Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light (Part 3)

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Read Part One of Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light

Read Part Two of Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light

7. Interior Windows

Many older houses had real transom windows. These are the windows that are over top of a doorway, especially interior doors. They let light fall deeper into a house, and if operable, allow air flow without compromising privacy. Retrofitting transom windows is not a job for amateurs. You must be very, very sure it isn’t a load-bearing wall and you have to be a pretty good carpenter. What you can do is clean and strip off the layers of paint from any transoms that you do have.

You can also replace doors with ones with frosted glass inserts to give light with privacy. It is possible to get second hand doors with glass inserts: the difficulty is finding one that fits your door opening. Our bathroom in our finished basement (formerly a dungeon and now bright yellow) gets no natural light whatsoever. A frosted glass door would permit the space to be used without having to have the light on during the day. My sister offered us one left over from a home renovation project; alas, it was the wrong size. If you can get a door that fits, but it has clear glass, don’t despair. According to Martha Stewart, you can etch the glass yourself — in place! — into frosty privacy. We haven’t tried this one ourselves. Eventually, I broke down and bought a beautiful door with a full size glass insert for the bathroom. The glass is heavily patterned to allow light and privacy. Nine on a one to ten scale of glass transparency, I think. The cost for this varies wildly — do you have a standard door opening? or is it an odd, custom made only size? Do you need to have it professionally installed or can you do it yourself? Shop around before replacing doors. Habitat for Humanity runs thrift shops for building material and you may get lucky.

We have installed one interior window. We have a real window in the exterior wall near the partition wall for the finished basement. The interior window lets light fall from that window into the bathroom alcove. We used frost patterned glass; it cut down a little light and obscured the view of the washer and laundry table. The plan is to add one more interior window in the same area when that portion of the basement is rehabbed. This one window turned a pitch dark corner into one that looks dimly lit most days. The glass door on the bathroom means that you can now see well enough that you don’t have to turn on the light during the day. I can see that adding the second window will make for a brighter bathroom AND pour more light into our finished living space. The installed window is two panes of frost patterned glass, fixed and non-operable, and separated by an airspace the thickness of the wall. It is set between the studs so little woodworking was needed. All exposed wood and trim is painted ultra high gloss white. Careful caulking, inside and out, has ensured no air leakage or dust.

When the bathroom door was replaced, I had the door into the unfinished basement done too. It has a frost glass pattern that conceals the laundry area while letting a lot more light pass through than the bathroom door does. Depending on time of day, sunlight pours down the basement staircase and into the unfinished basement OR light filters through from the unfinished side into the finished living space. The door makes it much easier to walk around without having to turn on lights just to walk through the space.

8. Shrubbery

I routinely see homes that have shrubbery growing in front of every window, right up to the roof line and beyond. We had that situation here with a row of cedars completely blocking two bedroom windows. Even at high noon, those rooms were pitch black. We cut the cedars down to the ground and were instantly rewarded with light and air.

With overgrown shrubs you have two choices: cut them back hard to below the window sill and prune faithfully every year for the rest of your life or remove the shrubs entirely. The difficulty is that many, many shrubs naturally want to grow ten feet tall and wide; but the person who planted them either didn’t know this or expected to prune them faithfully every year. For example, a great many people plant privet because everyone else does. Privet grows like an invasive weed but it is traditional and it prunes exceptionally well. But privet is very tall and wide at maturity: you can maintain it as a thirty foot tall hedge!

If you want to prune faithfully for the rest of your life, you will need to identify what is blocking your windows. A good, local nursery may be able to help you — don’t expect this kind of assistance at a big box store. The staff is unlikely to know the difference between thuja and taxus. Why does this matter? Taxus (yew) loves regular pruning and can recover from the aggressive haircut you are going to give it. Thuja (cedar) hates pruning and will likely die from the operation. If you prune back hard without knowing the plant, it may die and then you will have to dig it out anyway.

If you can’t identify the plant or have no taste for hard annual pruning the better solution is to remove the offending bushes right down to the roots. This is not a fun job. While you are recovering, rebuild the soil in the foundation beds. Then replant with something that has a mature height just below that of your window sills. Your nursery staff can help you find something or use mail-order catalogs like Musser Forests. A well chosen bush will never need to be pruned; it will naturally grow to fit the space. Yew, a very common foundation shrub, actually comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes from little green meatballs to columns fifteen feet tall to monsters thirty or forty feet tall with corresponding width. Choose correctly and save yourself endless work and get fresh air and light into your home. When you replant, you should also put the shrub the right distance away from the house — one half the mature size plus another foot of clearance to do maintenance on the house.

