchen. I would handle a kids’ bathroom differently than the guest bath. If I didn’t cook often, I would care more about the decorative than the functional value of my kitchen. It is wonderfully logical that I should factor the same information into design decisions for my yard. But up until now, I had only thought about what features I wanted to install.
As the question/answer time becomes a real dialogue, my surprise grows. Though this contractor has come to discuss lighting, we are talking about the job quite broadly. He discourages our plan to remove all the mature trees, saying that it would take years to reproduce the shade they offer, and that old trees give a settled look to the new plantings. Turning the impact of this decision towards lighting, he explains that our space will appear larger at night if the canopy is incorporated with lights. It has the same effect on outdoor space as a high ceiling in a living room.
As Tommy, The Lighting Geek is speaking, I observe two important things. The first is that he speaks in layman’s terms. His language is not riddled with techno-babble. I do not need to be an electrician to understand what he was talking about. At the same time, he doesn’t speak as if I am an idiot. His explanations are visual in nature, and make liberal use of metaphors. The second thing I observe is that he is speaking to me about my space and my job. He’s not tromping out pictures of other jobs he’s done. His focus is here: on my goals for the project and my tastes. Remarkably, I learn more about his experience and expertise talking about my project than I would have talking about the one he’d just finished for Mrs. Jones. I make a mental note: I am more concerned that a contractor can do what I am looking for than that he can reproduce a previous success.
It didn’t take long to recognize that Tommy, The Lighting Geek is of a different caliber than 1 – 3. Maybe, I think, as the gray cloud over this project begins to lift, just maybe this project doesn’t have to be so dreadful a process as it had seemed. I can hear in my thoughts a renewed enthusiasm for the job ahead. At that very moment, I understand the biggest difference between this contractor and the others who had come to bid. This one is like the electric Anne. He is passionate about what he does. He loves everything about landscape lighting, from how it is made to what it can do. And he is genuinely excited about what landscape lighting can do for this job: my job.
When I first contacted Tommy, The Lighting Geek, lighting was low on my priority list. I knew I needed it, but my thoughts had no more imagination than the outdoor lighting kits I had seen in catalogs and at Home Depot. I figured I would upgrade existing sconces, throw in a couple of path lights, and maybe do something to light what would be the sitting area. Very quickly, I learned that landscape lighting could do much more for me than keep me from sitting in the dark. Installed creatively, outdoor lighting would demarcate my useable space, visually incorporate the whole garden into my sitting area, create the mood I wanted, highlight features of particular interest, and enhance the natural beauty of my landscape.
As the meeting with Tommy, The Lighting Geek comes to a close, I realize that my priorities have changed. Landscape lighting had gone from an aside to an integral part of the design. I realize also that this contractor has set the bar for anyone else that I will hire.
Some months later, I sit in my newly renovated garden and muse. This is not, by any means, the first home improvement I’ve undertaken. But it is the first one that I can look at the results of and be thoroughly pleased. There is not a single “next time I would.” And I credit my satisfaction to the hiring of great contractors. Great contractors are the ones who listen to their customers and really understand what they want. At the same time, a great contractor doesn’t say, “I can do that” to anything and everything the customer asks for. You need to be able to depend on your contractors to bring their expertise to your job, so that they will advise you when your idea is not a good one. If they have listened well, they will be able to give you what you want a better way. A great contractor also thinks about the whole job, not just his piece of it. And finally, a great contractor has imagination that is not limited to the jobs they’ve already done. In short, a great contractor is an electric Anne.
Daylight is fast disappearing, and my timed lights come on. Instead of the approaching darkness boxing me into my little sitting area, the whole of my garden is open to me. Yet, it is not overwhelmingly bright. The light kisses the space as if it and my garden are old friends. As I look out over what Tommy, The Lighting Geek has done for me, I think that some of his passion for landscape lighting has rubbed off. And I will enjoy his passion for a job well done for many years to come.

 

By: Betsy Dell

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A subject that is often discussed in our trade forums is the difference between artisans of our craft and others who think landscape lighting is just another way to make money.

