Product Report

Skylights & Roof Lanterns

Skylights and roof lanterns, building on their venerable history, are growing in popularity for both restored homes and new construction, spurred on by new materials and design refinements.

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Historically, skylights and roof lanterns have been prized both as sources of natural sunlight and as ways to provide great views. And when a skylight can be opened, it also provides ventilation -- and even emergency egress.

Initially wood-framed in the 18th and 19th centuries, skylights became even more popular in metal constructions with the advent of sheet-metal shops during the Victorian era. Virtually every urban rowhouse of the late 19th and early 20th centuries relied upon a metal-framed skylight to illuminate its enclosed stairwell. More elaborate dwellings of the era showed a fondness for the roof lantern, in which the humble ceiling-window design of the skylight is elaborated into a miniature glass-paneled, conservatory-style roof cupola or tower.

Because skylights are relatively simple in construction, few contractors specialize in their repair and restoration. Repairs tend to be relatively expensive and short term and therefore aren't very cost effective.

Most skylight specialists find that they are called on either to replicate a deteriorated existing skylight or to build a new one from scratch based on an architect's drawings. These replicas can be framed in either wood or metal, depending on the historic original, the client's specifications or both.

In addition to the relatively flat, straightforward, metal-framed skylights, some companies, such as Historical Arts & Casting, in West Jordan, UT, also make custom skylights with curved glass. These can get rather pricey, of course, because they involve complex metalwork in aluminum or bronze, as well as separate processes to bend and laminate the glass.

Early skylights and roof lanterns were very different from the ones being built today, because the technology is different. In New York City, for example, 100 years ago skylights or roof lanterns were usually made out of sheet metal, bent into structural shapes and then cut to size and soldered together.

Today, you can still get the traditional skylight framed in sheet metal with single-pane glazing. However, historic replica units now often come with double-pane insulated glass that improves their energy efficiency. And the metal frame frequently uses longer-lasting material than the galvanized originals; today, you can also get copper, lead-coated copper, zinc-coated copper and terne-coated stainless, among other metals.

But with the entry of conservatory manufacturers into the skylight and roof lantern market, you can also get units framed in mahogany, cast iron, steel and aluminum. Traditionally, wire glass was the only kind of safety glazing available. But today's conservatory companies are also accustomed to offering a wide range of glazing that meets both current safety codes and requirements for energy conservation, while keeping the space cool in the summer and warm during the winter.

A variation sometimes seen today is an interior art glass "lay lite" that decorates and enlivens the interior, while a conventional, functional skylight above it shields the art glass from rain, snow and wind-blown objects. Such installations frequently also have concealed light fixtures to provide back-lighting at night.

Where the entry of conservatory companies into the market is most obvious is in the engineering of roof lanterns. Sometimes, a roof lantern will be little more than the top of a standard conservatory. But more elaborate custom designs call upon the supplier's creative skill to engineer a new sloped-glazing unit, quite unlike regular conservatories.

Roof lanterns also offer designers and clients a way to add architectural interest without the cost of a full-size conservatory or sun room. An elegantly designed glass roof lantern, perhaps topped with a finial or ridge cresting, can become a crowning jewel on a custom home -- at a price that doesn't break the bank.

Click here for suppliers of skylights
Click here for suppliers of conservatories
Click here for suppliers of cupolas


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