Best outdoor lighting to see summer stars
August 11, 2016
Last month, a Denverite walked out to his car to fetch his suitcase at 10 p.m. "Wow," he said as he came back into my Silverthorne home. "I forgot what the night sky looks like."
Mountain culture supports a deep connection to the land, and now, it's also actively protecting the wonder of the night sky. Summit County officials passed a Dark Skies restriction, which prohibits the use of any outdoor, nighttime lighting that radiates up or sideways; lighting can only glow downward. It's a bit of a curse for landscape architects and designers, but it allows for a sense of awe — and reasons to linger outdoors longer, even when it is a bit chilly — when gazing up to a clear, starlit sky.
Summit County's chilly evenings sometimes cause people to shy away from outdoor entertaining, but with proper preparation, friends and family can enjoy cozy gatherings under the vast, starry sky.
The most natural solution, which has evolved since cavemen first discovered fire, involves artistic fire pits and fireplaces.
Breck Ironworks' Fire On Demand offers custom-built fire pits, ranging from 10-inch diameters to 6-feet. The steel logs look nearly as realistic as wooden logs, with textured end caps, handcrafted (rather than casted) pinecones and a mix of full, quarter and half "split" logs.
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"What makes our fire pits different is the amount of detail we put into them," says Mark Bookman, Breck Ironworks owner.
The logs produce heat up to 800 degrees and radiate out 2 to 5 feet, depending upon size. The stainless steel burner doesn't require any maintenance, and the log set lasts "indefinitely," Bookman says. They're even impervious to marshmallows — just let the logs cool, wipe them down, and you're ready to roast more s'mores.
Fire it up
Though for many, part of the charm of a fire involves stacking wood and nurturing kindling until it ignites, homeowners tend to use propane or natural gas fire pits and fireplaces more often, Bookman says, because they're so convenient: Instant fire bursts out with the touch of a switch, and once it's off, it's fireproof, unlike the lingering embers of a real campfire. In addition, gas and propane fire pits circumvent fire restrictions.
"All fire brings camaraderie and conversation," Bookman says. "It is a meeting place, something to congregate around. When there's a circle atmosphere, you definitely have a lot more conversation as opposed to sitting across from each other. It's human nature; when you're in a circle, everyone is equal."
Even a semi-circle will do, as in the case of a stone fireplace, which some homeowners construct. For a more modern look, people opt for stainless steel rectangles filled with glass pebbles, which still maintains the "circular" effect of a campfire.
In fact, some stainless steel fire pits double as an outdoor table; when owners remove the table, they expose the fire pit and glass pebbles, fueled by a propane tank underneath the structure. Though you'd think they might be heavy, they're actually quite portable, says Tracey Egolf, interior designer at Egolf Interiors in Breckenridge.
"We have such cool summer evenings that having a literal fire is a big draw," she says.
During the day, fire pits act as an art piece. Artist Rick Wittrig has created several fiery pits for everything from Australia's Special Olympics and Vancouver's Winter Olympics to areas in Dubai, as well as the 6-foot sphere in Copper Mountain's Village. He carves kokopellis, star constellations and snowflakes, which, at Copper, include hundreds of snowflakes in which no two are alike.
When it comes to establishing an enchanting evening atmosphere on a deck, Summit County homeowners and designers need to find creative methods. While some municipalities are more strict than others, the fact remains that it's illegal to use lights that shine upward, or outward (sideways), unless you're grandfathered in.
One common technique involves installing LED lights underneath end caps of a stone wall or tucking them along the edge of a boulder wall so light glows from the bottom but doesn't extend past the wall.
Since even frosted or amber glass doesn't qualify under the Dark Sky policy — unless it only shines light downward — designers work with manufacturers to build custom fixtures, often ones that look like lanterns, though other outdoor lighting can take the form of more modern, rectangular or square fixtures, or incorporate rippled and other textured metals, like stainless steel, in their designs. As demand grows for Dark Sky compliant lighting, Egolf says, manufacturers have been responding with even more unique style selections.
Another option includes installing recessed down lights under the eaves of roofs. However, this is best planned during preconstruction, or renovation. For existing non-compliant exterior light fixtures, retrofit canister-like sleeves exist, which can be installed to block light from escaping through the sides of light fixtures.
Fiber optics are also popular. One remote light source allows the unit to produce lights that shoot down a fiber up to 500 feet long (allowing the plug to exist indoors), or it can contain small dots of light emitting in a linear fashion. The latter is often used as deck-edge lighting, which illuminates from the bottom. Fiber optics also can provide "subtle and dramatic pathways to hot tubs," Egolf says. Hooded pathlights — as long as they're sturdy and hold up to heavy snow loads (or are stored during winter) also work.
Gooseneck-style fixtures, from which the light shines downward, can replace traditional outdoor sconce lighting as well.
Temporary plug-in lighting, like LED umbrellas, as well as candles, can also be practical options.
"They're great because they're portable and they set a mood that you can't achieve with the dark night restrictions," says Betsy Burton, lighting designer of Inside Source Frisco.
Architectural lighting is best accomplished during the planning stage, Burton says.
"We have to be a little more creative and a little more open because you can't do the usual thing," she says.
And though dark night restrictions create a few obstacles, they maintain one of the reasons we all live in the mountains: to experience the vastness, and beauty, of nature.