Let the Sun Shine In With an Expertly-Placed Skylight
Sunlight beams into the belly of a London-area kitchen designed by UK’s Dedraft Architecture. Without the natural overhead light, a similarly oriented space may feel closed in, but here, daylight breathes energy into the room and draws the eye to every deliberate detail. This is where a skylight truly shines—drenching occupants in daylight where it’s lacking. What’s more, skylights (or rooflights in the UK) can support a city-dweller’s need for privacy in close-quartered environments, reduce energy costs, and encourage a healthy circadian rhythm.
We’re not the only ones who think so. Architects know, too, that a simple, well-placed skylight can yield tremendous returns. Whether aimed at enhancing aesthetics or improving a client’s well-being, a beaming ray of natural light overhead infuses even the dreariest day (or tucked-away interior space) with joy. Despite some risks of water leaks or solar gain, skylights are a top priority for pros, used in any application to great benefit.
For Grant Straghan, Dedraft Architecture's founder, skylights shift how a space is experienced through the use of directional light. "The ability to frame the sky, without a frame interrupting the experience, has been explored in art and architecture for centuries," he explains, referencing James Turrell’s famed ‘‘Skyspaces’’ installations as an example. "Reducing skylights and their impact to pure simplicity is what we endeavor to do on each project."
Architect Catherine Fowlkes of Fowlkes Studio, a firm based in Washington D.C., says skylights add sculptural value, too. "The shaft of a standard sized and priced skylight can twist and turn and flare out in multiple directions, creating a dynamic light well in the ceiling," she says. Plus, if the exterior scenery is undesirable, "a skylight can be layered with an interior laylight that lets diffused light in, while obstructing a clear view." Laylights, she says, are frosted pieces of glass installed to screen the skylight opening. "We have used them when we want a more diffused quality of light or when we want to obscure the skylight," she explains. "They're a great tool."
From a narrow kitchen in bustling London to a fresh new build stateside (and everything in between) skylights improve livability and add visual interest. If you’re considering one for your renovation or new build, read on.
What You Need To Know
There are a variety of skylights to choose from, says Neil Dusheiko of Neil Dusheiko Architects. "Fixed skylights are the most economical to install and can generally span larger distances," he says. Opening or ventilating skylights, such as ones supplied by Velux and Sunsquare, open manually or electronically. Sun tubes are ideal if sunlight may benefit a space away from the roof. "Sun tubes are smaller skylights that rely on reflected light from flexible tubes to bring natural light into internal spaces," he explains.
When choosing a skylight, Dusheiko says it's essential to consider the structure's solar orientation, a skylight's accessibility, and cost. "In certain orientations, an abundance of natural light could result in overheating," he says, so note the sun's direction and progression throughout the day. Perhaps it requires shading or solar film to reduce heat gain. All skylights require maintenance, too, so they must be accessible. "Skylights do get dirty and will need to be cleaned occasionally. It is good to plan this in when considering where to place your skylight," Dusheiko explains.
In regards to the bottom line, "there are many off the shelf solutions for skylights that can be manufactured in standard sizes and shapes," he says. "These would be generally more cost effective that bespoke skylights that need to made in unusual shapes."
Washington D.C.-based Architect Colleen Healey of Colleen Healey Architecture, agrees. "A standard skylight tends to be less expensive for the unit than a window of about the same size," she says. "Standard skylights are in the $500 range and then install will depend on roofing material and whether the skylight is being installed into an existing roof or a new roof."
In the United States, architects turn to the Skylight brand Velux. Other trusted manufacturers include Glazing Vision. Sunsquare, Roofmaker, L2i, Cantifix, and Maxlight, which are popular in the United Kingdom.
Where To Place Them
Alexander Jermyn of Alexander Jermyn Architecture LTD in Berkeley, California, chose a pair of narrow skylights for his TP-H Residence project in Palo Alto. "Located adjacent to a white or light-colored wall, a skylight can effectively bounce sunlight off that surface and brighten the entire room," he says.
Near An Internal Window
To maximize natural light, Jermyn uses skylights and interior windows in tandem. He says placing them near each other illuminates more than one space. "When they are placed next to an internal window, the light from the skylight can be shared with an internal room," he says. It’s best to locate a skylight "tight to the ceiling so that the light can wash along that ceiling surface," Jermyn says. Transom windows are very effective in this instance.
Along A Roof Ridge
When verticality abounds in a non-traditional structure, a skylight along the roof ridge "offers lovely daylight," says Henning Stummel of Henning Stummel Architects Ltd. This home, formerly a double-height industrial space, "has a deep plan and is wedged in-between other buildings." During the conversion, Strummel employed glazing overhead to guide light into the deep plan. "We had converted it to residential use," he says of the project. "We wanted museum-like light levels. It's wonderful; sculptors now use the space."