Granted it can be a great addition to a landscape company’s services along with pavers, concrete, trees, shrubs, irrigation, drainage, etc.

Here is the main difference: ART. If you spent a considerable amount of money on any project, like your kitchen for example, who handles the granite countertop? Or you want that beautiful polished limestone, or another stone finish, are you going to ask your handyman for that? I doubt it.

Landscape lighting is very much the same way. There are many people who can connect some lights to a black home cheapo transformer and you now have lights!

For the clients that seek us out, that is not what they are looking for. Our clients want the ART of great lighting. We have hundreds of homes and garden spaces beautifully illuminated under our belt. It is a skill set I have honed over 35 years, and passed on to the men and women who work for me.

Yes, I am a landscape contractor as well. That means I know the plant material by name, the growth cycles, what is reflective or absorbs light, and much more. I am also an artist. My wife and I blow glass, sculpt, photograph landscapes, and much more. This is my favorite medium: LIGHT.

My wife and friends say to me frequently when they see our work, ‘How do you get it right in the daytime, to make it almost perfect at night?’ My answer is always, ‘This is what I was meant to do.’ I believe that.

If you have that project that needs the extra touch of class and refinement, take the time and hire a craftsman who is an artist as well. You won’t be disappointed.

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The following is a true story, recounting the real life home improvement experiences of a Sacramento homeowner.
I am a Home Depot phobe. I only go there under duress. And if I go once, I will certainly make four or five other trips because I got the wrong material (and too much of it), too little of the right material, or the right material but not the tools. When I learn that a friend took a Saturday to repaint a room, I shake my head in disbelief. I can’t even paint my nails and stay inside the lines. So when I started planning a garden renovation, I pulled out the yellow pages. And when questions arose about landscape lighting, I had to confess that I even needed a contractor to screw in my light bulbs.
Usually I am embarrassed to be a DIY moron, but I was actually grateful for my inadequacies the day I met with The Lighting Geek, a landscape lighting specialist for a quote. Lighting was on my “nice to have” list, and I had picked out a couple of walkway lighting kits I found attractive. I had no idea how much more there was to landscape lighting than eight fixtures on a wire. To begin with, I could not have known without expert help that outdoor lighting usually requires a dedicated circuit, particularly if I meant to have light without interruption from my dishwasher. I learned that there was a real science to wiring. There are considerations well beyond how many lights I need to get from one end of a walk to another, like voltage drop and amp load-two technical terms that, when properly handled, translate into a finished run of lights that burn with the same intensity. There are also techniques which use no path lights and leave me with nicely lit walkway. I also learned that, in terms of design, performance, and longevity, there was vastly superior quality available than the typical lighting kit in a box.
While lighting the space in my garden was my original goal, I got excited about what else landscape lighting could do for me. Lighting would help define my space, which means that instead of just boxing out an area with light, my whole garden could be incorporated into its livable space. The trees and plantings, rather than the edge of my hardscape, would become the walls of my ‘room’, and the canopy would become the ceiling. And, in effect, I could put paintings on my ‘walls’ by highlighting particular plantings and features. The most exciting thing is that, by integrating a variety of lighting techniques, I could create ambience-from a casual conversation setting to a show-stopping dramatic scene.
The garden renovation is now complete, and I have to say that my favorite time to sit in it is at night. What my landscape lighting designer achieved for me far surpasses my original imaginings. And if a friend asks how I got my garden to look so warm and inviting after dark, I tell her that you start by hiring The lighting Geek to screw in your light bulbs.IMG_3081

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I exhibit in 20 home shows a year, see 1000’s of landscapes each year, because I love meeting people, talking about their projects, plans, etc.

One common thread I see is a lack of clear understanding on how to choose a contractor, especially a Landscape Lighting Contractor. Here is a helpful checklist:

-Make sure they are licensed for their category. For landscape lighting a C27, C7, C10 are the only California Contractors Licenses that qualify. We currently have a C27 (Landscape Contractor) and soon we will also have C10 (Electrical Contractor)

-Make to check with the Better Business Bureau for any complaints or license issues.

