Not All Sunlight is Equal: How Room Orientation Affects Natural Light

Posted by Matthew Gaskill on Tuesday, June 17th, 2014 at 8:16am.

East-facing room from the Bird Streets neighborhood of the Hollywood Hills

Homeowners, or soon-to-be-homeowners, typically want light. Natural light. And lots of it. But not all sunlight is equal.

While visual artists and art collectors are astute to lighting and how pieces of art, whether in the creation or display stage, will react to and be influenced by lighting, sunlight should be something every homebuyer considers. Especially since it is not as easy of a change as painting the walls or tearing out carpets.

Direct lighting can create drama and foster anticipation to discover a space, while diffused lighting can establish a sense of peacefulness and calm. And, in some cases, lighting, or the lack thereof, can cause us to strongly dislike a room we would otherwise find appealing. Light profoundly influences how a person perceives the surroundings and whether the environment affords relaxation, pleasantness, privacy, spaciousness, complexity, and/or visual clarity.

The color, angle, and altitude of daylighting varies with the time of day and compass orientation of a home and its rooms. If judging the quality and type of light, it can be measured on the following spectrums:

  • bright to dim
  • uniform to non-uniform
  • central to perimeter
  • warm to cool

Changes in weather further alter the light in a house and in each room. In a sunnier location, such as here in Los Angeles, the sun can feel more intense and constant without the daily or even hourly weather variations other locations experience.

As for the following discussion on orientation and how design choices can help offset balance out the lighting, the observations are for the Northern hemisphere, since I am located in Los Angeles:

North-facing rooms are the darkest in the home with diffuse, shadowless, and slightly grayish or neutral light most of the day and year. Most painters prefer to use this light because it is more constant than direct sunlight. Everything in the space will appear and feel, cooler on a color spectrum, so it is important to add warm hues through paint and accents to make the room feel welcoming.

South-facing room from the Sunset Plaza area of the Hollywood HillsSouth-facing rooms are the brightest in the house, with the daylight being dominant from late morning to mid-afternoon. These spaces, like north-facing rooms, have consistent light all day, but with crisp strong shadows and beams of light. The warm bright light tends to render colors accurately, even to the point of intensifying any color placed within it. Softer tones are preferred here unless you love the energizing effect of intense hues.

East-facing rooms are brightest in the morning, with a light of low altitude and casting long soft shadows. The morning light can vary from a grey-yellow to bright and white, which tends to wash out color. It is important to determine what time of day east-facing rooms will be used and what importance natural light will play. If the function of the room lends itself to afternoon or evening use, a warm palette will help balance the lack of natural light. A saturated palette is usually preferred.

West-facing rooms have their strongest light in the late afternoon and early evening with a light of a a rich gold-orange hue. The light can penetrate deep into a structure and at times be overwhelming. If the space will be used toward the end of the day, you will definitely want cool tones here for balance. Morning use of a west-facing room means more warm tones can be used without the risk of being overwhelming.

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