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Lighting Design for Tiny Houses – Part 1 – Daylighting

Lighting is one of the most important ways to define a space and make it feel comfortable and inviting.

It’s also an opportunity to indulge your creativity and individuality.

There are two basic types of lighting to consider: daylighting and artificial lighting.

Today’s post looks at daylighting and how to design a space to take advantage of the free, high-quality light from the sun.

Daylighting: Lighting Design for Tiny Houses

Daylight is a wonderful resource and you should use it for as much of your lighting as possible during the day.

This tiny house, by Leaf House, uses daylighting to full advantage.

With daylight, the two main goals are (1) getting enough daylight, without getting too much, and (2) making sure that the daylight is well-distributed throughout the room.

Daylighting strategies

While the possibilities for daylighting are endless, I’ll share several strategies that are appropriate for tiny houses and could provide inspiration.

  • Place windows carefully to minimize glare and maximize views and pleasant light. For example, windows near side walls brighten those walls and generate less contrast and glare than windows placed in the center of a room.
  • Use exterior shading to regulate the light. A fixed window overhang or movable shades or shutters can block sunlight in when it’s too bright, but allow it in when it’s wanted.
  • Use interior shading for even more control. Venetian blinds are excellent devices that filter the light, reflecting some up to the ceiling. Curtains are another way to control or block the light when it is not wanted.
  • Use light shelves or deep window sills to reflect light up into the room (window sills can be great spots to keep plants or other decorations too).
  • Windows with low-E glass help reduce unwanted heat gain, allowing light but not much heat to enter the room.
  • As I discussed last week, use light colors to make the most out of the daylight and diffuse it throughout the interior.
  • Put at least one window in any loft or high gable, to avoid dark and gloomy spaces.

If you’re interested in learning more about daylighting and other passive solar techniques, I highly recommend the textbook Heating, Cooling, Lighting by Norbert Lechner (affiliate link).

Be sure to check out Part 2 of this post right here where I’ll show you how to use artificial lighting to your advantage in tiny homes.

Have you come up with your own solutions for tiny house lighting? Share them in the comments below! In my next post, I’ll talk about the second basic type of lighting, artificial lighting, which can supplement daylight when needed as well as illuminate your tiny house at night.

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Vincent Baudoin

Vincent Baudoin is a designer and builder with a background in public interest design, sustainability, and integrated design-build.
{ 21 comments… add one }
  • sunshineandrain
    January 17, 2013, 11:10 am

    Thank you for your article. There are so many things to consider when designing any house. I am going to rethink the windows on one wall of my house now. Again, thanks.

  • bobhenry
    January 17, 2013, 11:44 am

    Tiny houses have a very finite number of square feet of wall space. Most of this is needed for cabinetry storage areas and some furnishings whether they are fold up, fold out, or fixed. In my caboose build (8×20 on trailer) I have been holding back on the window design and placement until I have the build at least partial furnished. Yes it is a pain in the butt to add windows after the fact but it is far better than realizing you have made a grave mistake and now need that wall space. I have even given to thoughts of faux windows simply for exterior estetics. The one area that best suits the tiny house is high gable windows and skylights and solar tube light wells. I really want the insulation value of my 2×6 walls to remain uncompromised as much as possible. I will have a small love seat and there will be double or triple window lites over it but I need most of the other walls for other features. I did opt for 2 exterior doors both with window lites so gloom and darkness will not be an issue. I have low voltage LED lighting that are mounted on flexible gooseneck stems. This feature will allow me to “aim” the lighting as needed for daily functions. Lighting both natural and man made are important, to avoid the gloomies that often set in on long dark winter days. This same lighting offers you a cheery alternative not only supplying illumination to function but as a boost to mental health as well.

  • alice h
    January 17, 2013, 12:04 pm

    Another thing to consider is using something translucent for a porch roof or awning so you don’t cut off light from that side. I made a collapsible awning out of pvc pipe and a greenhouse tarp that keeps rain off but still lets light through. If the weather is really stormy I can even drop the awning down and still get light inside.

    • January 17, 2013, 12:26 pm

      Interesting — I’ve always thought of the shade from a porch roof or awning as highly desirable, but I’m also used to designing in the south and southeast of the United States where blocking the sun is crucial. I suppose that in some cases, such as if you’re at a higher latitude or in a region with lots of overcast skies, like the Pacific Northwest, that extra light would be something to aim for.

  • LadyTenazby
    January 17, 2013, 3:17 pm

    I am loving the idea of translucent covering on a porch/deck area….It would be nice if there were a secondary cover (perhaps interchangeable for various seasons) that could block the sun providing shade… or perhaps a substance like the windows in the back of a car that have been darkened to allow you to see out, allow light in, yet still helps block the UV rays and the heat)

    • alice h
      January 17, 2013, 9:09 pm

      I’ve seen some canvas shades, kind of like Roman blinds, that slide in and out as needed under the roof. Some people also use those bamboo roller blinds. There are a lot of ideas from Australia about shade sails and other sun protection.

  • Carolyn B
    January 17, 2013, 5:13 pm

    Hi Vincent. Great article. I liked being reminded re: deep set window sills & placing windows near side walls to reflect more light. This is something I learned first from Sarah Susanka books.

