Hello Sun

Skylights are roof windows to the treetops and sky.  On sunny days, skylights can create comfortable, light-filled spaces–and on a stormy day, the sound of the rain or a coating of snow can allow you to reflect on the comforts of having shelter.  Our skylights in our studio office keep us connected to the outdoors throughout all the seasons of the year.

But skylights are not a new invention. Even in the early 1800’s, Thomas Jefferson had skylights over his bed alcove and in a number of places throughout his home at Monticello that allowed him to rise with the sun.  In fact, Monticello has thirteen skylights including the Dome Room oculus; two large skylights over the Dining Room and Jefferson’s Bedchamber; and others over third-floor bedrooms, stairwells, and even privy shafts! Of course, today,  newer skylights can be constructed with well-insulated, low-E glass to reduce exposure to the harmful rays of the sun and reduce heat gain, while still allowing daylight to enter.

Along with welcoming the sun, skylights have numerous benefits for health and the environment.  The natural light enlivens a home or office while cutting down on the need for artificial lighting and thus lowering electric bills.  In many of our projects, skylights become the main light source for the space during the daytime. Cove lighting in the skylight shaft can extend that source of lighting at night.    The benefits of natural lighting are numerous and are well documented.  “Daylighting” spaces has been associated with improved mood, enhanced morale, lower fatigue, reduced eyestrain and important psychological effects such as lower stress due to a feeling of connection to the outside environment.

One recent article published in the Washington Post on Chronobiology shows that the timing, intensity, and duration of exposure to daylight and darkness directly affects how well people sleep, how well they function while awake, and how well they feel.  The author points out that the lack of natural daylighting in millions of American homes and offices is having a negative impact on their inhabitants.  Proper lighting should be a key feature in any building–new or old–and adding skylights can be a great way to start addressing this problem.

There is a common myth that skylights should be avoided because they “always leak”.  We have found that is not the case if skylights are of quality material and are properly installed.  In the past, some skylights would leak due to improper flashing techniques, as well as poorer glazing and caulking.  Today’s skylights are better made and can withstand heavy weather and the test of time.  In fact, Velux offers a 10-year “no leak” warranty on some of their skylights.  Skylights can have electrical motors to open and close them if they are set high in a ceiling and not within reach by hand or extension rod, and can have rain sensors attached to close automatically.  Although skylights can be fixed, or just have a small flap for a fresh air vent, some also can be fully reversible to allow cleaning the outside surface from the inside.  They also can have screens or even built-in shades or blinds to cut down on light when not desired, such as in a bedroom or if the sun angle is severe at certain times of the year.

Skylights can come in a range of sizes with a variety of features.  Most are rectangular in shape, but they can also be manufactured in circular, diamond, triangular, and multi-sided configurations. Velux has a model that comes as a two-part unit that can create a small balcony in a roof. We have used these in many attic applications to be able to step outdoors from those less accessible spaces.

We have specified Velux skylights for years and are intrigued by a new Velux No Leak Solar Powered “Fresh Air” skylight which can make adding daylight and fresh air to any home easier.  It features a free upgrade for a solar panel that captures any available daylight and uses it to recharge the highly efficient battery that operates the motor of the skylight.  Modern solar technology also ensures that the solar panel works on cloudy days or in indirect light.  It will not only provide its own electricity for operating, but it also requires no wiring so it is easier and more cost effective to install.  Velux’s recent advertisements indicate that eligible homeowners can also receive a 30% federal tax credit for specific applications.

Skylights can be an important sources of passive solar heating. Stanford University published a great article with more information on designing with skylights, .  By carefully positioning skylights, one can control the amount of sunlight – as well as heat gain – they will provide.  Skylights on a north-facing roof will provide a fairly constant but indirect illumination.  For passive solar heating, they will provide the least solar heat gain.  Skylights on an east-facing roof will provide maximum light and solar heat gain in the morning.  Conversely, skylights on a west-facing roof will provide maximum light and solar heat gain in the late afternoon.  For passive solar heat gain in the winter, a south-facing skylight provides the most heating; however, it will also produces the most solar heat gain in the summer.  To avoid this we only recommend this orientation if there is proper shading from built-in window treatments or from nearby deciduous trees that can shade in the summer but lose their leaves in the winter to let the sun in.

