Taking advantage of borrowed light

Let the sun shine on the most poorly lit rooms in your home with Lindsey's tips on letting the light in

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Natural light is essential for our wellbeing. Sunlight helps our bodies produce vitamin D, and this is essential for regulating our calcium uptake to keep our bones and teeth healthy. Natural light also helps maintain our circadian rhythm, which is what controls our activity cycles and sleep patterns. Without this, we quickly become irritable or depressed.

However, the modern home is not always built with natural light in mind. Plot restrictions and orientation mean we often end up with darker rooms. This not only leads to having to use artificial light in the day, but it also affects the overall atmosphere of the house — sometimes the first thing visitors will notice.

So, short of turning your house around to face the sun or going completely open plan, how can you bring light into poorly lit rooms?

Architects have several methods to make the most of what we call ‘borrowed light’. These are ways we can bring light into the interior of the building, or into rooms that cannot have external windows — often from an adjoining room.

Here, I suggest some ways to combat darkness in common problem areas.

The ‘dark and pokey’ en suite

If you have a master suite, it may not be possible to place the bathroom element on an external wall. This might not bother some as for the short time they are in the bathroom they are quite happy with artificial lighting. However, a space can feel less enclosed with natural light (and it also lends itself better to make-up application).

Solar tubes/light pipes/sun tunnels are one option (as long as the roof is directly above), but how about having an obscured glass door to you en suite, or even obscured glass walls? If you have the budget, electro-chromatic glass (also known as smart glass or sometimes privacy glass) is perfect as it can be remote controlled to go opaque at the touch of a button, allowing the flexibility of visibility only when you need it. Even when switched on (thus blocking the view) it still allows light through, much like frosted glass.

light pipe white house

A solar tube is a relatively straight forward way to bring light into a windowless room

The north-facing room

Unless you have somehow managed to secure a long, one-room-wide house, you are going to have some north facing rooms. Given the choice, you can remodel your home so that the rooms on this side of the house generally require little daylight — but in all likeliness, that won’t be a choice you have.

Worry not — these rooms don’t have to be destined for a lifetime or darkness. If the structure of your house allows, why not glaze sections of the inner wall to borrow light from the adjoining rooms? In bedrooms or bathrooms, it is best to just have a narrow letter-box of glazing along the ceiling line to maintain privacy.

Other rooms could instead be connected via glass double doors (my division of choice would be beautiful Crittall or Crittall-style doors), or glass panelling. This is particularly effective where a space has once been open plan, but needs dividing — such as in a barn or converted industrial building.

rh master suites divide space

Crittall Windows screen and double doors (around £17,000 supplied and fitted for the H358xW459cm configuration shown, or around £1,000 per m², Lightfoot Windows) create a barrier between the bedroom and living space of this flat, without blocking light

The not-quite open-plan house

The most obvious way to get light into the interior of your home is to go open plan. However, where the structure doesn’t allow the knocking down of interior walls, or where you still want to feel like the space is divided into rooms, you could try a semi-open-plan arrangement.

Where possible, walls can be partially removed and supported with a steel beam to create large entryways between rooms. Always consult a structural engineer if you plan to do this, and – being a structural alteration – the work will need to meet Building Regulations too and be signed off accordingly.

rh stoddart bedroom

We are used to all of the walls in our homes being full height, but why do they have to be? Divide without conquering the free flow of light in your room with a simple partition wall — they are great places to incorporate storage too as seen here

Alternatively, why not create glassless ‘windows’ between rooms so that light (and conversation) can travel from room to room without having to physically remove the whole wall.

Where walls can be removed, but you still want the feeling of separate ‘rooms’ try zoning the space instead. Use a half wall, or three-quarter-height stud wall if you want a visual barrier, or even use furniture to break up the space. Colour, flooring and even floor levels can also be used to define areas in a space.

lawrie barn zoning

A step down from the kitchen to the dining area helps zone this barn-style extension and stops the space from feeling cavernous. The designer gets extra brownie points for using a glass barrier between the zones so light is not impeded

The glass ceiling (or floor)

By nature, basements are a fiend when it comes to natural light — there generally isn’t much daylight underground. Many people will install a solar tube to get light into this space, but if your budget allows, why not try a more extravagant way of borrowing light from above and glaze sections of the ceiling with reinforced glass. It won’t be easy, and it definitely won’t be cheap, but where done properly the effects are comparable to an above-ground window-lit room.

basement studio glass ceiling

Reinforced glass is also an option on other floors of the house and is often used to light stairwells, or enhance light in buildings where much of the light is brought in through the roof rather than the external walls (as is often the case in self builds in built-up areas). Few would feel comfortable glazing the entire floor, so a panel here and there is the most accessible option.

uphill house glass floor

A reinforced glass floor has been used in this hallway


If you’re planning a full remodel, then including a courtyard may be an option. When extending a home, many people only have the option to add the new space directly on to the rear, side or top of their property, but a blessed few might have a plot which is large enough to accommodate a horse-shoe or quadrangle. This not only has the benefit of preventing a large, lightless interior space, but can also blur the lines between outside and inside in the rooms that border the courtyard.

hbr eatwell zen garden

This internal ‘Zen’ garden brings light into the heart of the first floor living spaces

Again, for those with basements, a sunken courtyard can bring in light in an innovative way. Particularly striking examples of sunken courtyards have trees or water features climbing from the space.

clibing wall sunken courtyard

The architect owner of this family home included a climbing wall in their sunken courtyard which is accessed from a basement often used by the children

No longer ‘in the dark’

So, whatever the scale of your project, I hope I have given you some enlightening ideas, to brighten your interiors.