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Lighting the Hardscape

The design, installation and business of landscape lighting in hardscape applications

Project Photos from Featured Designer - Scott Driscoll

Pathway with Landscape Lighting
CAST Small China Hat Path Lights (CCH1CB) with alternate-side spacing.

house with landscape lighting
CAST Savannah Path Lights (CSA1CB) used to accentuate primary path to entryway.

beautiful landscape lighting
CAST New Orleans Path Light (CNO1CB) combines path and garden bed lighting.

landscape lighting on a wall
CAST Deck Light (CDL1CB) mounted under cap on retaining wall.


(Published in part in Hardscape Magazine)

“Look at every path closely and deliberately, then ask yourself this crucial question: Does this path have a heart?”
-Carlos Castaneda

The love that a homeowner feels for his or her hardscape need not diminish as the sun sets. It is nighttime when our work as hardscapers can (literally) shine. Aside from the obvious need for safe passage, lighting the hardscape creates scenes that fulfill the homeowner’s desire for an inspired and uplifting space even during times of darkness.

In the days when 120-volt lighting was the only choice, outdoor lighting meant flooding an area with light. There was little consideration given to light quality, direction or brightness, nor to the unintended consequence of nearly blinding the observer (and neighbors). Even to this day, post lights and entrance lights are often used with the same kind of unconscious and uninformed neglect. Many architects still choose fixtures based on their daytime appearance rather than their functional qualities.

Low voltage lighting, on the other hand, is designed to deliver a more precise and efficient illumination. The best hardscapers are installing these compact fixtures that improve and highlight their work rather than distract from it.

The Business
Scott Driscoll, a successful New Jersey hardscaper and landscaper so completely embraced lighting that he transformed his business from Driscoll Landscaping to Northern Lights Landscaping. Rather than marketing himself as a landscaper who does lighting, he now advertises as a Lighting Designer who does landscaping.

Driscoll explains, “Hardscaping is my first passion but it has become overly competitive in my region and bidding wars are common. By emphasizing my lighting service, I created a niche for the high-end homeowner who sees the value of hiring an expert that specializes in lighting hardscapes. It also happens that I am hired for the lighting and end up with additional hardscape and landscape work.”

Most hardscapers agree that lighting should always be proposed as a part of any project. Driscoll adds, “The design phase for every landscaping project should include a complete landscape lighting design. Even if the homeowner isn’t willing to add lighting at the initial installation, the hardscaper should install the necessary conduits and channels in preparation for lighting in the future.”

The Design
Since hardscapes can include a vast variety of surfaces, the techniques used will also vary. This is what makes hardscape lighting so challenging and rewarding.

Driscoll notes, “I never use the exact same lighting on any two jobs; I’m always experimenting, trying new techniques.”

The first step in the lighting design is to set and clarify objectives. The following are common to all projects:

A. Lighting Objectives

  • Safety. Lighting needs to be of sufficient brightness and coverage to allow safe passage along paths, drives and steps. Especially important are areas around pools and water features. Commercial projects may require minimum levels of illumination while residential areas do not. Also impacting safety is the presence or absence of direct glare. This occurs when a bare lamp projects directly into the viewers eyes or is transmitted through a partially opaque pane. Ideally, only glare-free fixtures are used.
  • Security. All regions of the property should be evaluated with an eye to enhance security. A well-lit property will deter intruders. This does not mean that the entire property should be lit by bright floodlights. Instead, key areas can be lit with a low level of lighting. Such low levels are only slightly brighter than shadowed areas allowing the eye to dark-adapt and better see into the shadows. In contrast, bright flood lighting makes shadowed areas appear to be black.
  • Usability. Areas of the property with specific uses, such as decks, patios and putting greens need to be lit appropriate to the activity.
  • Beauty. Some may argue that beauty is the primary objective. There are two main types – revealed and created. Revealed beauty describes the selective illumination of portions of the landscape and architecture to reveal the beauty that is inherent in these objects. Created beauty is found in the patterns of light and shadow. It is what emerges from the interplay between beams of light and the objects. For example, when we project light through a Japanese Maple onto the surface of a house we find both types of beauty – the beauty inherent in the Maple and the house are ‘revealed’ while the shadows dancing on the wall of the house are expressions of beauty ‘created’ by the light. The process of setting the ‘beauty’ objective is to imagine what can be revealed and created by the light.