Skylights can be an easy addition to an existing home and can be readily planned in a new residence.  Each client is different as to when and how much daylight they may desire.  We work closely with our clients to create comfortable light-filled spaces while capturing desirable sunlight during key times of the day and of the year, while balancing the advantages and disadvantages of the solar heat gain for passive solar heating.  Our clients and their pets enjoy the natural light and comfort from these windows to the sky.

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Pergolas: Centuries of custom shading

A pergola is a structure made up of pillars (or columns) supporting a layer  (or layers) of cross members to create an airy, open-roofed shelter.  The history of the pergola is embedded deep in European and Asian design. There are examples of pergolas being used in ancient Italy and Egypt as well as ancient China.

The word pergola can be traced back to the Latin word “pergula”  which meant the building or projection of an eave.  The shape, form, and materials have been modified over time in relation to the specialties and construction methods of that time period.  However, the main design intent has always been for a shading device to create an outdoor room.  Continuing need for shading from the sun and enjoyment of the outdoors has led to the modern garden pergola.

Pergolas, such as the ones shown here, are a great way to create custom shading with an elegant touch.  Pergolas can extend out as far as needed to help protect from any angle of sun.  They can be attached to a home or be free-standing, depending where a client would like to have shade.  With several projects we have worked on in the past, we have attached one end of a pergola on a house wall and extended it out over a terrace.  This allows for a client to have the ability to be indoors on a sunny exposure and yet have shading to cool that face of the building.   Additionally, they can be near the interior functions of a house (kitchen, family room) while being outside and shaded from the harsh mid-day sun.

Today, the modern-day pergola top framing members would typically be made out of wood.  We prefer to use western red cedar or other more rot resistant woods.  These can be painted, stained, or allowed to silver naturally.  More modern materials like cellular PVC can also be used to make a pergola be lower maintenance and rot free, and even powder-coated metals can be used for additional strength or a more modern look.

The posts or columns supporting the pergola can be solid wood, or wood trimmed around structural columns, or be synthetically wrapped trim around less attractive posts such as pressure-treated posts).  Again, synthetic materials such as cellular PVC hold paint well and do not rot, although this would eliminate the option to have the look of stained or weathered wood.  The posts can also be masonry piers such as brick or stucco, or stone veneer over a structural column.  Round or square columns can influence the feel of the pergola and compliment the style of the home.  Reclaimed or antique columns can even be used for a more aged appearance.

Some clients prefer the pure form of the pergola beams and framing to remain visible, and add additional layering of framing members to provide adequate shading.  However, pergolas can also be constructed to allow for vines and other greenery to be grown on top to help create a garden connection and provide additional shading for summer, yet leave the pergola more open in the winter to allow more sunlight to warm the house during that season.

If the pergola is to be planted, then nearby planting beds or over-sized pots need to provide a good rooting for the plants.  Care must be taken in selecting the plants to coordinate with the framing members.  For example, although the voluptuous purple blooms of Wisteria are romantically appealing, the strength and rapid growth of the vine requires an extra-sturdy framing and on-going, diligent pruning.  In addition, some plants such as climbing roses are lighter-weight but can attract bees and nesting birds which may not be as appealing to some clients.

There are also folding shades or fabric canopies and drapes that can also go along pergola beams to create more shade and shelter if needed. These can also provide more privacy in a more urban setting.

With more and more activities focusing on the joys of outdoor living and entertaining, the pergola can also offer a perch for outdoor lighting.  The lighting can be subtle, small track lights anchored to the sides of the pergola beams, or if the height allows there can be pendant lights or chandeliers added for atmosphere or ceiling fans for comfort.

Smaller projected pergolas are also gaining popularity as window shading devices on homes as well as being used more regularly as elegant accent pieces over garage doors.  The shading from these smaller pergolas helps to cut down on energy bills by reducing the amount of heat gain during the hot summer months.

Adding a pergola to your house is an easy addition that can add value to your home as well as create an elegant, comfortable outdoor living space. For past centuries, and centuries still to come, humans have been attracted to the idea of a pergolas and outdoor living.  We can work with any client to help design a custom pergola to fit their needs.