We all know that sunlight is good for us: it helps us grow, brings us smile and makes us more productive. When it comes to housing, natural light saves us money in lighting and heating. However, with the increasing population and the development of the urban environment, buildings that lack an adequate amount of natural light start to emerge. For instance, some of us may live in apartments where there’s no direct access to sunlight. Or sometimes, as in the case of our property, it might be facing in the wrong direction or receiving shading from the properties surrounding us.
Our house falls straight into the second category. As we’re going to carry out an earthquake repair for our home later this year and I’d love to gain more daylight/sunlight into our living room, I thought this would be a good case study for our article.
After researching and asking around, with the help of Warren Clarke, the Beach Hut Architecture in Christchurch NZ, we came up with four options to introduce natural light into our home. The solutions listed in this article may be more specific to our house. However, the general principles should still apply to most buildings. Please feel free to chip in and share your thoughts with us.
Before we start, it is essential to know the difference between daylight and sunlight.
Daylight is the volume of natural light entering the house through windows. It is vital to illuminate your homes. Sunlight is referred to as actual sunshine coming into the house. It has higher radiation and brings in warmth. Too much sunlight is not suitable for any building, as it would overheat the place quickly and it might blind you. Too little sunlight, like in our home, forces us to wear more sweaters at home than when we are outside in winter.
Here is the layout of our house, the arrow points to the North, the position of the midday sun for our property. Our house was likely built as a holiday batch once upon a time. As time progressed, other parts were added onto the house. With a new building beside us that is 6 metres high, we do not get a lot of sunlight anymore in winter.
In summer the sun is shining from about 7 am until around 12:30 pm into our windows in the living room. The sun then moves above the house. In winter the neighbouring house shades all but our roof until 11 am. From 11 am until 12:30 pm, we do get sunlight in our living room windows. After 12:30 pm, the sun does not move above our house. It moves lower and is shining onto the toilet wall, entrance and through a small window into our laundry space.
Here is the roofline of our property, with the arrows pointing towards the lower points in our roof structure.
There are four ways to get more light into our living room: change the layout of our house, add windows to gain direct light, find ways to gain light indirectly and construct a potential sunroom. Let’s look into each option more closely.
Option 1: Change the layout of the house to gain more sunlight
In this option, we would have to make significant changes to our house. In essence, we would need to move the living room to where currently the laundry, toilet and bathroom are. Changing the layout is significant, not just the labour but also the cost.
We would need to replace the piping for the bathroom, toilet and laundry; rearrange the electrical to have more plugs better positioned; as well as install a new extractor fan at the new bathroom area. New and more windows would also be required to let in more sunlight, and lastly, the storage cupboards and entry have to be relocated.
The cost of this option is the highest of all possible solutions. Adding new windows and having changes to the existing structure of the building will be expensive. Walls also need to be checked to ensure they are not part of the structural wall. In our house, there is also a step down from the space between the toilet to the bathroom. If we decide to raise the lower part, then we will have to change the external wall and roof of the new living area, as it would be too low otherwise, adding further to the cost.
The cost estimate for this option is about $50,000.00 at least.
Option 2: Gaining light with the current layout
To gain direct sunlight with the current layout, we need to add windows or remove what is currently shading ours. Here is the current plan of our house as a reminder.
As we cannot make our neighbour’s house vanish, adding windows at our current floor levels would not help us. We need to add windows onto the roof, where we do get sunlight. There are again several options, which we will go through next. Important to note is that using this method we will only be able to achieve our goal partially— roof windows are made to gain light and keep out the heat, in essence, we would gain daylight. This plan would be excellent in summer, though not ideal in winter where we would like to have the extra heat. Furthermore, any roof window installed would lose more heat than our insulated roof.
Option 2.1: Installing a light tunnel/solar tube/sun tunnel
Light tunnels often have a round cap on top to catch the light from different angles. With various mirrors, daylight is then directed into the house. What in this option that would suit us is that we have above the living/dining/kitchen area a false ceiling and roof cavity. The tunnel would bridge that gap between roof and ceiling without extra work needed to be done. The downside of this option in our case is that light tubes are made for small spaces like walk-in wardrobes or hallways. A large area such as ours would require multiple light tunnels. I think I would also miss not seeing the sky directly, as a light tunnel just reflects the light.
Nonetheless— this is an option that would work and be affordable at about $1,000.00 per light tunnel installed.
Option 2.2: Install roof windows for natural light.