-Check with CSLB.CA.GOV for current license status and bonding.

-Ask for proof of workman Comp and liability insurance.

-They should have good working knowledge of general landscaping, plant material, hard-scapes, structures, etc. I also say, ‘If you can’t name the plant material, you probably shouldn’t be lighting it!’

-Find out how much landscape lighting they have done and ask for projects to look at, pictures, and check for customer testimonials.

-They should be a member in good standing with Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals (AOLPonline.org)

-Are they up to date on current technologies? LED? Controls? Electrical code?

-Most of all, are they listening to you? are they asking you questions? Or are they just telling you how it’s going to be, and not listening to you?

-Are they timely in getting you a written estimate? Is everything clearly stated with timelines and payment schedules? It’s required by state law It protects you!

-Never pay more than 10% or $1000.00, or whichever is lower, for a deposit. It’s California Law.

-Your payments should never exceed the amount of work completed. Keep a substantial amount until completion so you have some leverage. NEVER pay for work not done, EVER. Many unscrupulous contractors will try to push you for early payment, and you will never get them back to your job.

I hope this helps, but should you ever have any questions, we only a phone call away!

Tommy

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The more subtle you want the lighting, the more fixtures it takes.

I know, it sounds crazy, right? But it is true.

Fewer brighter fixtures may get the job done according to the DIY’er, but it will have glare, hotspots, and not leave you with a cozy ambiance you desire.  Using brighter fixtures is not the answer either. There needs to be balance between the different levels of light within your space. More softer light sources will give me more control over the result, allowing me to leave a fountain or a focal point a tad brighter, thereby allowing it to stand out. Unfortunately too many people feel that more fixtures is brighter, when properly done, more is less.

When a customer hears I want to use more fixtures than they had anticipated, they think it will be too bright, more like a K-Mart parking lot. This is definitely not true. The most common comment I get after we are done installing the lighting is, ‘Wow, this is much more subtle than I expected!’

Landscape lighting is a true art form. Interplay of light and shadow, allowing you and your guests to really enjoy your space is my main goal.

 

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I have thought about what would be an appropriate first blog for some time now. Currently I am in the spring home show season and I have been watching a common thread amongst people searching for contractors and ideas at these shows.

I witness many people beginning their journey to improve their outdoor space with a plan in their mind, but not a well thought out written plan. Why am I blogging about this instead of lighting you ask? Because they are connected, I have 35+ years of landscape experience, and I belief I can help.

When we sit down together with all the contractors to work out a plan for a Yard Crashers episode, it culminates into a written plan. You would think that the group of very talented professionals, at times adding up to over a hundred years combined experience, that we can do it without a written plan. NO WAY!

Too many details, too many sequence of events to be worked out, materials, who’s first, second, and so on. We live and breath our trades, we know about other trades and what comes in what order.

How can a homeowner with some gardening experience, weekends at Home Depot, and a few hours searching online, do it as well or better than the professionals without a written plan? The reality is most of the time they can’t and usually spend more than planned on redoing, changing, redesigning parts if not the entire project.

If you are looking into a project, inside or out, find a great designer and work it out on paper, IT WILL SAVE You more than the cost of the designer every time.

I recommend using an independent designer verses an in house designer from a contractor. The reason is the independent design doesn’t have a horse in the race and will give you an unbiased plan.

Most but not all in house designers favor certain materials and practices. Concrete verses pavers, artificial turf verses real, and so on. They can make things confusing since the homeowner doesn’t always understand the difference. A good independent designer will help you stay on budget, usually shows you ALL your options, and most of all, keep you out of trouble.

Now that you have a plan with your choices documented, you can go out to bid and get fair comparisons of price and quality. You will get details and suggestions from each contractor, and details may change, but not the plan.

I don’t draw up plans for lighting. Most landscape designers know me and generally work with me for budget numbers and leave the lighting part up to me. But the overall design isn’t changed by me or any contractor involved.

Make sure to have at least one meeting with all the trades involved and your designer before commencement of any work. We can all work out planning with you and make the process smooth and painless.

Now your job is go enjoy your new space.