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