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There’s little debate about the benefits of bringing as much natural light as possible into a home. To have windows on three walls of each main room — including bedrooms — is the ideal sought by many design professionals. Comfort and aesthetic values are increased with natural light. Furthermore, multiple sources of natural light facilitate the energy and cost savings that result from using fewer artificial light fixtures in the home.
However, in the remodeling realm, one of the downsides of owning an older home is that very few built more than 50 years ago take full advantage of natural light. For practical purposes, older homes employed windows that were designed and used for passive ventilation, as well as light. In other words, the windows let fresh air in and stale air out with size kept small to limit drafts. Today’s technology, on the other hand, captures views and brings light into a home through large expanses of glass, independent of the need to maintain a conditioned indoor climate.
Consequently, current owners of older homes, and their remodeling contractors, face a dilemma. Certainly, modern windows and glass doors can be used in a wide variety of applications. It is tempting to use them to bring natural light into an old, dark house during a remodeling project. Adding to that temptation are the energy-saving benefits of today’s high-performance windows and glass doors.
The dilemma is this: the integration of a large expanse of glass, a skylight, or other modern design elements into the character, style, and proportion of an older house can create such a poor aesthetic effect that the resale value of the home is actually diminished. In spite of the initial drama created by the new feature, it may never truly fit in with the rest of the house, and perhaps the rest of the neighborhood.
Professional designers and remodeling contractors who are conscious of this problem work within the original architectural character of an older or historic home to incorporate natural light in more subtle and creative ways. Window and door manufacturers have aided that effort with a variety of products to match traditional house styles or to lessen the aesthetic impact of new products on a home’s character.
For example, glass block or fixed panes of glass can be installed in the backsplash area between the wall cabinets and the kitchen countertops. Light shines on the work surfaces without trading valuable storage space — at a premium in an older house — for a large window expanse. Similarly, one or more roof windows over the center of a kitchen can bring a tremendous amount of natural light into the space. Unlike skylights, roof windows are operable, so they can open to vent hot air and odors. They are designed flat, only slightly raised above the roof finish, thereby reducing their aesthetic impact on the home’s exterior. If a kitchen, den or bedroom is on the back or side of the house, roof windows or skylights can be invisible from the street.
For smaller, interior rooms, such as a water closet, walk-in shower, or storage area, the addition of windows for more natural light is almost impossible. Tubular skylights, however, throw more light than you’d imagine into these tight spaces, making them feel larger and more comfortable. The next best thing to ‘smoke and mirrors,’ tubular skylights employ mirrors and reflective material to draw and reflect light from a small, inconspicuous opening in the roof into the room below.
Meanwhile, fixed or operable interior transom windows, set above passage doors to bedrooms and bathrooms — or even in walls — can transmit natural light from rooms along the home’s perimeter into interior spaces that otherwise lack the opportunity to capture it on their own.
When homeowners and their remodeling contractors are respectful of the architectural character and proportion of an older house, it can be a challenge to bring in enough natural light to please modern tastes. Experienced remodelers will assist homeowners with design and product solutions, enabling them to enjoy the comfort and cost-saving benefits of natural light while enhancing the value of their homes.
Todd Allen Miller, AIA
QMA Design+Build, LLC
5000 Boardwalk, Suite 2
Ventnor, NJ 08406
NJ New Home Builder License #037561
NJ Home Improvement Contractor #13VH01107300
(609) 822-4949 – phone
(609) 822-4429 – fax
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