Getting Natural Light Into Dark, Older House

kdw72697December 23, 2013


I'm a long-time reader/infrequent poster, and I am looking for any opinions on ways to get natural light into a house that has very little.

The longer version of the story: now that the holidays are here and the family is getting together, the topic of buying a relative's house has come up once again.

The pros: It's a nice house in a nice neighborhood and it is larger than ours in square footage. It's also built much more sturdily and recently than mine (1960s vs. my 1924 house).

The cons: There are several issues with layout and finishes, but the major sticking point for me is DARKNESS. I know that sounds silly in the grand scheme of real estate, but I don't think I could live in a house that has little natural light.

It was a 1960s development home, and my husband just happens to have a scan of the original builder's brochure including a floor plan, which I've linked to below.

There are NO main-floor, southern-facing windows because of the way the house is situated on its lot, and no way to add them because of the location of the garage.

The entry hall is dark and windowless, and the walls that create this hall are load-bearing and not easily removed.

The only wall that could easily accommodate new windows faces north (and a neighbor's pool!).

Solar tubes would be an option upstairs, but not on the main floor.

If I can get myself over the light hurdle, I can work on the other issues.

Any advice is welcome!

Here is a link that might be useful: colonial floor plan

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It looks to have ample windows except on the side opposite the garage. Perhaps it's more a case of addressing the lighting needs in the home than adding windows. You might meet with a good lighting designer to deal with ways to address that.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2013 at 5:04PM
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It looks like a pretty normal amount of windows to me. Do you think you could add some high windows on the north side of the family room? That way you would get the light you want without having to look out at the neighbor's pool.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2013 at 7:09PM
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Presumably the kitchen faces west? That's nice afternoon light, in my humble opinion. If so, I would consider enlarging the opening between K & DR. Also, an entry door with more light, and maybe adding sidelights (full light panels). That would be a nice upgrade. Trim back or remove any questionable trees, too.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2013 at 7:27PM
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Boy, I don't think you sound silly at all! IMO, natural light is the most important part of a home, and if it's not happening, I would be unhappy in the home. It's probably easier to look for a home that is better sited, but a few thoughts for things that MIGHT work:

Enlarge the existing windows -- maybe bump them out to box/bay shape, or add french doors to the rear of the house. Add tall windows on the north wall, and use landscaping to obscure view of neighbor's pool (unless it's a really pretty pool!) As previously mentioned, add sidelights to entry door. Add skylights to portico.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2013 at 8:38PM
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I can see why you want more natural light....but which walls are load bearing?

Can you take down the wall between the dining room and kitchen...replace it with a peninsula with post if necessary? This would bring in more light...maybe put a bigger window over the kitchen sink and a window seat in the dining room?

As for the hall, can you open up the entry to the living room, so you keep the load bearing support but bring in a little more light?

Higher windows on the north side (long living room wall) maybe over bookcases (fireplace in middle?) would add more light but you wouldn't see the pool, when sitting down.

French doors out the back would be great and add even more light. All this would go into the entry, with a bigger archway/opening.

I like the house and with warm white cabinets and trim, light wall colors, lots of plants and maybe floral patterns, it would feel like a sunny garden all year long. Just my two cents and what I would do with the house :)

    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 1:54PM
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Here's a picture I really like from this issue of Romantic Country magazine...showing french doors and a light fireplace. This would look nice in the living room :) From Lavender Lass farmhouse pictures

    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 1:58PM
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Box bays would look nice in front, bring them as low to the floor as you can. Or simply replace the existing windows with taller ones.

You could enclose the porch with divided-pane glass and open it up to the house and foyer. We almost bought a house that did this, it totally changed the way the whole house worked. In looking for a sample picture, I found this thread with pictures! Most of them have regular windows, but you could also use French-door size windows.

Or, replace the front door with a single French door. You can use a frosted/etched/etc glass for privacy, or sheers; my next-door-neighbors did this, it's much lighter in their foyer.

Here is a link that might be useful: GWers with enclosed porches

    Bookmark   December 26, 2013 at 12:34PM
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Thank you for the ideas! and glad you're all here; my husband thinks I'm crazy. ;)

The wall between the kitchen and dining could come out, which would help. The hallway walls are the load-bearing walls, so they would take some doing (and money!) to remove.

