Design + Architecture

How to renovate a brownstone or apartment to get more natural light

By Evelyn Battaglia | October 4, 2021 - 9:30AM 

This historic West Village townhouse was renovated by Abelow Sherman Architects to open up the garden-level kitchen and replace all windows. (See the before picture below.) Interior design by Rena Cherny Studio.

Simon Lewis

Tired of living in the dark? As lovely as they are, unless they're situated on a corner lot, turn-of-the-century brownstones tend to have windows only on the facade and the back, creating a swath of dark rooms in the middle. With narrow brownstones, the challenge is even steeper, because there's less window area to bring light to interior spaces. Mid-block prewar apartments can be equally problematic—maybe only one or two rooms have windows, or at least windows that don't look out on another wall.

A well-thought-out renovation is the light at the end of your (dreary) tunnel. And not just so your home is bathed in an idyllic (and 'grammable) glow. The science is pretty clear: Access to sunlight is good for your health and well-being. The more natural light you get, the more energy-efficient your home can be too.

"Like plants, humans need light and it is crucial to consider how to brighten an apartment or brownstone at the earliest stage of design," says Anna Karp, co-founder of renovation firm Bolster (FYI a Brick sponsor). For her it's about making the most of whatever light you get to determine your optimum layout and materials, as these can impact the perception of light. And if you give careful consideration to the interplay of natural and artificial lighting at the outset, the upshot is you can do more with less of the latter. (Check out Brick's advice on how to pick the right lighting.) Besides ambiance, natural light can also be used for dramatic effect, such as with a skylight shaft that brightens and spotlights a statement staircase. 

Hence the importance of incorporating a natural light solution into any renovation plan. Odds are you will not be able to enlarge the windows in a co-op and you are limited as well in a landmarked brownstone. (Read more about what you can and can't do in a historic district.) On the bright side, there is a lot of precedent to draw from and build upon—you just have to know your options. "More often than not clients come to their renovations with less of an idea of what's possible," says Peter Holtzman, founding principal at Bespoke Architecture. 

Read on for the different ways you can ramp up the rays in your own brownstone or apartment, in ascending order of time, expense, and ultimate pay-off.

 Design by Bespoke Architecture. Photo by Juris Mardwig.

Design by Bespoke Architecture. Photo by Juris Mardwig.

Open up the interior walls 

Reconfiguring the layout can often allow natural light to reach further into the space—especially if you are unable or unwilling to enlarge the windows due to budget or physical constraints. 

Such was the case in the renovation of a two-family Harlem brownstone by Holtzman, where the owners wanted to leave much of the original details intact while making the home more conducive to modern living. "It had that typical rabbit warren of halls and rooms, which contributes to it feeling dark." So he opened up a dark narrow hallway into an expansive kitchen that receives light from both ends (shown above; note the wainscotting from a former wall was repurposed to wrap around the new island). "This was the least expensive way to bring in more light while also preserving the fabric of the building the most." 

He also painted the walls (and its original millwork) white to dramatically brighten the space. "Dark wood sucks up a lot of photons." (He also recommends painting brick or at least pickling it so you keep the texture but allow the light to bounce around more.)

 Design by Rodman Paul Architects. Photo by Bolster.

Design by Rodman Paul Architects. Photo by Bolster.

A similar approach was applied in opening up a classic six apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had one room with windows in the front and a series of dark rooms leading from that. There Bolster worked with Michael J. Fasulo, partner at Rodman Paul Architects, in gutting the apartment to maximize the premium views. But rather than having one continual bright space, the owners wanted the apartment to be deliberately darker in the foyer in terms of paint and other surfaces and then gradually become lighter and brighter, so you get the feeling of being pulled to that visual point. 

And even though they weren't allowed to enlarge the windows, they replaced them with European-style models that allow for unobstructed views and multiple ways of opening. 

"This apartment has literally a million-plus-dollar view, but it's more about the psychological positive effect of having the light and seeing the trees outside that makes the apartment so bright and feel so nice," Karp says. 

 Design by Atelier036. Photo by Rare Photography.

Design by Atelier036. Photo by Rare Photography.

Lacking a stellar view? You can at least "borrow" light from the exposures in the living area to brighten the rest of your space. Niv Ben-Adi, founder of full-service design and architecture firm Atelier036, replaced most of the walls with translucent and clear glass to allow both natural and artificial light to migrate between spaces and emphasize the 12-foot ceilings of a ground-level Greenwich Village duplex apartment (shown above). Feedback from the clients: "I feel healthy in my new apartment!"

 Design and photo by Peter Holtzman.

Design and photo by Peter Holtzman.

Enlarge and/or repurpose the windows

If you are in a position to enlarge at least some of your windows, it's a good idea to prioritize the ones that will improve your space the most. 

For example, Holtzman collaborated with Bolster on the renovation of a landmarked Harlem townhouse duplex. The goal of updating a dark and awkward primary bedroom suite and improving the connection between indoors and out was achieved by opening up almost the entire exterior wall at the garden level and installing Passive House-grade wood-and-glass tilt/turn doors (shown above).

"This was much less expensive than a full rear facade replacement and puts the dollars where they have the greatest impact," Karp says. 

Not that such work comes cheaply—you still have to hold up the existing facade while you take out that brick and put in the steel, but it is not as expensive as blowing out the back (more on that below).

 Design and photo by Peter Holtzman.

Design and photo by Peter Holtzman.

Here's another takeaway from the same project: They converted the two windows on the parlor level into doors that open onto a new deck by knocking out the sills and taking the opening to the floor, with transoms at top (shown above). This is easy work so long as you are not changing the opening size and using the existing lintels—all the structural stuff happens at the top. This is something Holtzman recommends all the time. (David Sherman, principal of Abelow Sherman Architects, is also a fan of expanding windows to the floor in the same way and keeping them as windows.) 

And these changes were made in a historic district. "As long as it is an appropriate and sensitive modification of the building, especially when not visible from a public thoroughfare, it's pretty easy to get these things done," Holtzman says

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Abelow Sherman Architects

The same can be said for the historic townhouse in the finished photo at top (and in the before photo above), where Sherman enlarged the existing windows and doors on the garden level to create a much brighter space without having to remove the entire facade—and simply swapped out the windows and door above with sleeker models that let in more light. On that note, he says modernists like the look of casement and tilt-turn windows more because they don't have muntins, but double-hung windows are favored for the ease of operation and ability to work with all kinds of shades. (He likes casement for the record but advises clients to go into them willingly.)

Blow out the back of your brownstone

This popular update is still "a no brainer" (per Karp), even more so now that you may be spending more time at home. (Read Brick's deep dive into blowing out the back of a brownstone for ample ideas and inspiration.)

Just be sure to factor in the ongoing pandemic-related increases in the cost and lead time for the structural elements (namely steel), particularly if you plan to add an extension—or if you intend to replace the entire rear facade from top to bottom, such as in the renovation of a blown-out brownstone shell in Harlem by Holtzman, whose clients wanted a super modern look inside and out. 

For sure, removing the back wall requires significant structural support. Holtzman likens it to a cardboard box—pull back the flap (aka rear facade) and it flattens right out. So expect to pay for additional oversight in the way of an engineer and DOB approvals, though those costs tend to get folded into the total project figure.

 Design by Bespoke Architecture. Photo by Juris Mardwig.

Design by Bespoke Architecture. Photo by Juris Mardwig.

Add skylights—or design around existing ones

Many brownstones retain the original skylights over the stairs, so you can start by replacing them with modern mechanisms—and then designing around those to bring even more light into the lower floors. It's a fairly straightforward process of adding new skylights too, either by creating a bulkhead (as shown above on the roof of a historic limestone townhouse in Harlem) or installing them into the roofline (as in the example below). 

 Design by Abelow Sherman Architects and Jen Going Interiors. Photo by Brett Beyer.

Design by Abelow Sherman Architects and Jen Going Interiors. Photo by Brett Beyer.

Sherman has long used skylights to bring light to the parlor floors of townhouses—usually adding a translucent-film laylight under certain skylights (such as the stair skylight in an Upper West Side brownstone, above) to help diffuse the light and avoid that dramatic darkening when a cloud covers the sun. And because the color temperature of natural sunlight is somewhere near 5,000 kelvin, which can read as very cold when you aren't seeing the source, a laylight softens the harshness factor too.

Sherman is also fond of designing a skylight "shaft" that streams down the center of the townhouse (the darkest spot), with floor-through stairs that wrap around that shaft—most lavishly in a grand neo-Georgian townhouse on the Upper East Side (yep—even those manses suffer from a lack of light in the middle) but also in much more modest homes and iterations.

 Design by Bespoke Architecture. Photo by Juris Mardwig.

Design by Bespoke Architecture. Photo by Juris Mardwig.

Holtzman is another advocate of the skylit shaft, including for the historic townhouse with the bulkhead skylights shown at the top of this section—those four skylights lit up a switchback staircase in the center of an 18-foot-wide brownstone.

 Design and rendering by Bespoke Architecture.

Design and rendering by Bespoke Architecture.

And he is currently collaborating with Bolster on a slim 14-foot-wide Harlem brownstone on 123rd Street that had "terribly laid out stairs that took up twice as much room as they should have." So the challenge there was how to have an efficient layout and fill in the dark spaces on the lower floors—hence the wrap-around stairs, with cable lighting that's strung to the roof and spans all floors. (The penthouse was dropped from the project but the fundamentals of the stair shaft design remain.) 

"Sustainability was the thread that was carried throughout the brownstone in terms of using energy-efficient and everlasting lighting—in this case the preeminence of the skylight with what will be a statement staircase," Karp says. The owner, for whom access to sunlight was essential (having moved here from the tropics), could have spent the same amount on blowing out the back but he chose to invest in the light shaft for now. 

 Design and photo by Abelow Sherman Architects. 

Design and photo by Abelow Sherman Architects. 

Taking the shaft idea one step further, Sherman based the entire gut renovation of a Park Slope brownstone around his design for a three-story light shaft that makes use of an existing two-foot-square skylight (he replaced the skylight but did not enlarge the opening).

"This offers two primary benefits: It brings tons of light into the middle of the parlor level, and as it passes through the upper bedroom level, it creates three windows into the three bathrooms so they get natural light and fresh air." (The work in progress is shown above). 

The cost of building the shaft itself was not that high, though everything else had to be designed around that 'column'—adding to the design and build phase. It's all a matter of how much value you place on natural light (which for the owners was a lot). 

For the same project, Sherman also renovated the existing stair skylight, creating a facet with sloping walls leading up to it in a way that creates a "more focused, dramatic light." 

Bring light into the basement

And if you are looking to finish a basement (or have already done so)—a common request lately—Sherman has devised a simple, cost-saving solution: Take advantage of the old coal chute by putting a skylight on the chute in the back of the house, paint the structure white, and you get "a lot of natural light pouring into the basement without doing any extra structural work—and you've added another floor of living space." That's the kind of investment that pays off now and when it's time to sell. 

Know what to budget for

As for products and pricing, Velux is a go-to skylight source for all the designers Brick spoke to—the 30.5-by-30.5-inch ventilation model with a solar-powered room-darkening shade that you can operate via your smartphone costs $1,017, plus installation.

Karp provided the costs of skylights and replacement windows from two recent Bolster projects to give you a ballpark idea of what to expect to spend:

A large operable skylight from Surespan with roof hatch (so people can walk through it), waterproofing, and framing was $6,600 and a double-hung aluminum window including frame and sill was $2,420 each from Andersen (there were 12 for this project, putting the total at just over $29,000 plus installation).

In comparison, for the Passive House-grade project on 123rd Street, each of four smaller triple-pane skylights from Lamilux costs $6,300 and a total of $52,000 was allocated for replacing 14 windows and one front door, creating an opening for French doors to the backyard, and installing the skylights, one of which is operable to access the roof as required by code.  

So it really all boils down to how much you value having a light-filled home, day in and day out—and whether you are prepared to compromise on other line items to achieve that. 


Evelyn Battaglia

Contributing Writer

Freelance journalist and editor Evelyn Battaglia has been immersed in all things home—decorating, organizing, gardening, and cooking—for over two decades, notably as an executive editor at Martha Stewart Omnimedia, where she helped produce many best-selling books. As a contributing writer at Brick Underground, Evelyn specializes in deeply reported only-in-New-York renovation topics brimming with real-life examples and practical advice.

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