Let the light in: how to make your dark rooms bright and airy

Marta Nowicka’s light and airy The Gouse
Marta Nowicka’s light and airy The Gouse Credit:  Wojciech Ketz

Many of the most appealing homes have a feature in common that really brings a feelgood factor: the clue to what it is comes when you look up. Rooflights, letting sunlight flood in from above, have recently become an architectural panacea – not just found in the ubiquitous kitchen-diner extension, but all over the house.

“People have realised what a difference daylight makes to their general well-being. It just transforms the whole space,” says Steve Howat, co-founder of construction company London Projects.

He says he’s seen demand for overhead glazing go, well, through the roof, especially to make prime-location basements into more liveable rooms. He says that “most people want the frameless look, with no joins, so all you can see is sky or stars when you’re floating around in your basement swimming pool”.

It’s not just ultra-luxurious properties: any ordinary terrace can benefit from a well-placed rooflight too. “It’s an example of a nice piece of design not costing the earth,” says architect Darren Oldfield. He recently installed a 6ft-tall window in the roof of a stairwell in a Victorian house. It’s from the Rooflight Company and is an off-the-shelf product, but “it’s been really transformative,” he adds.

Light from above is stronger than if it comes from an equivalent-sized upright window, so even a small amount of overhead glazing can make a big difference. Oldfield says he uses rooflights for practical reasons: to throw light into a dark Victorian hallway, as well as illuminating a stair area. He says they are critical in kitchen-diner extensions typical of Victorian properties because they transmit light into the rooms behind them that have lost a window.

A kitchen-diner extension by Darren Oldfield Architects Credit: Guy Lockwood

“The trend is: the bigger, the better,” says Justin Seldis, managing director at manufacturer Sunsquare. “Homeowners have moved on from having one single rooflight in their kitchen-diner. They want several skylights, or stretches of multi-pane glass, and they want them everywhere and anywhere.”

But the larger a single piece of glass is, the more expensive it will be: “It’s all about gravity,” Seldis adds. “The bigger the pane, the thicker it needs to be, so it doesn’t bow. Larger panes also need to be sourced from a specialist manufacturer, driving up costs further.”

Architects are getting creative with a combination of intricate internal roof designs, interspersed with unusual-shaped glazing. The winner of this year’s Don’t Move, Improve! award, which celebrates extensions and renovations, is a converted chapel by architects Craftworks. Its origami-like vaulted ceiling and triangular glazing panels have a dazzling decorative effect.

Overhead glazing can be a brilliant problem-solver. For example, architecture and design firm Rigby & Rigby used a large rooflight over a dining space to compensate for a lower ceiling height than they would have wanted (having prioritised the height of the basement below instead), giving the impression that the area was loftier than it really was.

Craftworks’ reformed chapel has an origami-like roof with glazing Credit: Edmund Sumner

In homes where privacy might be an issue, horizontal glass is often the answer. Designer Marta Nowicka built The Gouse, a three-bedroom house on the 53 sq yd plot of a former garage. It’s hemmed in by other houses, and the rooflights she used are a huge contributing factor to the house’s success as a bright and welcoming home.

“We had to be very mindful of overlooking neighbours,” says Nowicka. “The main design challenge was to get natural light into the basement space, so by designing a rooflight over the entire centrally located open-plan and open-tread stair area, we managed to funnel light all the way down.”

Walk-over glazing, some of it opaque for privacy, supplements the daylight from the stair area, and “all the floorlights have been aligned under a window or under a rooflight for maximum ‘borrowed light’ gain”. A glass-topped shower room is a particularly luxurious touch.

Architects Finkernagel Ross took the problem-solving abilities of overhead glazing to a new level with a project in north London. “The original design was for a simple skylight in the kitchen,” explains architect Catherine Finkernagel. “We thought: ‘What if we could raise it up?’”

The result is a tall glass box that sits on top of the kitchen extension, adjacent to a 1ft 7in-deep “slot” of space that goes up three storeys, topped by frameless glass. Within this slot, running all the way up, is space for the homeowners’ huge book collection, so it acts as a very tall, beautifully illuminated library, with walkover glazing between the floors to access the books.

Finkernagel Ross is no stranger to show-stopping overhead glazing, and recently created an amazing atrium-like space behind a period facade. You expect to step into a traditional hallway, but instead, all of the floors have been removed and replaced by an enormous, pure white space with a top-lit steel helical staircase. “We purposely left the walls white; it’s like a canvas that the light can bounce off. Depending on what the weather’s doing and where the sun is, you get a different feeling every time you enter the space,” says Finkernagel.

A strip of overhead glazing floods down a wall in a basement swimming pool by construction company London Projects Credit:  Richard Waite

Daylight’s changing nature, and the way it “animates” a home as the day progresses, is what seems to excite architects the most about roof glazing. “As the sun moves it creates movement and shadow patterns, adding life and dynamism to the spaces below,” says Grant Brooker, senior executive partner at Foster + Partners, which designed The Corniche, a set of towers on London’s Albert Embankment. The penthouse’s centrepiece is a sweeping staircase leading up to a rooftop “sky lantern” that accesses a private roof terrace.

What are the downsides to all of this wonderful, dynamic sunlight in the home? External cleaning is one, although this can be remedied slightly: the steeper the angle of glass, the better chance that an unwelcome gift dropped off by a bird will be washed away by rain.

Special dirt-repelling glass is one option, and for skylights you can open, a tilt-and-turn model can be spun round and cleaned from the inside.

Oldfield is a realist about cleaning: “It’s never going to be perfect, but the benefits of having a rooflight trump the practicality [of cleaning it]. It’s difficult to make a piece of glass accessible for cleaning, and no one thinks much about all the other parts of a typical Victorian house that are inaccessible for maintenance.”

Marta Nowicka’s light and airy The Gouse Credit:  Wojciech Ketz

Too much glass can also result in overheating, which is why architects carefully model how much sunshine a room will receive and don’t design with masses of overhead glazing if it’s going to create a greenhouse. Tinted glass is not acceptable to all homeowners, but solar-control coatings help retain light transmission yet prevent a greenhouse effect. “Shading is important, and it needs to be on the outside of the house so the heat never gets the chance to penetrate,” says Sam McNally of the architectural design firm Echlin.

For a house that Echlin designed and developed in Holland Park, the glazing for a dramatic glass-topped link building boasts several extra features, including a low-emissivity coating (which improves its insulating properties) and a self-clean coating. The house’s fabulous rooftop bathroom, with sliding doors and a glass roof, needed air-conditioning to retain a sensible temperature in summer.

McNally has a further, often unforeseen, disadvantage to report. “Noise is an area of concern, especially in a bedroom. Rain on even quite a small skylight can wake you up, so if you have lots of glass it can get pretty loud – and there’s not much you can do about it.”

So, if you want to bathe in some heaven-sent sunlight, you’ll also have to put up with what happens when the heavens open.

What are your top tips for making your living space more lighter and brighter? Tell us in the comments below