    If I ever have a home built for me, I want windows on all but the north side. I like symmetry but am wondering if windows should be staggered on opposite walls to facilitate the most light entering the building. What are your thoughts on this, please?

  • January 18, 2013, 4:36 pm

    Thanks Carolyn! First, I would say don’t rule out windows on the north side, at least not for lighting reasons; they can let in a nice amount of indirect light. Most passive solar designers would recommend limiting windows on the east and west instead, because it can be hard to control that early morning and late afternoon sun.

    I don’t think staggering the windows is necessary, although it could be an interesting design feature. If you’re worried about an area not getting enough light you can try different window locations, sizes, and orientations until you get the effect you want. Sometimes building a little cardboard model and taking it out into the sun can help you visualize the quality of light you will get.

  • LaMar
    January 22, 2013, 5:22 pm

    Natural lighting is a must in a small house to prevent that claustrophobic feeling but wall space for windows is hard to find because walls are needed for cabinets and built-ins.

    One way is to use a door with a built in window and skylights or narrow strip windows that can be placed up high above cabinets.

    Instead of a bunch of small windows try to get in one larger window.

    Windows should be at least double or preferably triple pane low E glass and vinyl sliding windows with screens would be my recommendation.

    A window in a bathroom can cause problems as steam and cold glass cause mildew and drips. A vent fan might be a better choice.

    I like a window over my kitchen sink so I can look at something while doing dishes and another by my bed for fresh air at night.


    • January 22, 2013, 7:52 pm

      I would say wall space is needed for cabinets, built-ins… and windows! As much as storage is a priority, I (personally) would make windows an even higher priority. That said, I definitely agree with your suggestions on how to integrate windows into doors, above cabinets, etc. Light from above (skylights, high windows, and even solar tube light wells) can be easier to find room for, but it doesn’t give you a view. In the end, how much window you need will depend partly on personal preference.

  • Jerry
    January 22, 2013, 6:05 pm

    Something I’m trying out with my tiny house design is building windows into the natural framing spaces, I call them pocket windows though I’m sure there’s a better term. By placing several window panes in the 1′ 2.5″ openings in the framing, you create the appearance of a single window. I’m doing this in the loft and the end walls. I’m planning on building these windows myself to cut down on costs, but plans change, and if I find an economical option, I may go with prebuilt windows. Here’s a couple of Sketchup models that shows what I’m talking about, second one is an exploded view to show the framing:

    • January 22, 2013, 7:14 pm

      If that spacing works out then that can be an economical way to design your framing. You don’t need the headers you show in your Sketchup model, since there is no load for them to carry (a 2×4 laid flat to give you something to nail to is all you need).

      Good luck!

      • Jerry
        January 22, 2013, 7:30 pm

        Thanks, I think it’s both economical, and structurally sound, perhaps even a bit stronger than normal windows framed with headers and jack studs. I realize the headers are overkill, but I want to include them for easy shelving installation once the shell of the building is complete. I’m thinking of adding shelving above the pocket windows in the loft, and having headers will make nailing anywhere possible rather than being limited to stud placement.

  • jim sadler
    January 22, 2013, 9:06 pm

    Not being noticed remains part of tiny homes in numerous situations. Light coming in is one issue but light going out at all at night broadcasts human presence. At the very least I would suggest windows small enough to prevent a burglar with a solid cover that can be closed at night or when not at home. A good tree cover is vital in my hot climate. Finding a low spot where cool air pools at night is also helpful. If you must have more traditional designs then either have one heck of a solar cell collection at work for your tiny home or be on the grid. Often you will have no issues at all if your tiny home is not noticed or thought of as a home.
    I once owned a mobile home with a living room that was all windows that could be opened. It was reasonable in the summer heat except for an hour or so in the afternoon and a garden hose aimed at the roof would quickly bring the temperature down quite a bit.
    A sprinkler on the roof of a tiny home with a pump spraying creek water for a few minutes at mid day would solve a lot of cooling issues.

  • Sheila
    June 27, 2013, 12:17 pm

    I am a HUGE proponent of solar tubes. I see mentioned above solar tube wells, but not installed solar tubes with light refractors which increase the amount of light brought into the home. There are also models that have built-in solar panels, batteries and led lights so that the light can be used after the sun goes down and could still be tied into any power source that the house has being it on-the-grid, generator or solar panels. Both model types would work great in either a mobile or stationary built tiny house.

  • August 6, 2014, 7:10 pm

    I work with guys making inexpensive lighting software for SketchUp — I’ve been trying out every tiny house design I can get my hands on, trying to see how natural light effects the sense of space: https://getvisualizer.com/blog/tiny-houses-the-big-picture — I’ve been in some houses that seem to do it well and others that get a really closed-in-feeling… I’m surprised this topic doesn’t get a lot more attention!

    • Alex
      August 6, 2014, 7:41 pm

      Cool! Thanks, Kevin.

  • Lara
    April 23, 2020, 3:46 pm

    One thing I learned from an ecourse from Maria Killam is that we tend to naturally gravitate to rooms that have windows on two walls. This is for reasons such as that it allows us to see people’s expressions better, and reduces glare. This may not apply as much in shorter rooms, like tiny houses, but still something that doesn’t hurt to keep in mind when designing.

    • Natalie C. McKee
      April 24, 2020, 2:28 pm

      Wow that’s such a fun insight! Thank you.

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