At The Roof Apex
"In urban contexts, where our buildings are hemmed in, top light can be a solution to catch light whilst ensuring privacy," Henning says, referencing his London Tin House project. "Each pavilion is a room with a pyramidal roof and its own top light," Henning says. The skylights, which are operable (pushed open by electric chain activators to release warm air), are trapezoids that face north to reduce direct sunlight. "These rooflights are a specially customized ‘Neo’ rooflight made by The Rooflight Company in Gloucestershire," he says.
Along A Staircase
Leading the eye up to the second floor, Dusheiko aligned a linear skylight with his home's ascending staircase. "Skylights can connect us to the outside world. Being able to see the sky and trees makes one feel more in touch with nature and its cycles," he says.
Above Your Shower
While unexpected, skylights in bathrooms or above a shower can mimic the feeling of bathing outdoors. An awe-inducing blue-sky view is visible from Dusheiko's, "which turned it into an open-air shower," he says. Fowlkes agrees; showers are a favored spot for skylights in her work. "Shower skylights offer a dramatic connection to the outside without typical privacy constraints," she says.
In A Narrow Stairwell
Straghan varies a skylight's shape to modify its effect. "Circular roof lights are our current favorites, eliminating edges," he says. Here, he's placed one at the top of a slender flight of stairs, illuminating the space all the way down. The London-based architect also augments skylights with "oversailing joists to shade and provide textural shadows," and translucent or transparent glazing to diffuse incoming daylight.
Above Kitchen Cabinetry
Architects Greg Howe and Pam Lamaster-Millett of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects in Chicago, IL, often place skylights in kitchens to enhance the space. "Many of our projects are in urban settings, with deep lots and close neighboring buildings," Lamaster-Millett says. "Skylights offer alternative views up to the sky, or trees, and bring a sense of openness into the center of the home."
Beside A Mirror
To amplify views of nature, position skylights beside a wall or mirror, Healey suggests. "If you oversize the skylight and take the drywall or mirror right up to the glass, you get a clean opening from ceiling to sky," she says. "A mirror up into the well of the skylight blurs the line between interior and exterior space."
Within A Deep Well
Healey says this roof structure required large beams between the skylights, so she spread standard units even further apart and carved the extra-deep wells for a full range of light. "The deeper the skylight well, the more fun you can have with the opening," she says. "Openings to the sky are a dynamic way to connect to the outdoors because they get a broader change in light variety over the course of a day. We find skylights most interesting when they are placed adjacent to a wall, or we'll sneak them next to mirrors and walls to bounce and direct light."
Beside A Curved Wall
"Recently we placed skylights next to a wall that curves out of the skylight and down so that the light is incredibly soft as it falls into the space," Healey says. "In this case it's mostly hidden from view until you are further into the room, providing some mystery to where the source of such a soft light is coming from."
Above An Open Stairwell
Skylights are well suited for an open stairwell, Fowlkes says, calling the location a "great opportunity." Here’s why: "Stairwell skylights can bring light deep into what is often the darkest part of a house and allow light to flood down into multiple floors," she says. Shadows abound during the descent, too, thanks to metal and glass staircase details and many twists and turns.
In A Bedroom
"One of my favorite places for a skylight is in a bedroom," says Greg Dutton, Co-founder, Midland Architecture. "I love the idea of lying in bed and staring up at the night sky." Dutton first considers orientation when placing a skylight into a design. "Orienting to the North is ideal," he says. "It creates a soft, even light throughout the day. I try to avoid Southern exposure, as it tends to be harsh and can overheat the space."
Tucked In The Corner
In a recently completed project, Eric Haesloop of Turnbull Griffin Haesloop in Berkeley, CA placed a skylight in the far corner of an open-plan living and dining space. "I wanted the skylight to balance the light in the room and mark the passage of time throughout the day," he says. How did he do it? "Think of the corner skylight like an inverted sundial," he says. "As the light moves across the floor with the arc and angle of the sun, we can see the passage of time."
Haesloop prefers a skylight to wash light across a wall; to shape and define the space with light. "For the Sea Ranch house, I wanted to balance the light in the room and use the corner skylight to bring in a point of light that could graze light across the surface and define the room's height. Because of the southerly orientation, the light focuses into a beam mid-morning and becomes more diffuse as the sun arcs to the West."
In A Double-Height Foyer
Josh Manes of Josh Manes Architecture included skylights in the design of the foyer-entryway of his Westhampton Beach house project. "We designed cedar wood boards across the ceiling that fold up into the skylight openings," he says. "You don't see any of the frame around the skylight, so the wood appears to turn up into the sky. It makes for an elegant detail."
Never Too Many
While planning for skylights with her clients, Healey says they often underestimate the impact overhead sunlight can have. "People often wonder 'should we have done more?" Her approach is to offer the following advice: Use twice as many, and make them twice as big as you think. "I haven't seen any regrets from clients!" Healey says. "Once you are touching the roofline, the cost doesn't change dramatically to do a larger skylight or to do more, so you might as well maximize the impact."