Skylights get a bad rap. All too often rooftop windows are passed over during home renovations. There’s a persistent fear of leaks and drafts, which can lead to mouldiness and chilliness. But working with the right professional – “skylights are not a DIY job,” advises Toronto architect Andrew Batay-Csorba – with the right product – “there have been a lot of advances in the quality of skylights,” he adds – not only ensures a tight seal and minimal maintenance issues, but also reveals the full, room-defining potential of these illuminating wonders. Skylights, for example, can help turn an ensuite bathroom into a hotel-inspired spa, or create gallery-worthy lighting to highlight an art collection, or make squat ceilings feel soaring. Here, five standout examples, which showcase the sky-high potential of the skylight.
Beyond a soaker tub the size of a Volkswagen and multiple rain showerheads, great lighting is an essential component to a hotel-quality, spa-inspired bathroom. Not just a bevy of dimmable pots (though that’s nice), but also natural light that can either wash a space with sun during the day, or let the glow of the moon in at night. For a house in Ottawa, husband-and-wife architects Andrew and Jodi Batay-Csorba, who run an eponymous, Toronto-based studio, maximized the effect by using “light materials to bounce the light around,” explains Andrew. The pale-grey tiles gleam, reflecting the light into the adjacent bedroom (a lack of walls helps, too). The sense of luxury is heightened by added control: Andrew and Jodi often choose operable, mechanical skylights that pop open for natural ventilation, or get shaded with a blind for when complete darkness is required.
When a skylight is poorly placed, the downsides are glaringly obvious. Literally. The sun simply blazes through too harshly and unremittingly – turning a living room into a hot, steamy greenhouse. That is why “skylights should be thought through with great caution,” Toronto architect Adam Thom says. “If you don’t consider the arc of the sun, and the orientation of the window – if it faces due south, or west, for example – the light will be just brutal, and you’ll have to pump the air conditioning” to compensate. For a home in Peterborough, Ont., he used a computer program to model how the sun would work with the skylight throughout the year and used the results to refine the proportions of the opening. So instead of acting like a giant ray gun of destruction, the window expertly lights the other architectural features of the house like the rich, Douglas-fir ceiling beams and the beautifully textured Venetian plaster walls.
One of the drawbacks of the long, skinny townhouses and semis that line the streets of many downtowns is that they only have windows at the front and the back. If they have sidewalls at all, they are usually too close to the neighbours for fenestration. Consequently, the middle of the space tends to be dark. When architect Stéphane Rasselet, principal of Naturehumaine, was renovating one such home recently in his native Montreal, he decided to improve the situation with a well-placed skylight in the centre of the roof. To heighten the effect, Rasselet installed a glass floor directly below to draw the sun where it normally wouldn’t shine. Now “during the day, you don’t have to put the lights on.” As a bonus, while Rasselet was cutting the hole through the roof, he discovered a series of old beams, which he kept to highlight the blend of the original, 1920s architecture and his contemporary, bright intervention.
Skylights are not necessarily a replacement for electrical fixtures. In fact, the two can work cleverly in tandem. For example, while renovating a bungalow with squat, eight-foot ceilings, Michael Taylor, a partner at Toronto’s Taylor Smyth Architects, didn’t want to take the “drastic measure of raising the roof in order to get more height,” he says. Instead, he introduced tapered skylights – which are wider at the base and narrower at the roofline – to draw the eye up and create a sense of verticality. The angled walls are particularly clever because they help reflect the light down into the home’s kitchen. They also help reflect electrical light up, which is an important feature at night, when the recessed cove lights at the base of the shafts are turned on. They create an alluring glow that bounces around the shaft, activating the crucial vertical feature in the otherwise low-lying house.
Natural light and fine art are both beautiful, but don’t mix well together. The latter is best showcased under even illumination; the former is ever shifting and can cast harsh shadows. That’s why art galleries rarely have windows. For a downtown Toronto home, though, Adriana Mot, proprietor of Dochia Interior Design, cut a massive, 64-square-foot skylight above a canvas-lined stairwell. But the window works because it doesn’t allow a flood of sunlight to tunnel through. “It’s a lens,” Mot explains, “the actual skylight is seven feet above, in the pitched roof.” The sun comes through the glass above, is channelled down a shaft, then refracts through the milky, beautifully traced glass. “The light is very uniform,” Mot says. “It’s very controlled. There aren’t a lot of shadows.”