How to Steal Sunlight
Capturing natural light has been a preoccupation of architects from the very start of their profession. The designer of the Pantheon, built in 126 A.D., notably created a domed roof with a 27-foot-wide oculus, open to the sky, that allows light deep into the space. In the 1800s, the development of the glass curtain wall--a wall made out of glass instead of load-bearing masonry—was integral to the development of the modern skyscraper. Natural lighting conserves electricity, creates a connection with the outdoors, and gives a space a dynamic feel. “We try to have light come into a building from as many sides as possible,” says San Francisco-based architect Cary Bernstein, who works on both coasts. “The quality of the light and connection to the outside is what people feel the most, even more than the size of a space.”
Light can be a rare, prized resource, particularly in urban residences that share walls with neighbors or are shadowed by taller buildings. Meanwhile, a home in the suburbs or the country may have access to a lot of light, but fail to utilize it well. Here are some of the techniques architects use to bring light in and control it for the best effect.
Tracking the sun’s path across the sky
Some of the best architectural designs are custom-tailored to take advantage of natural light, an attribute that often isn’t readily apparent to the casual observer, but makes a huge difference to the experience of living in these spaces. “The luxury of a ground-up design is that you can decide where you want the light to be during different parts of the day,” says Bernstein. If you like to wake up to the sun, you can locate the bedrooms on the east side of the house. Conversely, as so happened with one of Bernstein’s projects, if you are not a morning person, you can choose to put them on the west side instead.
Funneling light into the center of a home
Particularly in the case of urban row houses that only have access to light from the front and the back, bringing in more light can be a whole art unto itself. “In San Francisco, our houses are very light-starved--the trick is to get light into the core of the building,” says San Francisco-based architect Jonathan Feldman,
designer of Plan 517-1, shown here with roofs reaching up to capture light in opposite directions. One common technique Feldman and others use is to create a central stairwell that doubles as a light well, lit by a skylight. “We make the stairs light and open, with open risers and thin handrails,” says Feldman.
In a renovation of a traditional home, Bernstein designed custom skylights with deep shafts that go through the attic, causing light to bounce around the sides and diffuse into the floor below. “We consider the roof the “fifth side”—when light comes from above, you notice how it changes during the day, which makes the interior feel alive,” says Bernstein.
Bernstein transformed a dark 1950s ranch house by adding a stairwell lit by a skylight, among other elements. The stairwell’s translucent glass wall lets a neighboring room borrow light.
Architect Nicholas Lee brought daylight into the bathroom of Plan 888-2
by turning the shower and tub into "light chimneys," as shown at the top of this post.
However, skylights should be used judiciously. “People often make the mistake of putting in too many skylights, which can leak and bring in sound and heat,” says Feldman. In particular, skylights in the bedroom can expose the inhabitants to blinding morning light.
Adding more transparency to traditional architecture
With traditional architecture, it’s possible to bring in a lot of natural light in a way that still respects the past. For instance, a French door or steel-framed door with glass panes is a lovely alternative to a solid door. The classic dormer window is used to add space as well as light. In a tall space, clerestory windows, which are small windows placed high up towards the ceiling, are an option. Architects who favor contemporary design also love clerestory windows since most of the light bounces off the ceiling, providing bright but indirect lighting.
Opening up the compartmentalized interiors of older homes also helps light flow through. In remodels of Victorian homes, Feldman likes to make all the doorways taller, enlarging the standard height of 6’ 8 feet to 8 feet, and wider as well, occasionally using double-parlor doors.
Using glass strategically in modern homes
In contemporary designs, the issue is often controlling the light, since large windows and window walls—walls entirely made of glass—are a signature element. Indeed, there may be so much light coming through the exterior that everything becomes brightly backlit. “You don’t want the person sitting by the window to become a silhouette, so it is important to bring light into the core as well, ” says Feldman. “Managing and balancing light levels throughout the house is really important.”
Large expanses of glass also have issues of heat gain and/or loss, and direct light can be very harsh. On the West Coast, houses with that prized ocean view also have to contend with blazing afternoon light. Depending on the situation, a smart design can make use of deep roof overhangs and screens, and strategically placed and sized windows may make more sense than a whole transparent wall. “You can use small openings to wash the walls with light, and they will become the lighting source for the house and spread the light more evenly,” says Feldman. “It’s also important not to over-light a building.”
To see floor plans with sun rooms click here.