The kitchen could potentially get good light. The current window is very tiny, but that could be changed. There is an enclosed back patio that is also blocking some of that light, but that could be removed.

This particular house does not have the portico/enclosed porch potential. It was built flat across the front with no architectural detail, unfortunately. The next door neighbors have the exact model on the 1960s brochure, which is charming.

I agree, the living room screams for french doors! Currently there is a large gardening shed maybe 10 feet from the house, also blocking light and kind of wrecking the view. ;) But remove that and put french doors with steps to the yard and I'm intriguedâ¦

High north wall windows would help a bit, too.

I'm wondering how it would be possible to get some of that fabulous southern light through the garage and into the houseâ¦windows high up on the garage wall, and (non-opening) windows on the opposing house wall?

    Bookmark   December 26, 2013 at 9:42PM
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Maybe a window on the south utility room wall, and leave the door to the kitchen open, or give that door a glass insert? Glass in the exterior door in the utility room?

A solar tube in the upstairs hall, and above the stairs, will bring a lot of light to the first floor hall.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2013 at 12:19AM
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Even a load bearing wall can be opened up a bit...and shouldn't be too expensive. Maybe a wider opening between entry and living room, with the wall still there to support the upstairs?

Taking out (or moving) the shed, adding north windows, opening up the kitchen and bringing in more light will all help. If you really want to take advantage of the south light, there is one other possibility.

Years ago, I remember reading about a couple (in California I think) who left the front 6' or so of their garage as storage, then opened up the rest of the garage as a family room. They tied it into the existing kitchen/eating area and had a few steps down (like a split level). They added lots of windows on the south side and might even have had a slider.

They didn't need the garage parking...I think they parked in driveway or had a new shop/garage in back. Regardless, they said it was much less expensive to leave the garage door on the front and use it to access their storage, then to change it into living space.

This meant they only had to add the wall, to divide the storage from the new family/living area...some windows, and insulate the walls and add a sub-floor. It looked like a great space and was very clever! If you don't need the parking space, maybe something like this would work for you? :)

    Bookmark   December 27, 2013 at 12:43PM
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Lavendar_Lass - that's an innovative idea! It works best if garage not needed. But the garage and living room are nearly the same size -- it might even be possible to convert the living room into a garage. There are lots of code issues involving separation of living space from garage, so that would add to the cost. But if I were OP, I would definitely check into it. Harvesting loads of southern light would no doubt made the home so much more enjoyable. OP: How's the view from that side of the house?

    Bookmark   December 27, 2013 at 8:40PM
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Would you consider moving the laundry machines to the basement, then open up the utility room to the kitchen and remove or relocate its closet? You could have some cabinetry in there, but add a big window to the south side. This example has a tall narrow window:

Traditional Kitchen

Then, with taking down the dining/kitchen wall, and enlarging the windows in the DR and LR, you'd get lots more light.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2013 at 11:11PM
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It might be possible to add considerable natural light to the kitchen and dining room by mounting light tube receptors on the garage roof and devising an attractive lighting arrangement high on the interior walls. According to the Solatube website:

"An application where the roof components are mounted on the roof and the tubing makes a 90 degree turn to allow the diffuser or Decorative Fixture to be mounted on an interior wall are within the bounds of the warranty."

    Bookmark   December 28, 2013 at 5:35PM
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Too bad Gardenweb wasn't around in the 1960sâ¦SO many building mistakes might have been prevented when they made this house plan! ;)

Really, the house should have been built in reverse, with the garage on the north side and the LR on the south side. It would have made SO much more sense.

The idea of leaving a little storage area behind the overhead door is so cool! It probably works well, and in the event of resale, it's a quick fix. But what a funny surprise to anyone who doesn't know and opens up the door!

I don't like the idea of losing the garage completely because people say you "shouldn't", but realistically it is almost useless for parking. There is a small Honda CRV in there right now and it BARELY fits.