You should think too, do you want the foundation shrubs to do double duty? Many shrubs have showy flowers, fall color, or winter berries. Some provide bird and native insect habitat. Some provide edible berries or nuts. If you are concerned about security, choose a shrub with vicious thorns and a dense growth habit. Shrub roses look very nice under bedroom windows and discourage prowlers. Make sure your roses are scented! Mysteriously, the gene for scent and the gene for thorns are closely related in roses. No thorns, no perfume. There are many shrubs that can add a security aspect to your foundation planting, so take advantage of what is available. Do your research and spend the time upfront and it will save you time later on.

9. Basement Lighting

Basements demand multiple techniques to improve their lighting. First and foremost is cleaning any windows (including their screens) that you are fortunate enough to have. Walls are the next step. White paint is the best choice for color by far. Anything past the palest pastels simply cannot compensate for the miniscule amount of natural light you are receiving. Off white and creams just look like dirty white. Which paint you use, regular latex, cement, or Drylock, is dependent on the wall. Walls that are finished with sheetrock or ugly paneling can be painted like any other wall; i.e. latex. Concrete block walls must be painted with specialty paint; their location and function decides what paint to use. Interior walls or support pillars can be painted with cement paint. Foundation walls that are RAW, unpainted block should be painted only with Drylock. If your foundation walls are painted block, then their condition decides the paint.

Drylock is formulated especially to seal the concrete and keep out moisture. Drylock won’t hold back a river but it will drastically cut back any seepage and small leaks. Drylock CANNOT be applied over painted block walls. It is designed to soak into the concrete and it can’t do that if there is paint in the way. If your paint is peeling and chipping off of the walls due to moisture, then you need to finish stripping off the paint (horrible job) and put on Drylock. If the paint is in good shape and you have no water issues, then the local paint store can advise you as to which white cement paint to use.

I cannot recommend Drylock highly enough. Our basement routinely flooded with an inch or so of water after every heavy rain. I don’t know how the previous owners tolerated this, but I certainly wasn’t going to. Adding concrete water splashes to the downspouts solved 75% of the problem. Drylock took us to the 95% mark. We then reroofed and reguttered, corrected sloping sidewalks, built dry creeks, patched holes, and improved the soil. All that work kept water away from the foundation but the Drylock sealed the damaged walls well enough to keep out the seepage and cut down the humidity.

If you possibly can, paint the basement walls before you move all your stuff in. Drylock every exterior wall if it is raw concrete block, even if you don’t have a moisture problem. It will save you wetness and humidity problems down the road. It is expensive to use, partly because it is a more costly product and partly because it spreads on like pudding. If a can of regular cement paint covers 200 square feet, the same size can of Drylock will cover less than half that. Fortunately, it comes in five gallon buckets. You will need that much or more to paint one long wall with two coats. Get white Drylock of course. Follow all the directions for preparation and painting on the can to the letter and the Drylock should last forever.

Next, paint any interior block walls and pillars with regular cement paint. They don’t hold back wet soil and so don’t need the investment of Drylock. Cement floors can and should be painted as well. Pick a light gray or tan as the best compromise between dirt hiding and lightness. Use paints made just for floors: it is harder and will wear a lot better. There a lot of choices in floor paints so be sure you ask plenty of questions about ease of application and durability. This is not a job to do twice. If your exposed foundations are brick, you will need to ask at the paint store. Choose a local store that has been around a long time where the staff really do know their paint. And please, after the staff has been so helpful, buy your paint from them.

Your window wells are the next step. The windows and screens (if any) should have already been cleaned. Next, dig out all the dirt and rocks from the well down to at least six inches below the bottom of the foundation window sill. Try not to go below the bottom of the metal well. Sweep out all the cobwebs and dust. Scrub clean the exposed foundation wall framing the window inside and outside the house. Paint every part you can reach of the concrete inside the metal window well with, you guessed it, more Drylock. Meanwhile, wash all the dirt off of the rocks and remove any nails, trash, broken glass, etc from them. After the foundation is painted (two coats of white), put the clean, dry rocks back into the well but don’t fill it up. Instead, top the salvaged rock layer with two or three inches of white marble chips. The marble chips will reflect far more light than the dingy gray and brown rocks you removed and washed. If you feel up to it, rinse the marble dust off of the marble chips for extra shine before you add them. The new rock layer should be one inch or more below the bottom of the foundation window sill: this is so that if rain water were to get into the well, it won’t immediately flood in through the window. The rocks allow for drainage and help keep everything dry. Now for the last step. Clean the metal well wall and paint it with gloss white Rustoleum paint. This will probably take three coats for good coverage. The finishing touch is a clear plastic bubble or salvaged storm window to keep out the rain.

