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Tips for choosing outdoor lighting

Sometimes, shedding new light on a situation is all that's needed to completely change your outlook. This can be true of life, a job or, for that matter, a front porch.

Pop-psychology and self-help books often recommend not getting bogged down in details. New Age philosophies suggest positive thinking and big-picture development: With a clear vision of the goal, the details will sort themselves out. We've all heard the old cliche, "The devil is in the details."

Perhaps. But when it comes to the home environment, details are what make the whole. A comfortable, calming house doesn't magically emerge because you develop a general vision of what you'd like your environment to look like.

When we bought our house three years ago, the front porch lights were of the motion detector variety. So visitors approaching the house at night would have to do so in the dark, at least until they got close enough to the front door for the sensor to detect their presence. That was unacceptable. Nothing is less welcoming than a dark house.

But because my immediate plans included higher-priority renovations inside, the outdoor lighting solution became a stopgap. I bought a pair of discontinued wall fixtures at a deep discount — something that would make do.

They weren't really the right size, the style was questionable, but at least they provided appropriate light. After just two years, the finish had already faded, so this spring I took the opportunity to replace them with something nicer, more to scale with the house.

It didn't take long before neighbors walking by with their dogs or friends stopping to visit commented,"Your house looks great, did you paint it?" or simply, "There's something different about your house; what did you do?"

Even during the day, nice decorative outdoor fixtures have the ability to transform the look of a house. At night, when the lights are on, the change can be dramatic.

But it's easy to pick the wrong style, finish and scale, so to get some advice on selecting the right fixtures, I spent some time talking with the pros.

Style

Often, the first thing people want to consider when selecting outdoor lighting fixtures is style.

"Fixtures are designed after architectural styles," says Bob Jones of Jones Lighting in Towson. "Look to the basic style of your house and try to select something complementary."

Marie McLaughlin, a lighting consultant with Dominion Electric in Laurel agrees: "Style depends on the house — in this area, that is often traditional or farmhouse."

By definition, traditional styles evoke the best designs of bygone eras, so don't expect the look of traditional fixtures to change much from year to year. What does change are the quality and materials.

"The biggest changes I have seen have been to quality," says Jones, citing the use of handblown glass, thick beveled glass, hand-rubbed finishes and natural materials.

Of course, not every region of the country is as traditional as ours. To keep pace with preferences in trendier locales, lighting manufacturers are constantly bringing out new designs.

"The biggest stylistic improvements and innovations are occurring on the contemporary side," says Jones. "Back when I started, there weren't a lot of contemporary options — you had a ball on a stick. But now I have over a dozen [contemporary fixtures] on display in the showroom, and most are less expensive than you would imagine."

Along with quality, designers are also improving what lighting experts refer to as "bracketry" — the components that attach fixtures to a building.

"There are designs that create the illusion of hanging from a bracket," says Jones. "Trellis, from Hinkley, for example, looks as if it is free-hanging on a hook, but it is welded so it doesn't get blown around by the wind."

Finish

Style decided, the next thing to consider is finish. "Unlike styles, which are defined by the house, finishes tend to be more trendy," says McLaughlin. "The most popular finish right now is bronze — it goes with a lot and will stay looking good much better than a traditional brass."

Jones also identifies bronze as the current trend and adds that black and titanium finishes are also selling well. One thing that's not selling is polished brass.

"I'm selling antiqued brass finishes, but unless you have time to continually maintain polished brass, it generally doesn't work well outdoors," he says.

Scale

"Size is very important," says McLaughlin. "People often replace outdoor fixtures with the size of what is existing, which is usually a smaller builder-grade fixture. For a typical two-story house, an exterior wall lantern should be anywhere from 18 to 24 inches tall, depending on whether or not the porch is enclosed with a roof and, if it is, the height of the ceiling."

Jones likewise notes that most people select fixtures that are too small. He suggests that the design of the fixtures comes into play when trying to accommodate scale.

"Some fixtures thrust upward, others hang down. Depending on whether outlet boxes are located high or low in relation to the front door, certain fixtures will work better than others."

When it comes to size — and style and finish, too, for that matter — it is important to realize that everything is relative. Light fixtures, doors, windows, shutters and other elements of a home exterior all relate to one another, and one inappropriately selected component is going to stick out.

"Lighting is just one element in a composition," says Jones.

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.

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