By Francie Healy

Natural light.

It’s free. It’s gentle. It’s easy on the eyes. It makes you feel happy.

And  most of all, it’s beautiful.

Artists and photographers have always been drawn to natural light, particularly in the morning or early summer evenings, when it is so enchantingly soft.

Natural light is probably what we all crave, but the windows in our homes can’t always provide enough of it, especially in populated areas or tight communities.

And even when window light is plentiful, imagine getting more of that lovely light straight from the source – the sky.

A skylight can bring in twice the light of a window, says Russell Ibbotson, a professional engineer with Velux Canada, manufacturer of skylights and sun tunnels.

He says more and more people are relying on them in townhomes because they give light where none is otherwise possible. They also provide security. You can safely leave a venting skylight open and get rid of hot, moist or smelly air.

Velux is the sole skylight-supplier to Ottawa Windows and Doors. It provides a certified installation program, hands-on training and site inspection. It’s a strict program which requires the installation companies (such as Ottawa Windows and Doors) to verify their insurance; to have been in business for at least five years; and to be re-certified every two years. A Velux rep is always available for advice and works hand-in-hand with skylight installers.
Jeff Gibson, of Ottawa Windows and Doors, speaks highly of them.

SUN TUNNEL Composite

“They’re the industry leaders in skylight technology,” he says. “Their skylights and sun tunnels are virtually leak-proof.”

He says skylights have improved greatly even in the last couple of years because the better manufacturers have made changes so there’s less to be done to the skylight on site, and therefore less chance of water infiltration. “Leaking is the biggest misnomer about skylights,” he adds. “If there’s a leak, it’s the roof. It’s very rare, in my experience, that the problem is with the skylight itself.”

He does see some “sad cases” of skylights that have been installed by amateurs. They’re the ones he ends up fixing. This is not a job for a non-professional.

The critical part of a skylight is its installation and connection to the roof. Jeff says that transition needs to be seamless.

He says the great thing about Velux skylights are things like the flashing they use and the deck seal (between the roof deck and the skylight framing).       “This is a one-piece flange with a rubber membrane on the bottom side of it so there’s no joint, and no way that water can get in there,” he explains. “The flexible rubber membrane runs up the side of the skylight down onto the roof again, so there’s no joint anywhere. For the corners, there’s a cut, but everything is overlapped.”

Jeff adds location is important to how much light you get from a skylight. It also determines whether there will be a problem.

“The higher it’s placed on the roof, the better,” he says, “especially in our climate.” The light is more intense, and the roof is more windblown higher up, so there’s not as much snow accumulation. Also, there’s better ventilation within the attic space, and that prevents ice buildup.

You can get a variety of sizes in a skylight: from 20×24 in. up to 46×46 in. square. Skylights depend on truss spacing in new construction, Jeff explains. If you eliminate one of the truss spaces, you can fit in a skylight at that size.

“Depending on the age of the house and the existing roof rafter or truss, if you’re going to stay within the spacing, then you’re not altering the structure of the roof. Otherwise you have to get an engineer involved to design the structure to re-support the piece you’re taking out.”

Skylights are designed to allow water to run off. They’re installed at minimum slope requirements; if the roof is flat, a slope must be built to accommodate the skylight.

“It’s very technical,” says Jeff. “In our business, doors and skylights – especially skylights – are most complicated, especially when you add the height factor of working on a roof.

He says this is often where the Velux rep comes in.

“One of the nice things about them is that they have an excellent support program. If we have any questions, they’re right there, right up on the roofs with us.”

Besides skylights, there’s another delightful option for getting natural light into your home: sun tunnels.

A sun tunnel is a lens on your roof and one on the ceiling connected with a highly reflective tube. What you see is an acrylic dome on the roof that captures the light. The light goes through the reflective tunnel directly into whatever room you want.

Some tunnels are rigid, like duct work. Some are flexible, like a dryer vent. In either case they are reflective and channel extremely bright light.

“No matter where you want the direct light,” says Jeff, “you can almost always make it connect.”

People like to use sun tunnels in stairwells, closets or smaller rooms, such as bathrooms and laundry rooms, which don’t have an outside window.

Jeff says they’re great in townhomes that have open stairwells that go right from bottom to top. A sun tunnel can light the floor in the basement.

“It’s so much less intrusive than a window or skylight,” says Jeff. “It’s just a single hole in the roof and ceiling, with no drywall work.

The light spread varies depending on the diffuser, which comes in a 10-, 14- and 21-inch lens. There’s much more light through a skylight, but a sun tunnel is more focused. It’s also reflected rather than direct.

Jeff says his company installed three sun tunnels over a kitchen island and the result was both stunning and dramatic.

“The light is so bright,” he says, “that when people leave the room they tend to hit the “off” light switch, and then realize that’s not where the light came from at all.”