Yes, I have actually done this with all four of my basement window wells and my three foot deep light shaft in our Florida room. The difference was amazing. The gloss white paint bounces light into the basement and on sunny days, the wells glow. The job was tedious, messy, dirty, and hard on the back and took over a week per well, much of which was spent waiting for paint and rocks to dry. Cleaning out the wells was the worst part. It was completely worth the work. Our basement (finished and unfinished) was so dark, even on the sunniest of days, that you could not safely walk through it without turning on a light. Now, depending on weather and time of day, you almost get enough light to read by. Painting the walls helped as did painting the ceiling tiles. But, the window wells are the most important element as they are the most direct link with the sun. After the wells have been redone, you will need to sweep out the cobwebs and dust every year or so. Do it when you clean the windows and screens and the light will pour in.

The basement ceiling is next. If you are lucky enough to have a drywall ceiling, paint it over with ceiling white paint. My finished basement ceiling is a suspended ceiling: a metal grid that holds insulated two foot by two foot ceiling tile panel kinds of things. This setup cannot be painted in place with brushes and rollers; I’ve tried! The panels shift and move so you can’t get an even coat. The panels get glued to the suspension grid with paint ensuring that you cannot remove them to get access to the wiring or plumbing hidden above. The solution, a tedious one, is to paint the grid very carefully with either a narrow slant brush or a foam one in a coat of primer and two coats of ceiling white. Try not to get any paint on the panels as they are then harder to remove for painting. I used regular latex house paint on the family room metal grid. I did use Rustoleum on the grid in my basement bathroom. Years of moisture had made the grid rust in places and Rustoleum was the only cure.

When you have recovered from painting the grid, it is time to tackle the panels. Set up a pair of sawhorses with an old door on top. Carefully remove two or three panels and put them insulation side down on the door. Then prime and paint with a brush. A roller didn’t work well — it was too large and tore apart the ceiling panel. The panels will suck up a huge amount of primer. Let them dry and then paint with ceiling white. Since you are painting sort of white panels with white paint, you may need only one coat of ceiling white. My panels did this. Let the panels dry completely before putting them back. Prime and paint a given set of panels as it is easy to loose your place. If you have fifty or sixty ceiling panels, this may take weeks to months to finish them all. Why not replace the panels with new ones? Because that will cost ten times as much as the paint will and the new panels still won’t be as white as possible. We priced replacement panels and even the cheapest ones would have cost hundreds of dollars. The paint cost about sixty dollars.

If your basement ceiling is unfinished; i.e. bare rafters, exposed subfloor, and cobwebs galore, the best choice is to insulate it. There is no good way to paint the underside of your house so save yourself the aggravation and don’t bother. Insulating now; that is well worth the bother as you will be far more comfortable and save energy dollars. I have insulated the undersides of three houses now (crawl spaces and basements) and it made a big difference in comfort and cost. Worth every penny. A library book on insulation is the ideal place to start.

After you have installed lots of pink fiberglass insulation overhead, you may want to take a further step. Our pink insulation (installed vapor barrier to the heated house) was exposed to dust, cobwebs, and bad cats. I would find wisps of fiberglass here and there, some quite large. It looked messy and it didn’t do anything to lighten up the unfinished basement. After much discussion, I decided to try installing white styrofoam insulating panels between the joists. Second son and I bought a package as a trial. They are about 15 inches wide and four feet long and fit perfectly between the joists. Second son has been slowly installing them across the entire ceiling. They are held in place by pressure and slightly wider pieces of heavy wire dug into the joists on both sides. Cut up wire coat hangers work very nicely for this. He cuts and fits to avoid light fixtures, outlets, wires, or other impediments. It cleans up the ceiling remarkably, and it bounces light around far more than the fiberglass ever did. It does seem to be keeping the house a little warmer and bad cats can no longer pull down the fiberglass. If necessary, individual foam panels can be easily removed if we need access to any part of the floor above.

Don’t hesitate to make every single flat surface in your basement white. As each area gets painted or finished in turn, the overall ambiance will become lighter, brighter, and easier to maintain. You won’t have to turn on lights at noon just to walk through the space anymore.

