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August  2004

Thinking Outside the Box
Seeing Skylights as More than Boxed Units
by Steve St. Pierre

With new skylight offerings ranging from tunnel units to large architectural structures, skylights now offer an unprecedented range of design flexibility. Getting homeowners and builders to see skylights beyond boxed units is the challenge manufacturers are facing. 

But before we can meet that challenge we have to face the facts. Somewhere along the way skylights gained a bad rap. Between stories of leaking, heat loss, heat gain, condensation or breaking during harsh weather, skylights have been seen as the weakest link in homebuilding. The truth is that today’s skylights have moved well beyond these issues and are ready to reclaim a prominent role in homebuilding and remodeling.

Homeowner Benefits
A great example is the emergence of hurricane-resistant laminated glass that provides superior safety and security to meet Dade County, International Building Code, International Residential Code and other stringent state building codes for skylights installed in Wind Zone 3 coastal applications. 

Hurricane-resistant glass appears to be ordinary glass, but shields against damage from wind-borne debris, accidental impacts, forced entry and even unwanted noise.

Automatic heat and rain sensors are also gaining popularity as upgrades. 

Outfitting venting skylights with remote-controlled mechanisms that open and close the units automatically allows homeowners to preset the unit to do so at predetermined temperatures. The homeowners can also program multiple skylights to run independently and at different times. 

In this way, skylights help circulate cool fresh air from above while allowing trapped, heated air to escape, and will close when the temperature dips down to below the set point.

The result is a comfortable home with improved air quality and decreased energy bills. And there’s no need to worry about the rain. Automatic rain sensors shut the units in inclement weather quickly. 

Interior shades and exterior awnings are also key accessories that manufactures can offer to decrease solar gain and reduce energy costs dramatically.

Daylighting Benefits
As for getting builders and homeowners to see skylights in a new way, perhaps one answer is to offer specific daylighting solutions. Building science expert Steve Easley of Building Media says, “From a practical standpoint, skylights are a great solution for homes on small lots.” Easley points out that on small lots, adding windows usually means losing privacy. 

Not so with skylights. Easley says, “Skylights add enormous daylighting while maintaining privacy. And the bottom line is that with today’s advanced glazing, skylights are not energy losers. They are a great ingredient to an energy-efficient home,” said Easley. 

Easley also predicts that skylights will find a prominent role in the emerging green building movement. Increased daylighting is a natural fit when it comes to all aspects of green building. Benefits include not only decreased energy bills, but the increasingly clear health benefits associated with natural light.

Easley points to the inclusion of daylighting in commercial spaces, particularly schools as evidence. 
“Research on the positive impact that daylighting has on learning is changing the way we build schools in this country. The message that increased daylighting is healthy is sure to also change the way we build homes as well.”

New Skylight Features

For architects designing custom homes, the advantages of designing their own signature skylight structures is a tremendous advantage. Scott Simons of Scott Simons Architects in Portland, Maine agrees. 

“Skylights give us a third dimension for designing the interior,” he said. “Rooms can expand upward as well as horizontally. There’s nothing nicer than lying in bed at night watching the stars through a large skylight, or seeing the pattern of sunlight that comes through a skylight as it crosses a room during the course of a day.” 

Innovations in skylight manufacturing mean that the sky is the limit. These new units feature lightweight, framed systems, pyramid systems in square, octagonal and extended pyramid configurations … or planar for pitched roof applications … both with a full range of glazing options including hurricane-resistant glass. 

The image challenge skylights face is leaks. Manufacturers would most likely point to problems with installation as the primary culprit, but we as an industry still need to address the issue constantly. Most well-made skylights on the market feature leak- resistant technologies including gutters that allow water to drain the exterior, and urethane thermal breaks to further minimize condensation. 

Perhaps the best we can do to further combat leaking is through designing smart, ready-to-install units, implementing installer training programs and investing in a well-staffed and expert technical support team that is available to take calls from installers and homeowners alike. 

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