Let the light in: Floor-to-ceiling windows aren’t the only way to bring the outdoors inside
We all know that expansive floor-to-ceiling windows are a great strategy to illuminate your home, but there are plenty of other ways to usher sunlight into your living space, from sunrooms and skylights to clerestory windows.
Sunrooms became popular in certain regions in the 1970s but, like skylights, the technology just hadn’t come far enough for the concept to take root in the harsh Rocky Mountain climate. Nevertheless, a few examples do exist in the Vail Valley.
Shepherd Resources, Inc. in Edwards designed a sunroom/conservatory about 25 years ago in Beaver Creek, and the owners still love and use it, says principal Adam Harrison. Copper and glass clad the exterior, and though the roof is solid, without glass or skylights, sunlight floods the space, which is filled with houseplants, because the roof doesn’t include overhangs.
Likewise, homeowners of an EagleVail home that features a waterfall, small stream and huge plants — which actually grow from the ground (builders opened up the foundation for the greenery) — thoroughly enjoy the “jungle” in the middle of their home. Granted, they did have 1980s skylights, which leaked, so
Sipes Architects in Minturn replaced the skylights with more energy-efficient ones that don’t leak. Now, the client is continuing to renovate by raising the roof — and adding windows — for better views from the home, merging outdoor mountain peaks with a touch of indoor tropics.
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While sunrooms and skylights of the past have gained a bad reputation for leaks and other problems, today’s technology allows for such architectural elements to remain leak- and mold-free.
“If you’re (attending to) details in the ways they should be done, water leakage and mold is not a problem,” Harrison says, pointing to such factors as proper ventilation and moisture barriers.
KH Webb Architects in Vail has designed an elaborate, sunny, 1,500-square-foot spa facility, complete with steam room, cold plunge, hot tub and plants, in a private home that brings indoor-outdoor living to a new level.
But, as far as window and other building technology has come in terms of holding in more heat during long winters, sunrooms and the like still can’t be considered energy efficient.
“Sunrooms are very energy inefficient. They absorb heat during the day and lose a lot of heat at night,” said Brian Sipes, president of Sipes Architects, though he appreciates the warmth and greenery they bring to mountain winters. “They’re warmer (in the daytime) than surrounding areas, and that change does something psychologically. It’s like going into a sauna. Your body reacts to that. It’s a little bit of tropics brought into the middle of the Rocky Mountains.”
“Sunrooms (in the Vail Valley) are feasible, but the heat loss issue in the winter is significant, so you have to pay special attention to details to make sure they are viable,” Webb said. “We use them more sparingly up here because of climate.”
However, Amory Lovin’s home in Old Snowmass is an example of “what amazing things can be done in our climate when you do the science and get it right,” Sipes said. They used heavily insulated, thick rock, heat tubing to collect sunlight and even “invented” more energy-efficient glass before it became mainstream. Now, they grow bananas, tomatoes and other crops and provide a habitat for a hedgehog, right in the middle of their home.
Still, Sipes points out that “it takes a lot of effort and a lot of thought to make these things work in our harsh climates.”
Granted, England is known for its cold, bleak winters, as well as its conservatories. However, builders typically employ heavy brick walls around the perimeter for better insulation, and then install a glass roof to stream in sunlight. Conservatories focus less on warmth and more on providing the light plants need to grow; oftentimes, a boiler house, located next to the conservatory, would pump heat into the room.
Rather than sunrooms or conservatories, mountain homeowners opt more for skylights and clerestory windows — the latter of which are placed high on the wall.
Clerestory windows can sit above other windows, by themselves or in a separate roof element. Either way, they brighten the space. They’re especially useful when floor-to-ceiling, or other traditional windows, would compromise privacy.
Windows that let in light can also act as an artistic element in the home. Sipes Architects incorporated horizontal windows in an EagleVail home to create a slot-type-picture of the middle of trees — you can’t see the top or bottom of the trees, you just see the middle.
“It’s dramatic. It pulls you in because you only see part of the tree, like a photograph,” Sipes says.
Another approach to ushering in sunlight includes installing windows in a shallow-pitched roof.
“You don’t lose that much heat, and you get the psychological benefit — it’s a way to bring light into the middle of the house and grow plants,” Sipes said.
Like any large window these days, skylights must be the best quality possible. Webb gives a compelling example of how far glass technology has come. Before he replaced the skylight in his office, he ran the air conditioning all summer. After he replaced the skylight with high-level, sun-shading glass, he hasn’t had to turn the air conditioning on in the summertime.
“There are a lot of misnomers about skylights in terms of leaks and heat, but they can be an amazing feature,” Webb said, describing a giant skylight his firm designed above a stairwell to make it glow and add light to the back of the house. “They can add a huge effect by bringing the outdoors inside.”
Webb also designed a rock climbing wall with skylights illuminating the relatively narrow area, creating a stunning effect.
While windows are all about opening interior spaces to the amazing views in the Vail Valley, local architects are “always being creative about getting light into spaces that wouldn’t get it otherwise,” Webb said. “It just makes you smile. Natural light creates a warm and inviting space.”