This option for us does mean some additional work would need to be done to bridge the gap of the ceiling to the roof to box the window in and let the light shine into the living room. Regarding visual appeal, I would prefer this option. My personal opinion is that an actual window looks better on the roof than the light tunnel. It would also allow us to see the sky, though we would be blinded by the sun in mid-summer during the hottest hours. The option of the roof windows would also be more costly at about $1,000.00 plus installation. The installation cost can vary around $300-$900 pending on its complexity.
If only daylight is desired, then the roof windows should be installed on the Southwest facing roof side. But in our case, as we are also after the sunlight, we would add one on the Northeast facing roof and one on the Northwest facing roof. To prevent overheating in the summer due to these windows, we would choose the roof windows that have blinds included.
A different way to organise the roof window is shown in the image below. In changing the roof structure to make it lower above the bathroom, we could install a window than is situated between the bathroom and kitchen area, and angled towards the living room. People like me that are paranoid about potential damage in hail (though all roof windows are tested and approved against it); this might be a better option as a roof overhang protects it. Again, there would be additional costs to change the ceiling, and we would also have a more substantial heat loss through the loss of insulation. The costs for this in our house would be approximately(??)
Option 3: Indirect ways to provide natural light
Now, let us look at ways to gain sunlight by utilising indirect ways to light up our living room.
Option 3.1: Use mirrors outside to reflect light into the inside
We tried this method a few winters ago, and the result was far from satisfactory. The mirrors needed to be moved and adjusted as the sun moved; also, the heat was still missing.
Though writing about this option reminds me of my dad. He designed and installed a mirror wall opposite his house in his backyard to bring more light inside. I have never seen anything like this before. The mirror wall is about 5000x5000mm in size. Every mirror is about 50x100mm and angled onto the ceilings of different rooms. As my dad is a perfectionist: he connected an electric motor that moves the mirror wall with the sun. The engine calculates the date and time to optimise the captured sunlight and send the daylight onto the chosen spots within the house.
The cost for such a design is difficult to estimate, as my dad did a lot of it himself. He is an electrician with curiosity on technology and DIY, and after all, a German. The motor itself that I know, was already about 1,000.00 Euro.
Option 3.2: Brighten our room by using a reflective interior room design.
Use light colours on walls, furniture and flooring will help light up a room. Light colours reflect light, and dark colours absorb light. Painting the walls slightly darker than the ceiling will give us a new feeling of space and light in a room.
For us, most of our walls are painted white, some of our furniture is darker recycled wood that is oiled and reflects a little. The carpet will get removed, and an oiled exposed timber floor will reflect better than our current rug. But this alone will not help us in letting enough light into the room.
Option 3.3: Introducing internal windows to share the light.
Adding internal windows is another way to get indirect light. Casa Batllo, one of the famous Gaudi designed buildings in Spain, makes extensive use of interior windows to distribute nature light around the house.
In our case, this means renovating the entry/laundry area with more roof or wall windows, then bring the light over to our living room. It could be achieved by installing additional windows onto internal walls between our entry area and the kitchen. Unfortunately, this would not be a workable option for us, as our bathroom sits right behind the kitchen wall.
Option 4: Sunbathing in the potential sunroom
Except for the option of changing the layout of our house, something is missing. All of those options lack a critical ingredient that we would also like to have—heat from the sun. The heat gain will only be small with roof windows/light tunnels or indirect light. How can we get a higher heat gain throughout the year?
What about a potential sunroom?
On the Northeast side of our living room beside the driveway is a large sliding door with a concrete slab and tiles on top of it. This area on the side of the house is small at about 1000mm wide and 8000mm long. We could potentially build a sunroom with windows on top of that. This area does get sun even in winter for longer than our current windows of the living room. Enclosing this area with glass would make it act as an indirect heater.
The concrete slab and tiles are very good at absorbing heat. The heat can then be released once the temperature of the air cools below the temperature in the concrete slab and tiles. Our slab is uninsulated at present, but having a glasshouse would still be a heat gain. The glasshouse could be utilised as a greenhouse, and the heat that it maintained could be transferred into the living room.
The estimated cost for a conservatory is between $30,000-$40,000.
Natural light is essential to our health, physically and mentally. We do perform better and are happier in places that have an adequate amount of natural light. In this article, together with Warren, we use our house renovation planning as a case study to explore ways to bring more natural light into a house. These options include but are not limited to