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Lighting design in landscape architecture

Ed Mickelson is a design leader and principal for the landscape architecture and urban design practice of nbbj, one of the world’s leading design firms. Eaton’s Lighting Division team talked with Mickelson about creating meaningful outdoor spaces and the role of exterior lighting design.

Why is it important to create meaningful outdoor spaces?

My experience as a landscape architect has taught me the importance of studying context and asking questions. This helps us understand the people we are designing for and how we can create spaces that relate to the local natural environment, address culture and encourage a sense of community. To create a meaningful space, we must analyze, discover and understand.

Meaningful spaces are memorable; they’re revered and even cherished. University campuses are a great example. We remember certain campus environments from our past and are drawn back to them, and we want to share them with others. Skilled designers understand the characteristics of these spaces, and as we design new spaces, we strive to create environments that possess these attributes.

What are things to consider when designing for the pedestrian scale?

Scale is incredibly important whether we are designing a district, a city block or a courtyard. Lighting elements such as streetlights, pedestrian poles and bollards are elements in the landscape to which people can relate. I sometimes use a “family” of lighting elements to create visual continuity, which helps theme the outdoor environment. Other times, I use a series of lighting families that are unique and yet compatible. Continuity and variety are both important when designing at the pedestrian scale.

What are key characteristics you look for when selecting products and materials for an exterior lighting design?

Quality, performance, ease of maintenance and visual aspects are equally important to us. Quality is the essential factor we consider when we are specifying elements, as we design our sites to be sustainable regarding longevity and the environment. Performance is also extremely important, so when it comes to site lighting, we aim for achieving both output and coverage in an energy-efficient way. Minimal maintenance and ease of maintenance are common desires of all our clients, so we work with manufacturers and lighting designers to address these issues. Finally, the aesthetics of the poles and fixtures we select is vital in realizing a visual theme and enhancing our landscapes.

Should architecture and landscape architecture share a consistent aesthetic?

I would say that often, yes – a consistent aesthetic should be the goal. But sometimes, we want to create contrast. Architecture and landscape architecture can complement each other, even if they do not literally “match.” In some cases, continuity may even be achieved through light quality. We consider lots of nuances in this area.

Do you follow any guiding principles when adding lighting fixtures to a landscape?

From a visual standpoint, continuity, scale, and beauty are generally the primary considerations. There are sometimes special conditions and/or effects that come into play, and we work with our talented nbbj lighting studio to assist us with these.

Do luminaires play a role within the landscape even when not illuminated?

Buildings often look their best when construction is first completed. On the other hand, landscapes often look their worst early on, because they are immature and need time to grow and develop to achieve the vision of the designer and the client. In fact, it may take 10 to 15 years before they begin to reach some level of maturity. Luminaires provide immediate visual impact and structure in the landscape that plants typically cannot provide.

What are the most important aspects of lighting design in landscape architecture?

We design for light quality, because people are deeply affected by lighting. Often light quality – not high light levels – drives a solution for lighting outdoor spaces, and the lighting designers we work with understand this very well. Safety is also important, and we strive to find the happy medium between light levels and strategic light placement to ensure safety. I find that the application of thoughtful and informed lighting concepts leads to design that has a profound effect on the way people feel about a space.