Some green builders and energy auditors would argue that skylights have no place in a “green” home. After all, skylights puncture the building envelope allowing heat to escape in the winter and enter in the summer. Improper installation of skylights can add problems such as condensation build-up inside and ice damming outside.
However, in a house built to Active House standards, energy is an incorporated into the design but is not the driving component. An Active House balances energy efficiency and human comfort by allowing natural daylight, fresh air and summer cross breezes into a building, while excluding excessive heat, cold, and glare from direct sunlight. This goal naturally means the home will have an abundance of windows and skylights — a direct contradiction of building philosophies such as Passive House which requires extremely tight building envelopes.
There have been many studies done on the positive effects of natural daylight on people’s health, and for those of us who live in northern climates and have suffered, even a little, from seasonal affective disorder, they will recognize the value of natural light, especially in the winter months. So while building envelopes are compromised with the addition of skylights, other green building goals are more than satisfied.
VELUX, a company established in Europe over 70 years ago, is well-known for its high-quality skylights. It has been involved with the Active House philosophy since its inception. I spoke with Nels Moxness and Russell Ibbotson of VELUX about the roles of skylights and their pros and cons in any building.
There are four major issues/concerns people have with skylights: air tightness, insulation value, solar heat gain and glare.
Air tightness: It’s no secret that many people who have lived in a house with skylights have experienced leaking at some point. While it can be due to faulty installation, often it is because the original skylights were installed using tar as the sealer around the flashing. Nels told me that after a few years of exposure to weather elements such as heat, cold, sunlight, water, snow, etc., the tar shrinks and cracks allowing water to infiltrate and find its way into the house. VELUX has always used a an engineered flashing which does not require sealants to maintain water tightness. Their current product has the addition of a rubber based membrane, which provides a shield from ice and water that often outlasts the roof’s shingles and prevents leaking. Further, to ensure proper installation of its skylights, VELUX certified installers are required to attend a comprehensive installation training as well as have a job site inspected upon completion.
Insulation: With respect to insulation values, VELUX skylights are double-paned, flat glass, LoE³ that are filled with argon gas. This provides for a better insulation value than uninsulated skylights. The U-value for the installed skylights in the Active House in Thorold, Ontario is rated at 0.4 in Energy Star zones A, B and C (most of Canada’s population lives within these climate zones, Zone D, the coldest, covers the Arctic). Note that there are 14 skylights in the Thorold house and the house achieved 1.6 air changes per hour. To give you an idea of how that compares to building code, the upgraded Ontario Building Code, 2012, and the newest Novoclimat (Quebec) building code require a minimum of 2.5 air changes per hour for a detached home.
Solar Heat Gain and Glare: Often, even in winter, if the sun is beating down on a house, without the protection trees or other buildings, the area under the skylight within the house will become so hot or bright that you avoid it completely. This effect is particularly brutal in the summer and will have the added consequence of forcing your air conditioner to work overtime. In fact, solar heat gain and direct glare from poorly placed skylights can negate any natural daylight advantage there is to installing them in the first place. Nels mentioned that with respect to solar heat gain, in the latest VELUX skylights, there is three times less solar heat gain than there was even ten years ago. Further, VELUX is developing an exterior awning system to prevent solar heat gain and help block glare even more. As it is, you can add an interior blind system, operated by remote control, this is particularly relevant in a bedroom if you don’t like waking up with the summer sun (in Montreal in June, dawn starts around 4:30am and sunrise is at 5am). In fact the addition of a light-blocking blind to a skylight can increase energy performance by as much as 45%.
As the technology of skylights continuously improves, skylights’ importance in a home’s design and functioning becomes increasingly valuable and homes built to Active House standards take full advantage of the newest skylights’ multi-functional qualities.
The multi-functional skylight: The Thorold house is designed with 14 skylights which are used to bring daylight into areas that might not receive it otherwise such as bathrooms and stairwells. With increased daylight, demand for electric lighting is significantly decreased versus a standard house.
The ability of VELUX skylights to open to let in fresh air and let interior hot air escape allows architects who promote natural over mechanical ventilation to make use of stairwells as heat stacks. When the cooler night air advances, ground floor windows can be opened along with skylights. As the hot air escapes through the skylights, the cooler night air gets sucked into the house to replace it. Cooling down a house is much more rapid, easing pressure on air conditioning and the electrical load. Further, VELUX has just incorporated a solar panel into its skylight to operate it, so there is no need to add to the electrical load.
Rain Sensor: Because the skylights are operable, they include a rain sensor so if you aren’t home and it rains, they will close automatically.
Effectively placed and properly installed skylights can be a positive addition to any building, providing natural daylight in hard to reach spaces, lowering electrical lighting loads and improving occupants’ overall well being.
To find a Velux dealer near you visit the Velux website.