Outdoor living once meant a grill, sticky webbed chairs, a crackling boom box and maybe a floodlight - a concept that has since morphed into a sophisticated outdoor kitchen, soft furniture and a fire pit to chase away the late-season chill.
But with the expansion of cocooning, outdoor rooms and backyard entertaining now means good music and lighting are as much a part of the mood-making and fun of these living spaces as is the food.
"Instead of traveling as much, you find more folks are staying home. And in doing so, they want to give their property that resort feel and make it a little sanctuary," said Joe Caudill, whose Caudill Luminations and Specialties in Gambrills installs outdoor lighting and sound.
No longer are the lights bright and strictly for security, now they are eco-friendly and for entertaining at home. No longer are flowerpots only for impatiens, but for built-in speakers, too.
At Gramophone in Timonium, LED lighting - some in changing colors - halogen lights and speakers in planters are a draw, as are remote units that can coordinate lights and music, said Keith Goodwin, chief of custom installation sales.
"You can have fun with light, it can be part of the experience," Goodwin said. "You can have a blues party and have blue lights."
While LEDs draw a fraction of the power of incandescents, they cost much more - five times, for some - which limits the trend toward them, lighting designers say. Low-voltage halogen lights, which also use reduced power, remain more popular.
Improved weatherproof speakers allow for surround-sound as well as a single speaker that turns music into stereo.
Glenn and Lisa Doering, plus their children and friends, have taken to spending evenings grilling outside, lolling around the patio and floating in the pool in their Harford County backyard.
Music envelops them. From dusk on, a pastel blush of purple, blue and green defines the wave-shaped pool, courtesy of fiber-optics. The glow from halogens can keep people safe on the stone steps that lead to the pool deck and from wandering into the landscaping, where leaves and their shadows dance in the light.
"My wife and I, we like the outdoors," said Glenn Doering, who owns an interior commercial contracting business. "It reminds me of vacations in Mexico. It's just a relaxing area."
When the Doerings added the pool and poolhouse three years ago, they included fiber-optic lights to softly delineate the pool and the stamped concrete deck. The fun ambient lighting also enhances safety, said Glenn Doering, who also tucked outdoor speakers under the eaves of the poolhouse, just as he'd done on the home's wraparound porch. The speakers are plugged into a receiver with an iPod in the poolhouse. The set-up gives the family the flexibility of having the same music on in both locations, or choosing different music, and adjusting volumes for each.
But the huge floodlight he added to the poolhouse to illuminate the pool and deck sent guests scrambling; even the family rarely enjoyed it after dark. In its shadows, the steps to the deck remained treacherous.
"It was blinding," said Lisa Doering, a homemaker. "It was the clean-up light. You turn it on and everyone goes home."
At that point, the couple turned to exterior lighting professionals.
Calling in the pros
Ed and Susan Nelson, who own and operate Outdoor Lighting Perspectives in Baltimore, gave the backyard an entirely new evening look.
Installing 65 low-voltage lights, they dimmed the lighting, enlarged the illuminated space, added safety lighting, highlighted landscaping and kept the brick patio and walkways lit without a landing-strip look.
"It's nice to do something beyond just the patio area," lighting designer Susan Nelson said, pointing out the highlighted retaining walls and plantings. Also, perimeter lighting visually expanded the setting. The lights capture the fluttering leaves of trees. Ed Nelson built near-invisible lamps, flush-mounted in the pea gravel.
"The lights are used only at night anyway. Why do you want to see them during the day?" he said.
In the landscaping near the pool are foot-tall adjustable copper path lights, whose hats keep the lighting aimed downward for safety and ambience.
A single down-sconce brightens the stone steps from the deck to the patio, and the homeowners like the safety it offers.
"It's easier to find your way there," Lisa Doering said.
For the patio, lighting designer Susan Nelson added lighting to complement what emanated from the house and porch.
But first, out came Glenn Doering's hardware-store lights near the patio and walkway, the few dinged survivors of the lawn mower.
The Nelsons installed lights in the mulched area of the landscape, which kept the lights safer and allowed them to multitask. They provide safety, a bit of security and show off the textures of the greenery. One light is a half-path, half-floodlight, one side illuminating the path and the other highlighting the mandevilla vine.
Throughout, hidden lamps accent a Japanese maple here, a dogwood there.
Directing the sound
For other outdoor areas, the music is what needs upgrading - and homeowners are more discerning about what's out there than they used to be.
Mark Recene, vice president of Command Performance in Reisterstown, said homeowners are savvy about their sound wants, from speakers tucked into landscaping to multichannel audio for the outdoor flat-screen television.
"We thought we would have to educate the clients about what they might want out there. Now people are calling us and saying, 'We are looking to put in a couple of pairs of speakers and we want to talk to you,'" he said.
Tim Rhode of Phoenix was one of them. He wanted the music setup he admired at a resort: heard but not seen.
Recene put a receiver in the pool shed, four little green funnel-shaped speakers in the shrubbery, and handed Rhode a remote unit to run the system in the house and yard.
"It doesn't project itself at the neighbors' house. It just fills the yard with sound," Rhode said. "When you are standing in the backyard you cannot tell where the sound is coming from."
Ambient lighting and sound need not run into the five figures. While projects can include pergola shades for privacy, projection televisions and light shows that twirl to the music- all operated from a single remote unit - a few adjustable lamps and speakers can create atmosphere.
For DIYers, hardware and electronics stores are replete with solar lamps, pre-wired light sets, speakers and fake rocks with speakers inside. Experts warn that low-grade plastics won't survive long, and recommend metals. Inexpensive solars have little battery capacity and fade quickly.
So popular are outdoor light and sound that some homebuilders include it in outdoor room options. Beazer Homes, for example, recently rolled out outdoor room packages that feature CD, radio and iPod four-speaker sound systems in a pergola, as well as lighting, said Diana Van Stone, vice president of sales and marketing for Beazer-Maryland.
"It adds to the whole ambience," she said.
Sound and lighting tips
Thinking about outdoor lighting and music? Ponder this:
*Plan ahead. Unless you're sticking only solar lamps in the ground, it can be easier to incorporate light and sound during construction. Many landscape architects and builders regularly work with outdoor lighting and sound professionals.
*Read the fine print. Burying electrical wires typically requires a permit; contact your local land-use office. Check product warranties, system guarantees and, especially if work includes going up in your trees, the installer's insurance. Find out about maintenance. Keep a diagram showing where wires are buried.
*Consider timers and a programmable remote. Timers ensure that even if you forget, nothing will stay on all night. A programmable remote is handy, provided you aren't the sort of person who will lose it or drop it in the pool.
*Brilliance. Don't light up the neighborhood. Use efficient fixtures aimed where you want the glow. The International Dark Sky Association has given its nod to fixtures for minimal light pollution; see a detailed list at darksky.org.
*Wired vs. wireless. Consider going wireless if making the connections is problematic. Remember, you still need a power source.
*Style. Especially with speakers that look like rocks, make sure they'll blend with the stone in your yard. Plain weatherproof speakers can blend in with a home's exterior and be hidden in shrubbery.
[ANDREA F. SIEGEL]