So a total or partial conversion of the garage to a family room WOULD allow us to add southern windows and open the whole living area up. It seems kind of crazy to do all that just for sunlight! But I guess I could make myself get used to having a family room. ;)

As for the washer/dryer, I would absolutely relocate it! That space is begging to be a pantry with no door to the kitchen or a glass paned pocket door. There is ample space in the basement for laundry, and there is even a great spot on the second floor near the bedrooms.

It's pretty funnyâ¦if you ever spend time on the kitchen forum you know how people take great care to see that every detail is planned out and functions well. In this kitchen, you can see in the floor plan photo that there is a doorway from the utility room. What you don't see is that the door opens up into the oven! So during family parties, anyone entering from the back porch has to knock first to make sure they don't slam into the open oven door. Nuts.

As for light tubes, we're somewhat out of luck. Some time in the 1980s a 4th bedroom was added over the garage. So while there is no place to add a solar tube down to the dining room/kitchen, there is a nice, humongous bedroom upstairs.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 1:17PM
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That's the thing with old garages...they're usually too small for parking and storage. If you had a bit of storage in front, I think the natural light and family room would be more appreciated. Is there room on the lot to build a detached shop/garage?

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 8:42PM
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There is plenty of room to build an attached or even a detached garage, but probably not enough money. :) Too bad we're not handy enough to DIY.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 11:54PM
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My BIL's house had a garage converted like that. The back 2/3 or so was a "sunken" family room, the front was storage. Eventually they converted the front to a mudroom entry, where they could drop the hockey gear, too.

If you moved the laundry to the basement, you could open up to include the utility room and have a nice big space, open to the kitchen.

    Bookmark   December 31, 2013 at 9:14AM
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If there's space for a detached garage...then any future owner could build one. Or in the future, you might decide to do that yourself. Either way, it's easier to remodel a garage if you know there's room on the property to add another one, later on...

Bpathome- Good idea about making the kitchen larger by incorporating the laundry room. Even if you kept the steps down into the space, it would still be a great place for a beverage fridge and a bar sink. Perfect for grabbing drinks before going outside or while watching TV :)

    Bookmark   December 31, 2013 at 2:35PM
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If you don't want to do any renovations and you still want to brighten up you can always get a heliostat. My husband and I bought one called a sunflower and it was very affordable compared to others. It just redirects sunlight into your home using mirrors. I put a picture up of our living room being lit up by the sunflower.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2014 at 8:51AM
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There are also nice examples of interior window walls on Houzz. I love how these bring in light from room to room and they are so nice looking and easy to add.

Here is a link that might be useful: Interior window walls

    Bookmark   March 12, 2014 at 12:59PM
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I have never heard of a heliostat! Quite interesting!

and thanks for the Houzz link!

    Bookmark   March 16, 2014 at 6:44PM
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Things I have done to improve natural light in my home:

1. front door now is mostly glass
2. removed full height pantry that was in the kitchen/entrance - there is a small load bearing wall there that will be replaced by columns (attached to kitchen island)
3. painted all walls off white
4. chose light coloured finishes in general
5. removed upper cabinets from around kitchen window
6. ensure that window coverings for privacy allow lots of light in

Things I am considering doing
1. adding ODL tubular skylights to light windowless areas (from Home Depot)
2. replacing some interior doors that are usually closed with windowed ones to bring natural light into windowless hallway (doors can have curtains or blinds if necessary)
3. adding windows to bathrooms

    Bookmark   March 17, 2014 at 4:08PM
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robo (z6a)

South facing family room sounds like just the ticket to me. I live in a house with a north-facing family room and although it has lots of windows and plenty of light, I miss that sun shining in. We actually bought the house knowing that the backyard facing North was a defect and it does still bother me a bit (but I love my house).

Speaking as a fellow sun-lover and North-facing-house owner, and knowing how it works with husbands and garages sometimes, I might try to make it a condition with my husband of buying the house that the garage be tagged for immediate conversion to family room with a detached garage to be added later.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 9:56AM
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We had the same problem robotropolis, windows on a house always seem like a great idea but having them on the north side does almost nothing because they never get any sun! We have a heliostat but sun tubes and skylights work really well to for brightening up.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2014 at 9:15AM
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