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.

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

    £12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

    Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders