Daylight Saving Time — or rather, its abrupt end on Nov. 3 — has always struck me as something of a devil’s bargain. In exchange for a single, admittedly blessed hour of extra sleep on a fall weekend (and delaying the inevitable bummer of waking in darkness), we must pay the demanding price of drastically earlier sunsets every single day for the next four months — and pay back that hour of sleep in full come March. There are probably payday loans with better borrowing terms.
But the end of DST isn’t so much the problem as it is the harbinger of the darkness to come. And as the daylight dwindles, so do many people’s spirits. An estimated 5 percent of Americans experience seasonal depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Many more of us get a milder case of the “winter blues,’’ casting a cloud of lethargy over our moods.
Seasonal affective disorder is a serious condition, so it’s important to see a doctor if you have symptoms of depression. But virtually all of us crave more sunlight during winter’s doldrums. With that in mind, we asked interior designers and architects how to let more light into a home and make the most of what meager sunshine is available during a New England winter.
First things first, says Newton-based designer Erin Gates, author of “Elements of Family Style,’’ try cleaning or even power-washing your windows to remove summer pollen and other buildup. “It allows way more light to come in,’’ Gates said. “I just did this, and it’s a game changer.’’
You also want to make sure your window coverings aren’t sabotaging your efforts to capture more of the sun’s rays. “If you have drapes, hang them high to the ceiling and wide enough that they only cover the window trim, and not the actual window itself,’’ Gates said. She recommends using the same outside-mount approach with Roman shades, installing them high enough so that the bottom of the shade, when raised, covers the trim but not much of the actual window. “This tricks the eye into thinking the window is taller than it actually is,’’ Gates added.
Clearing obstructions works on both sides of the glass: Trimming shrubs or low branches outside south-facing windows can immediately let more of those precious winter sunbeams into your home. But you can also plant and prune with a longer-term plan in mind. “The trees that surround your house should not only play their part in the landscape, but in the environmental conditions of your house,’’ said architect Jeffrey Klug of BUTZ + KLUG in Boston. “For instance, on the south side of your house in New England, views notwithstanding, you should have deciduous trees that provide shade in the summer and when they lose their leaves allow light and warmth in the winter.’’
The way your home is oriented should also inform your decisions about where to install new windows or skylights — perhaps the most obvious way to harvest more natural light. “How is the house positioned in terms of north, south, east, west?’’ asked Dave Supple, founder and chief executive of New England Design + Construction in Boston. “That in itself is the place to start, because anything you do with windows or skylights is going to be impacted by that.’’ Adding glass on the south side of your home, where the sun spends most of its daytime arc, will generally provide the most brightness for your buck. But sometimes that requires a bit of resourcefulness.
Supple recalled clients with a rather dreary living room. “They wanted to bring in more light, but the wall that made the most sense [for more windows] was the wall that had their entertainment system and built-ins,’’ Supple said. “So we put a long, horizontal transom window up higher that was able to bring in light but not mess with the functional things they needed in that room.’’ The raised positioning and slender profile of a transom window can also maintain privacy for rooms at street level.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your home’s layout as it relates to the sun, either. If your living room feels trapped in perpetual twilight, for example, but a seldom-used, south-facing dining room across the hall is drenched in sun, you can try swapping their functions.
“Sometimes it just takes rearranging the layout,’’ Klug said. “Identify where the best rooms are for each time of day, and furnish them accordingly. A sunny spot on winter mornings is a great place to have a cup of coffee and read the paper — a fantasy, I know, but think along those lines,’’ he added. “Hopefully it’s just the furniture, but it can certainly be more.’’
“More’’ might mean less — as in, removing a wall. “With interior remodeling, you can open up rooms to each other,’’ Supple said, creating an unobstructed pathway for light entering the sunny side of the house to reach its dimmer corners. “Opening up an interior by taking down walls is absolutely a great aid in brightening a home,’’ Gates concurred. “The more natural light from multiple sides, the better.’’
Less disruptive changes can employ the same principle. “We’ve widened doorways in spaces that could use some light from an adjacent space,’’ said Mary Flo Ouellette, an interior designer at Squarehouse Studios in Somerville. And using interior windows or French doors can also allow excess light to stretch deeper into the home as well. These “not only allow light to filter through the house, but create opportunities for cross ventilation and visual extension,’’ Klug said.
Doctors aren’t certain what causes seasonal affective disorder, but they have found that light therapy — a 30- to 90-minute dose of bright or simulated sunlight, usually administered in the morning — can often ease its symptoms. To ensure a daily dose of dawn’s early light, add windows to rooms that are central to your morning routine, such as the kitchen or bathroom.
In a recent project in Chestnut Hill, Supple installed a skylight above the shower in the master bath. Paired with a teak wood floor, it conjures the summertime feel of a backyard rinse on Cape Cod, even in the depths of winter. “They wanted to have that kind of refreshing sunlight shower every morning,’’ Supple said. He’s also noticed that homeowners increasingly want to trade upper cabinets in the kitchen for more windows, with open shelving, island cabinets, and pull-out pantry solutions to make up for the lost storage.
While skylights are a natural choice for vaulted or top-story ceilings, they average more than $1,500 installed, according to HomeAdvisor. Tubular skylights — which carry light from a small, porthole-style window installed on the roof down a reflective tube to what resembles a recessed light fixture in the ceiling — don’t bring in as much sun as a full-sized skylight, but are far simpler (and less expensive) to install. “You can go in between the rafters and bring it down to the room with this funnel, if you will, and there’s no structural work, so that’s the benefit of those,’’ Supple said.
One thing to remember when adding windows or skylights is that they also change your home’s outside appearance. “Adding windows needs to make sense and be balanced from the exterior view of the home, not just from the interior,’’ Gates said.
Beyond just letting in more light, smart interior design strategies and palettes can help brighten a space and make the most of the existing sunlight. “Warm or bright colors in a matte finish tend to amplify the effect and make the room feel like it’s glowing,’’ said designer Steve Santosuosso of Squarehouse Studios. “It seems counter-intuitive since glossier finishes reflect the light, but this can contribute to a more ‘institutional’ feel and create harsher glare.’’
Paler tones naturally elevate the brightness of a room, Gates said. “I like pale neutrals — not too gray or too beige — with crisp white trim in rooms that tend to feel a little darker. And using a lighter toned rug, especially on dark floors, will create a much brighter feeling,’’ she said. Bright accents in hues of pale blue, green, or blush can establish a soothing scheme and cheer up a dark room, she added.
And, after another 4:30 p.m. sunset, when you must rely on electric illumination to keep your spirits bright, make sure your lighting is placed at a variety of heights and levels, Gates said. “For example, if you have recessed lights in the ceiling, be sure to also have table lamps — and even sconces or a floor lamp — on a lower level,’’ Gates said. “Having multiple light sources in warm-temperature bulbs makes the space feel cozier than trying to light it all with a single, brighter light source,’’ Santosuosso added.
After all, you’ll want it well-lighted so you can keep an eye on the calendar. Just 21 weeks to go until we spring forward again on March 8.