Let there be light

Period houses often eschew natural light in favour of privacy. Oliver Bennett finds out how to bring the outside in

WHEN Gillian Hoffman moved into her Hampstead home it was, like so many unmodernised British houses, "cramped and gloomy".

She commissioned a conservatory-cum-extension to bring more light and space into the house. Designed by architect Rick Mather, it has a triple skin of glass: and some of the glass actually conducts heat, so it acts as a radiator, cutting out the chill expected of a completely glazed space. Elsewhere, Mather has addressed the privacy factor with another technological conceit: glass panels that change from clear to translucent at the press of a button.

The getting of light is crucial to Mather, to which end he uses much glass in his buildings. As with Hoffman's house, this can lead to dramatic interiors in old housing stock: particularly in Victorian terraced houses, which seem to have been built on the pillars of secrecy and privacy, their only house-plants being those ferns which grow in the darkness. It took until the ribbon windows of the Modern Movement before an ethos of light permeated the average domestic interior.

Architect Mark Guard specialises in refurbishments of old terraced houses in London and finds that the first thing clients request is more light. "It's one of the key reasons people go to an architect," he says. Getting natural light into a home is, he believes, "more fundamental than being able to see better: it actually connects you with reality and nature". Guard aims for no less than to "bring the universe into the home" using skylights for transcendent views of the sky - the average window in comparison leads only on to prosaic daily life - in order to elevate the domestic mood.

His most recent refurbishment of a terraced house in north-west London created a light well in the centre of the house. The first thing he did - a simple tip for those wishing to gain light in their daytime living areas - was to place the living room on the first floor. More radically, he built a glass staircase leading up from the Victorian tiled floor to a glass roof. "You walk into a Victorian house," says Guard, "then suddenly you're in Miami or Los Angeles." Two bathrooms were created, both with windows in the ceiling so that one can wallow back and look at the stars.

There are hi-tech gadgets on the market which aim to exploit the possibilities of light. Guard has investigated a product called the Skydrome, which draws light through a lens situated on the roof, and pipes it into your living room via a fitting. He also recently experimented with a mirror moving on a motorised tracking system - inspired by mobile satellite dishes - which would again reflect light into the home. Alas, it proved prohibitive at pounds 6-7,000. Offices are already using these kinds of hi-tech light catching gizmos - Norman Foster's Shanghai Bank uses "sunscoops", concave reflective devices that follow and "collect" sunlight and transmit it down into the offices - but none has yet trickled down into the consumer market.

There are less expensive ways to get light into your home, including smaller building jobs, such as putting French windows in your back room, which John Darke, of London architects Stillman Eastwick Field, says can cost as little as pounds 700. Darke also encourages the use of smaller skylight- type windows: these are often known as "Velux's", after the pre-eminent brand. Placed flush into a roof, these can cost about pounds 500 to pounds 600, although one set into a pitched roof - to bring a shaft of light down into a stairwell, say - will probably cost over pounds 1,000. Velux has a "Heritage" range designed to fit visually with older houses, but householders should check whether they need planning permission before installing them: this almost certainly includes anyone in a conservation area and/or a listed building. Guard adds that one should think about its placement. "Don't plonk it straight in the middle of your pitched roof," he says. "Place it to the side so that the light that comes through gets reflected on a wall surface."

Darke also offers a few yet cheaper ways of drawing more light into the home. One is to create as many reflective surfaces as possible with white or light coloured paint, remembering neglected zones such as the walls in the back passage leading to the garden. You can also treat the ground surface just outside the windows by making it white with gravel or pale paving slabs. "As soon as you do this you get an amazing amount of light," says Darke. "Soil and plants absorb a lot of light."

Rick Mather says that achieving a lighter interior can be unexpectedly obvious: a matter of household tips. "Often it is nothing to do with the number and size of the windows, but how you treat the interior," he says. "If you go down a typical street, about 50 per cent of the windows are covered. Most of their light is cut out by curtains." The solution is to make the curtain match the end of the casement, so that when it is drawn nothing protrudes. The second thing, he says, is to be aware exactly how light is reflected into the room; for instance, if the "reveals" (the side of the wall meeting the window frame) are dark, then much light will be cut out, as with large reflective surfaces and walls. Another way is to use hidden light sources and uplighters. "The secret is not to see the light," he says. "That way, you are not aware that a light is on, which is easier on the eye."

Natural light may be the ultimate aim, but dealing cleverly with interior lighting can also work wonders. "Most are leading away from the central, pendant light," says Michael Curry of lighting firm Shui-Kay Kan, which helped pioneer a form of moveable lighting on wire tracks, often traced around a room's perimeter, for maximum flexibility and to root out nooks and crannies. "What we tend to advise people is not to have an overkill of light, but to have different levels of lighting, both peripheral and central, to create different moods and to create more space."

Janet Turner of Concord Lighting, who is the author of Lighting (Batsford, pounds 20), says that the problem with electric light "is that you need electricity plugs and feeds, which can be inhibiting". But she does recommend putting a light behind a chair or a plant to get light playing up a wall or on to the ceiling. An invisible light, she says, can add much to the pokier areas of a house, such as the stairwell, and she recommends placing hidden fluorescent lights ("choose warm white") in wall recesses, underneath working surfaces or atop cabinets; and also to think about exterior and garden lighting to further the feeling of space in and around the house. Such is the paucity of light in this country that it has to be artificially enhanced - but if the ethos of lightness and openness continues to prevail, we may expect our interiors to completely lose their fustiness.

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