We Brits love our period homes, but the one thing they often lack – which is especially noticeable at this time of year – is natural daylight. Our towns and cities are full of Victorian and Georgian terraces with lower ground floors, not to mention the low-ceilinged cottages all over the country. But there are ways of lifting the gloom from even the darkest houses.
One of the most unusual solutions, with spectacular design results, can be seen at restaurateur Mauro Sanna’s five-storey townhouse in central London. Sanna and his wife Ashlea bought the Georgian terraced property in 2010. The tall, narrow house had a very dark basement, but this was the room the couple wanted to use for cooking and entertaining.
“I always wanted an open-plan living area with an outdoor space,” says Sanna. “The house had a small courtyard garden at the back and we could put in sliding doors to the garden, but the interior of the room would still be dark. I also wanted a connection between the ground floor and the basement.”
Andy Martin, the architect, had the ingenious idea of using the floor between the two levels as a light source. He suggested replacing the existing floor with a concrete version containing dozens of circular glass blocks – pavement-style – which would let streams of light into the basement from the floor above and also create a connection between the two levels.
“We had glass blocks in the walls in our previous house but would never have considered them for floors,” says Sanna. “But I knew Andy and trusted him, so we said yes. We love the result, it really works and it looks fantastic.”
The couple worried initially about how to keep the glass floor clean if people came in with wet shoes, but that hasn’t been an issue. “You have to be careful if you’re downstairs when guests arrive wearing skirts,” says Sanna, “but you could have frosted glass to solve that. The concrete also contains underfloor heating so we have warmth coming from the ceiling, which is very luxurious.”
Sanna and Ashlea couldn’t have regular ceiling lights as well as the glass blocks but use wall and floor lamps instead. A pale oak floor in the basement also helps keep the room light. A handmade steel “floating” staircase ascends from the basement, transforming at the first floor into timber treads with a perforated steel balustrade that reflects dappled light on the walls. Perf House, as it is known, recently won the prestigious 2017 Architects’ Journal award for Interior Design.
The refurbishment has allowed the Sannas to create the home of their dreams while remaining in a central location within walking distance of their Sardinian restaurants and their deli. “We don’t have children but we have restaurants that need a lot of looking after,” says Sanna.
Despite being surrounded by food all day, he likes to cook at home and often invites friends to his unusually-lit Italian basement kitchen. “No one has come to this house and not loved it,” he says.
Dark hallways, staircases and landings are a classic problem in terraces, where the stairwell is in the centre of the house with no exterior wall and no windows. If you can fit a rooflight directly above the top of a staircase it can make a big difference, allowing natural light to flow down through both floors. Not everyone feels comfortable walking on glass, but replacing a section of landing with structural glass not only lets light into the floor below, but also puts you a notch above the neighbours when it comes to style.
If you can’t add more windows to exterior walls, adding them inside allows light from a well-lit room to brighten up a darker one. “I love internal glazing because as well as bringing in light it adds a visual connection between rooms, opening up a house without taking down walls to make it open- plan,” says Jude Tugman, director of the architects’ network Architect Your Home.
This was the solution to a very dark hallway in a Victorian terraced house in Brook Green, west London. “In these houses, people sometimes remove the wall between the hall and living room, but that means you are in the sitting room as soon as you come in the front door,” says Tugman. “Instead, we replaced a section of wall with steel-framed glazing, so the hall is flooded with light from the sitting room. It’s also architecturally more interesting.”
Julia Kendell, interior designer from BBC’s DIY SOS and spokeswoman for The National Homebuilding & Renovating Show, is also a fan of cutting sections out of walls, whether or not you fill them with glass.
“Cut in tall, narrow openings between rooms to allow light through from a brighter area without knocking all the way through or losing the delineation of space,” she suggests.
“I often use a group of three openings about 250mm wide by 1800mm tall, spaced 150mm apart. You can also replace interior doors with glazed versions to steal some light from brighter rooms.”
One way of shining more light into a dark corner for less than the cost of a midwinter mini-break is to put in a sunpipe, a reflective metal tube that channels sunlight from a clear dome in the roof to where it’s needed.
“You can direct a very intense beam of light into a dark space; they work really well for landings, dark bathrooms, dressing tables or desks,” says Tugman. “The light comes from the roof so they work best on upper floors or single-storeys, as the light diminishes as the pipe gets longer.” For a couple of hundred pounds plus fitting, sunpipes are an affordable solution for places you can’t install windows or rooflights.
The transformation of Grade II-listed The Boat House in Norfolk into a single-storey, two-bedroom home went a step further than rooflights. Architecture firm Napier Clarke cut away a two-metre by two-metre section of roof either side of the apex, creating a dramatic interior open to the sky. “It’s a more expensive option than putting in a couple of Veluxes but it has an amazing impact and floods the sitting space with light,” says architect Steve Clarke.
Clarke also recommends using a clerestory, a high-level strip of window running just below ceiling level, to bring light into rooms where you wouldn’t get planning permission for proper windows, or where privacy is needed. “They’ve been used very successfully running underneath the roofs of barn conversions,” he says.
Tugman adds that a clerestory strip can work well in lower ground floor rooms, bathrooms and loft conversions. “We used one for a loft converted to a family room in Bow, east London, which transformed the look of the space,” she says.
Flat roofs, such as those on extensions at the back of terraces and semis, can be used to let light into the floor below, as Mulroy Architects did during the refurbishment of a terraced house in north London.
“The roof of the extension had been used as a balcony, so when we expanded it we could use it to create a roof terrace,” says architect Michael Brennan. “We put in a section of high-spec glazing you can walk on, which lets light into the kitchen below.”
The same walk-on structural glazing lets light into the new basement of an Arts and Crafts house in Hampstead, north London. “The basement extended underneath the garden so we positioned three glass sections within the outdoor paving,” says Shahriar Nasser of Belsize Architects. Even if a basement is meant to be a dark, cosy space, such as a cinema room, “you still need that all-important connection with natural daylight,” he adds.