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As humans are naturally programmed to crave daylight, architects have developed new tricks to ensure that our homes are illuminated in the best possible way

This article was originally published on Christie’s International Real Estate’s lifestyle blog, Luxury Defined.

Pity the villagers of Rjukan in Norway and Viganella in Italy, who until recently lived half the year in the shade as tall mountainsides blocked out their sunlight. But technology has come to their rescue—enormous mirrors have now been installed on nearby peaks to track the sun and reflect its rays into the deep valleys below. Their homes are dark no longer.

It’s well known that a dearth of natural light brings with it a risk of developing seasonal affective disorder. Rjukan and Viganella may be in extreme locations, but natural light has health and well-being benefits wherever you are. For architects as well as residents, there is an aesthetic upside to natural light. “It reveals the volumes in architecture, and conditions our perception of textures, materials, and colors,” says architect Samuel Lamas of Equipe Lamas in Brazil.

 Deloia House Salmela Architects
At Deloia House, a single-story residence in Minnesota by Salmela Architects, cubic skylight structures extend from above the roofline down into the interior volume. “The boxes reflect natural light down into the space, with openings that disperse the light in all directions,” explains Kai Salmela. Image: Corey Gaffer. Banner image: Equipe Lamas’s Casa 28 in Brazil. Haruo Mikami

There’s also a green argument, as Kai Salmela of Salmela Architects in Duluth, Minnesota, explains. “Increased daylighting—combined with passive heating from the sun and passive ventilation from operable windows—can greatly reduce the energy costs and hence the environmental impacts of our buildings.”

Traditionally, houses in many cooler parts of the world were built of solid stone or brick, both materials that historically make it hard to keep the heat in. To counter this, “People made the windows as small as possible,” says architect Jane Burnside, who designs in Scotland and Ireland. “It wasn’t about views.”

 BKK Architects Cirqua Apartments Peter Bennetts
Cirqua Apartments is a multi-residence development by BKK Architects in Melbourne, Australia. It features oversized porthole-style windows that channel natural light into all of the homes on the steeply sloping site. The articulated façade also reduces the building’s mass at street level, and references the character of existing homes in the neighbourhood. Image: Peter Bennetts

Modern construction techniques, however, mean it’s now possible to create big windows by spanning vast lengths across a lintel, with double- and triple-glazing keeping the heat in.

For architects with a love of light, there are a number of ways to draw it into homes, from ingenious apertures to clever layouts, thoughtful structure, and even kinetics. At the Cirqua Apartments complex in Melbourne, Australia, large, round windows work wonders. The development, by BKK Architects, stands on a steeply sloping site, and all the bedrooms and living areas of the 44 homes have direct access to natural light. 

Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig takes this idea one step further in its three-story Treehouse on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. On the top and bottom floors, a double-layered teak screen, like slatted shutters, can be adjusted to create a solid or semi-open wall. When open, a play of light is allowed in. “It’s almost like two fences on either side of a structure; one is shifted to open where the other is closed,” says architect Tom Kundig.

Treehouse Costa Rica
Set amid thick forest in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, the Treehouse by Olson Kundig architects is characterized by two floors that are open to the elements, with daylight, airflow, and privacy controlled by slatted teak screens. The Treehouse “breathes and embraces the local climate,” says Tom Kundig. Image: Nic Lehoux

The right light is, of course, dependent on orientation. At Equipe Lamas’s Casa 28 in Brasília, big windows are mostly positioned east–west and the walls north–south. “This allows a dramatic natural light effect during sunrise and sunset, and gives open views across the house,” says Lamas. Poor orientation or low light levels can be alleviated by skylights. These, according to the Danish Building Research Institute, provide twice as much light as vertical windows and three times as much as dormers.

Every room should have a minimum of two sources of natural light, preferably three, and ideally four or even five—Kai Samela

Burnside’s own Origami House in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, faces west, meaning it doesn’t get much light in winter. “We used long linear roof lights in the main living space to bring the south light in,” she explains. Meanwhile, in MSMR’s compact townhouse on London’s New Burlington Place, natural light is brought deep into the building by a top-lit sculptural stair.

Casa 28 Brazil
The generous 1.7-acre (0.7 ha) site enabled Casa 28 in Brasília, Brazil to be precisely positioned for optimum natural light and views. Image: Haruo Mikami

Quantity and Quality

“Every room should have a minimum of two sources of natural light, preferably three, and ideally four or even five,” believes Salmela. His firm pulled this off in its hometown in Minnesota with the single-story Deloia House. Salmela describes it as one of the best examples the firm has of both quantity and quality of light. As well as narrow building widths and single-loaded corridors, the house has clerestory boxes (raised sections) in the ceiling that “act almost like natural light chandeliers,” according to the architect.

Skylights really come into their own with deep basements. Pilbrow & Partners top-lit a subterranean pool in a private house in Kensington, London, through five oculus portals. These support a shallow layer of water, which disperses natural light.

For a full-frontal blast of sunlight, the bigger the sliding door, the better. Modern technology means they can now be up to 33 feet (10 m) wide, and Polish firm KWK Promes put such doors to good use at Quadrant House. The client was after a home that would react to the sun’s movement, so architect Rob Konieczny’s solution was a static L-shaped building with a “wing” in between that pivots on tracks over the lawn. Meanwhile, Swiss window company Sky-Frame spent six months fashioning a bespoke motorized sliding system for the project, meaning the glazed living room can be completely open on two sides.

Origami house Northern Ireland
Inspired by Irish clachans (hamlets of cottages), Jane Burnside’s Origami House in Ballymena, Northern Ireland—designed as her own family home—brings a contemporary vision to a traditional concept. Open-plan living spaces run throughout, walls of glass line the west façade, and linear roof lights draw in rays from the south. Image: Jane Burnside Architects/Chris Hill

Clever consideration of layout and building structure can also increase natural light, as MSMR’s townhouse demonstrates. Occupying just 1,292 square feet (120 sq m), the home is squeezed onto a former garage site between London’s Regent Street and Savile Row. It’s landlocked on three sides, so the building’s street-facing façade needed to provide all the light and air to the habitable rooms, without compromising privacy. The architects’ solution was to put the main rooms at the front of the house, and push the ancillary accommodation to the back. And by stepping back the front elevation, the basement gets access to daylight.

Letting the light in is not entirely without its drawbacks. In northern Europe, Burnside warns about overheating. “It depends on the building system. Origami House has a heavy mass to absorb excess heat and lets it out slowly. In a timber-framed house, you don’t have a heavy mass inside, only the floor to absorb the heat.”

Casa 28
The inclusion of tilting windows at Casa 28 in Brazil allows cross-ventilation in every room. Image: Haruo Mikami

Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, to get better lighting throughout the year (with greater thermal comfort in winter) the openings should be oriented to the south, and the design should avoid problems of direct sunlight, explains Lamas. For extremely hot climates, with short winters, it’s better to have a combination of north and south openings.

Salmela says the goal isn’t necessarily to maximize light, “but to achieve the right quantity and quality of light for the space and function.” He cautions that “too much direct light can be a problem, causing excessive glare and heat gain, and UV damage to materials.” Deloia House counters this with a thin, cantilevered flat roof that gives some shade to the windows during the hottest parts of the day in high summer. Other features that can be used to keep out strong rays and prevent overheating are brise-soleil, pergolas, and balconies.

And as the inhabitants of any heavily glazed building know—including those of London’s Neo Bankside, which stands right next to Tate Modern—windows allow views in as well as out. As Salmela puts it: “The level of transparency or privacy is both an individual preference and a cultural consideration.” 


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