10. Windows, Solar Tubes and Skylights

There comes a time when mirrors, cleanliness, and white paint simply aren’t enough. You have just got to get more natural light into the house. If you are willing to write out those whopping big checks to contractors or you are a skilled handyman, you can get virtually anything you want.

Check all your existing windows first. If your house is older and has been renovated before, it is possible that some heathen replaced big old windows with smaller ones and filled in the gaps with wood or brick. Look at your walls, inside and out, for shadow markings, irregularities in siding, changes in style, anything that indicates that the current windows aren’t the original ones. Look for transoms that have been nailed shut and sidelights that have been replaced with wood. Old pictures of your house can be helpful. Get several estimates and see if reopening to the old window size and installing a new one is worth the cost.

The next option is to add new windows where none ever existed before. You can have a hole cut into the wall and a window installed just about anywhere. Before you do this, consider the cost, the view, changes in privacy, the added light, the change in airflow, the added cost of new window treatments and how this new hole in the wall will affect your home heating and cooling system. Get the most energy efficient windows you can.

Skylights can sometimes be retrofitted into a house. Nothing will let in as much light as a big skylight. They have to be seen to be believed. Friends have a skylight in their bathroom. When the door is open, the space looks like it has enough lights to run an operating room and light spills out into the hallway, lighting it as well. If you are having extensive work done on your roof a skylight might be a very good solution. They must be installed and flashed correctly or you will have a big, leaky, drafty hole in your roof and a permanent problem.

Easier and cheaper than new windows or skylights are solar tubes. These are tubes, ten inches in diameter or larger that connect from a bubble on your roof to a flat glass plate in your ceiling. They can be installed just about anywhere you have open attic space between the roof and the room you want new light in. Solar tubes come in two basic models. The easier to install and less costly one has a tube that looks like a giant metal dryer vent. It is very flexible and lets in quite a lot of light. The harder to install and more pricy one has solid sides of super highly polished aluminum. There isn’t that much difference in light output on a sunny day. the difference comes in on a cloudy or marginal day. The mirror interior actually magnifies the captures light and then gives you, in the room below, way more sunshine than the dryer vent style.

We installed four SolaTubes (their brand name). They are the solid side style and are just amazing. Each bathroom got a ten inch tube and the kitchen got two fourteen inch tubes. SolaTube has optional light and vent kits so you can ventilate your windowless bathroom. Get the biggest tube you can fit through your rafters without cutting them. Our kitchen was permanently dingy and dark due to small, poorly placed windows. We always had the lights on, even at high noon. Courtesy of the tubes, this is no longer true. When I finish repainting my dark cabinets, the currently marginal days (should I turn on the light?) will become no electricity days.

It is true that I could buy a lot of electricity for the cost of the four tubes. But they are wonderful. Even the dreariest day here in central Pennsylvania is brighter since the tubes were installed. The natural sunlight makes me feel better in a way that the fluorescent ceiling fixture never did. We even get changes in the sun through the tubes as clouds move across the sky. At night, moonlight makes the tubes glow, softly lighting the space. Lightning makes them flash.

Figure on spending several hundred dollars per tube. Light and vent kits make the cost go up a lot; enough so that a bigger plain tube may cost the same or less than a fully accessorized smaller one. Installing solar tubes is not a do it yourself project unless you are already skilled in the building trades. Keep in mind that it is a hole in your roof, just like a skylight would be, only smaller. The dryer vent type is much easier to install and if you have a tricky location with lots of joists to work around, you may not have a choice between it and the less flexible, more brilliantly sunny solid side style. Either one will put natural light where you never thought you could get it before.

You can bring more free, natural sunlight into your house. The initial work is hard and dirty but the reward is light. Clean your new, shiny surfaces once in a while and they will continue to work for you by lowering your electric bill. Even if you accomplish only a few of the suggestions given here, you will see more light for your money. Look around and see what other possibilities suggest themselves. Something as simple as replacing that dark solid color shower curtain with a clear one will brighten up a bathroom (wash it now and then to keep it crystal clear). Remember that lighter, shiny, clearer and cleaner will promote light. Darker colors, dirt, dull finishes, and opaqueness will keep that wonderful, free, natural sunlight outside of your house and interfere with whatever lighting system you are using inside your home. Get to work and maximize those lighting dollars.

Next Week: Repairing the Work-Life Balance