B. Fixture Selection and Location for the Hardscape

  • Driveways. The following techniques can be employed:
    • Moonlighting. Moonlighting is a great choice for driveways and requires the installation of MR-16 Tree Lights ideally positioned at least 20 ft. above grade projecting through leaves to produce a dappled light. Ideally, such light will extend along the entire length of the driveway.
    • Grazing. This technique involves the use of MR-16 bullets mounted on stems (such as the CAST CBAL1CB) projecting light in low angles at several locations along and across the drive.
    • Path Lighting. Glare-free path lights can be installed every 10’ to 15’ along the length of the drive in a staggered arrangement. The downside of this technique is that the center of the driveway will not be lit.
    • Uplighting. Below-grade well lights can be used along the edges of driveways to uplight retaining walls or architectural features.
  • Paths. Paths can also be beautifully lit with moonlighting. Alternatively, stemmed path lights can be used to provide more uniform and defined patterns. The fixtures’ beam spreads will determine optimal spacing. Small path lights are typically spaced 8’ to 10’ apart and positioned to alternate between left and right sides of the path. Large path lights can be spaced 10’ to 12’ apart. These spacings may be increased if nearby fixtures provide light reflecting off architectural or plant surfaces. If the path is bordered by retaining walls, then deck-type fixtures (such as the CAST CDL1CB) may be used. These are best mounted at least 24” above grade and spaced 6’ to 10’ apart.
  • Steps. Steps can be lit using the same methods as with paths, with a few differences. Since safety is of primary concern, moonlighting may not be appropriate since its dappled light may obscure changes in elevation. Care should also be taken to ensure that every step is at least partially illuminated; an overly dark stair may cause a misstep.
  • Patios. The wider areas of patios make moonlighting the ideal light source. Take care, however, to consider where viewers are likely to be gazing. Lights should be positioned at viewing angles greater than 45%. Will, for instance, people be relaxing in chairs in a reclined position? In that case, they may be staring directly at the tree lights. In addition to moonlighting, patios are often lit along the borders with path lights.
  • Freestanding and Retaining walls. Deck lights are commonly used along walls mounted 24” to 36” off grade and spaced 6’ to 10’ apart. Wall washes may also be used to illuminate broad areas of wall. Another technique that accentuates wall texture and provides a wide and even illumination is called strafing. It involves one or more MR-16 bullets (stake or stem mounted) aimed in a sideways manner to spread the beam along the wall horizontally. Scott Driscoll advises that, in most cases, wall lighting should be understated so that the viewer’s attention is not deflected from the primary visual pathways that are established along walkways, especially towards the entrance to the home.

C. Installation Tips

  • On mounting deck lights against a textured wall: Use a stone chisel to smooth the surface under the deck light.
  • On running wire through a freestanding wall: Before laying the cap stone, use a chop saw to cut a one-inch deep channel along the entire length of the wall. At the center of the wall (lengthwise) drill a hole from top to bottom as a channel for fixture leads to exit the wall. At each deck light location, drill a hole halfway into the wall, then drill a hole from the top to meet the first hole. With this scheme all fixture leads (for pre-wired fixtures) travel through the channels and exit the wall to the splice location.
  • On running wire through a retaining wall: Drill a hole from each deck light location straight through into ground on other side.
  • On when to run conduit: While it is not required by NEC code, it is a good practice to run conduit (2” Schedule 40) under hardscape areas.  If the conduit is for a future project, cap off the ends and place a small flag to make it easy to find. After running wire through conduit, use expanding foam at both ends to keep out dirt and insects. Run wires through conduit in any area where landscapers may damage the wire.
  • On NEC code relating to wiring under hardscape: Low voltage wires need to buried to the following minimum depths*:
    • Under roads, alleys, public driveways and parking lots: 24 inches
    • Under one- or two-family dwelling driveways and parking areas: 18 inches
    • Other locations: 6 inches
*Note – depth is measured from the top surface of wire to top surface of finished grade or surface material. Where solid rock prevents compliance with these depths, a direct burial raceway can be used, encased in concrete at least 2" thick on top and extending down to the rock.


(Document No. 00062: Created on: 07/13/08 Last modified on: 06/19/15)