Having lived in Puget Sound for several gray winters and knowing that we would not initially have electricity, we worried about the amount of natural light in the log cottage we were building for ourselves. Our impecu-niousness and lack of time dictated that our windows would be the rather small ones which we had found while scavenging most of the house's building materials from the path of the imminent Interstate 5 north of Bellingham.
We were facing both winter and the need to first make livable a larger dwelling, which would house our entire enclave and provide all of us with showers and laundry. Our more modest house would provide neither to start with.
The house site faced an open meadow to the west, but was largely surrounded on the other three sides by a 50-foot forest of alder and fir trees, a woodlot edged with the ubiquitous blackberry bushes - the knapweed of western Washington. We had small windows, a wood interior and a shaded location. We had spent our borrowed $500 on a wood heater, building insulation, a bit of Sheetrock, and a fridge and cook stove, both fired by propane.
We decided to copy the locals, who used translucent corrugated fiberglass panels, often called "patio roofing," as skylights in their barns. The panels were dirt cheap, and still are, and easy to install. Because we mistakenly installed the panels directly on the rolled roofing, instead of on a wood curb 3 inches or so above the roof, they required perpetual caulking to stop the leaks.
Each of two loft bedrooms had two, 4-foot skylights. A fifth, 8-foot panel was installed that lit the space between the two lofts, where it was reflected throughout the main floor. In the daytime, the house had a wonderful diffuse light.
After my dear O. wrangled me into our current house, I was anxious to put in skylights. In a shed at Boyce Lumber, I stumbled across a couple of dusty models left over from a home show and nabbed them with brilliant bargaining. We now have skylights in each of three upstairs rooms, rooms which would be drastically different if not lit from above. I can watch the stars from my pillow. Fir branches and blue sky are about 5 feet above my head as I sit at my desk.
For a low-rent rendezvous, domed, double-paned, clear acrylic lights are available for as little as about $80. In this price range, the mandatory curbs and flashings are not provided. Most of the ones I see that are more than a few years old have become cloudy and maybe cracked but still do the job of bringing outside light into the house. Another option is the 10- to 14-inch diameter "tube" skylight, an installation that requires less labor than the standard type.
Today's skylights are of tempered glass and are available with endless options including motor controls, miniblinds between the glass panes, mirror glass, "low-E," argon gas and sun shades. They can be installed on any roof surface: tile, shake, composition, steel. If installed properly, with the factory-supplied kits of curbs, flashings and gaskets, they will not leak.
If your roof is shot, as ours is, they may leak. Skylights, also called roof windows, are available from all of the local building supply outfits. They come in sizes that will fit between the typical roof structural members. The smaller ones, about 3 feet long, will cost about $200 and up, about twice that if they can be opened. Some skylight prices may not include the curb and flashing kit. Anderson, Pella, Velux and Valulux are some of the locally available brands. As in most things, the bigger, the more expensive.
Local contractor Eric Johnson says he gets frequent calls from prospective skylight clients. He points out that the installation price, as well as the price of the skylight itself, varies wildly. Factors that affect the price include: significant reinforcement of roofing members if a rafter or truss needs to be cut: the distance from the roof to the interior ceiling: type of roofing material; and working with the potential of asbestos in attic insulation.
It can easily take a full day for a professional installation. A minimum installation price is about $300, plus the cost of the skylight and other materials.
Johnson says the easiest and therefore least expensive installation is a vaulted ceiling, where the roof rafters are also the ceiling joists. This is the arrangement in my house, the second floor of which is essentially a finished attic space. Sheetrock is attached directly to the underside of the roof rafters for ceiling finish.
A flat ceiling and pitched roof indicate the presence of an attic. A box must be built from the roof through the attic to the ceiling, a process that will about double the cost of installation. Johnson says that many installations are done from the roof. It is easier to make structural changes from on top of the roof than from below, in a vaulted ceiling, 20 feet off the living room floor, and significantly less mess is caused in the lived-in areas of a finished house. Cutting through the ceiling is the next-to-the-last step in the process, followed only by the installation of any interior trim molding around the new opening.
Our apricot trees' first blooms are in the topmost branches, draped across the bedroom skylight. Ignoring further shingle damage, I can't bring myself to prune them back.