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How do you design a new home or renovation when your best view is in the wrong direction?

How do you design a new home or renovation? Especially when your orientation isn’t ideal – or your best view is in the wrong direction (to the south, or west)? Here’s some tips to remember.

Recently, I watched a video put together on TheUrbanDeveloper.com. This is a website and blog that is the baby of Adam Di Marco, a savvy and smart guy I have had the pleasure of working with when he was a Development Manager at Leighton Properties, and I was a Director and Co-owner at DC8 Studio, and I was helping out (amongst other projects) on the Boggo Road development – both the apartments and the Sales Office.

The video was an interview with John Flynn – another savvy and smart guy I’ve had the pleasure of working with when we were both in the Senior Management team at Mirvac Design.  He’s now a Director at Conrad Gargett.

It was during the video that I was reminded of something that was a bit of a mantra at Mirvac (there were a few!) … and it was this:

MIRVAC MANTRA:  ASPECT OVER ORIENTATION

What does that mean?

Aspect is the main outlook or view from your site. And orientation is the direction your site faces. In an ideal world, your aspect [outlook] would be to the north or north-east [orientation], as this creates the best opportunities in getting great living outcomes for your home.

And this mantra in the world of Mirvac? Well, it meant that you designed for the major view or outlook first … and then figured out how to get natural light into it after that.

But wait? Haven’t I been saying, over and over again, that you MUST design for orientation in order to create a home that is great to live in? 

Yes, I have. And I still stand by that statement. However, it’s not always possible to have your aspect and your orientation align.

ps – I’m about to talk about orientation located in the southern hemisphere – if you’re in the northern hemisphere, substitute “north” where you read “south” and vice versa 🙂

What if your best view is to the south or the west? What if your rear yard faces west? What if it faces south? What do you do about designing to orientation then? How do you create a home that is well-lit naturally, and makes the most of the natural conditions to maintain a consistent temperature in your home?

It’s scientifically proven that natural light is necessary for our well-being. It maintains health, mood and reduces anxiety. However, in our homes, natural light (and capturing it) needs to be balanced with managing the heat gain that comes with sunlight.

And you know when you walk into a home (whether for the first time or every day) – well the view, that outlook or aspect – that’s what hits you. So if you’re fortunate to have an amazing view from your place, or even just a lovely environment, it’s natural that you want to capitolise on it. In developing your asset, that’s what makes sense. However, it’s the orientation that helps make the home a joy to live in everyday.

So walk-in wow comes from aspect, but live-in enjoyment comes from orientation.

IF YOUR ASPECT IS SOUTH …

If your home faces south, or your view is to the south … what you’ll find is that you get a soft, even light into those rear areas of your home. South light is great for workspaces, and sometimes for bedrooms – when you don’t want excessive heat loads, or shafts of light in your interior spaces. However, because the sun in the southern hemisphere moves through the north, your southern rear garden will be in shade for most of the day. And your interior spaces (and garden) won’t capture that warming sun in winter that is so necessary for creating natural comfort in our homes. Your garden will take a while to dry out after wet weather, and in summer, this shady nature can be good, but in the other seasons it sucks. Damp, cold gardens aren’t enjoyable places to be. Often big storms come from the south (or SE or SW), so you can bear the brunt of these too.

IF YOUR ASPECT IS WEST

If your home faces west, or your view is to the west … well, on summer afternoons, your home will cook. Western sun is horizontal, as the sun moves lower in the sky and casts light into your home. Any neighbouring properties or nearby trees etc will provide shade – which is good in summer (when the sun has had a long day to heat up), but not in the other seasons (when the warmth of that sun helps your home be warmer over cool nights). In summer, when the afternoon sun is hot and harsh, this can really heat your home and outdoor areas up uncomfortably. In other seasons, you may or may not welcome this afternoon sun, depending on the climate where you live … but its harshness fades interior finishes, and creates glare and strong light conditions. So you can be sitting in a hot box, or spending a fortune on airconditioning to be comfortable.

IF YOUR ASPECT IS EAST

And if your home faces east, or your view is to the east? Well, eastern or morning sun is also horizontal. The sun hasn’t got too hot first thing in the morning, so heat load isn’t too much of an issue – and this is definitely preferable over afternoon sun. However, some times of year, you’ll still get that glare that makes it difficult to appreciate the outlook you’re trying to maximise.

SOMETIMES IT’S UNAVOIDABLE

Sometimes though, even when you’re buying the best real estate, it is impossible to avoid these orientations. A good bulk of the non-CBD side of the riverfront in Brisbane faces west. And some of the best inner-city suburbs in Sydney have streets which run north-south, so the blocks face east-west. And generally, regardless of where you are, in each suburb there’ll be streets where one side of the street will always have a west facing yard, or a south-facing yard.

So how do you make the best of orientation when maximising aspect?

HERE’S 5 POINTERS FOR DESIGNING FOR AN ORIENTATION THAT DOESN’T ALIGN WITH ASPECT

  1. understand where north is and how the sun moves

If you’ve lived in your home for a while, you’ll probably know this already. Otherwise, this app, 3D Sunseeker, is a great tool for figuring it out. It’s not free, but it’s brilliant for tracking the sun’s movement. It uses augmented reality – so you can watch through your device (phone or tablet) the movement of the sun, overlaid on the view of where you’re standing. (Check out this link for 3D Sunseeker).   Solstices show you the shortest and longest days of the year, and the equinoxes are when night equals day in both spring and autumn. At a very simple level … shade from the summer solstice sun, and capture the winter solstice sun. Equinoxes require a little shade in the afternoon, but capture the bulk of the sun’s movement on these days.  Adjust for the climate of your location.

  1. your windows and doors that face your view aren’t the only source of natural light

If you have a great view, or are wanting to maximise your connection with outdoors and your surroundings – big glass doors and windows are the way to go. However, it’s not the only way to get natural light into you home, and if your view is to the south, east or west, it won’t do a lot to capture northern light. Now you know where and how the sun moves over your site, where is the northern light coming in? Can you use the side of your home to capture this light? The front of your home? The roof of your home (with skylights)?

  1. deal with the orientation of your aspect

Acknowledging that you’ll want to capture as much of your view as you can, looking at it and enjoying it comfortably (and thermally) can be two different things. If your view is to the east or west, vertical shading elements (preferably externally, before the heat has entered your home) are the best option. Look at operable external blinds – ones you can get out of the way when the sun isn’t an issue, and ones you can drop down and still see through when the sun is glaring. Look for translucent shading fabric blinds with high UV values, and darker colours are more transparent than lighter colours. Or use an external-grade aluminium venetian-style blind, with blades that can be rotated to provide shade and view. If you’re looking over lower roofscapes to your view (say from your bedroom you’re looking over the roof on the outdoor area below), think about choosing a roof colour that won’t cause glare issues when the sun is reflected off it into your bedroom.

  1. Get northern light into your home

If you’re building or renovating, and your main view is to the south or west, then getting northern light into your living areas is imperative for making them enjoyable places to be. This is where you need to think vertically. What vertical devices can you use to get northern light into your home?

Think clerestory windows – these are high windows that sit above adjacent roofspaces (see the images – the one at the top of the blog also shows a home extension and renovation I designed under construction, with the long slot opening at the top being the beginnings of a north-facing clerestory window). Getting northern light over the top of other roof spaces and into your interiors is a good way to go.

This was an extension I designed for the rear of an existing Queenslander home that faced south-to-rear. The clerestory window is the high one above the bookshelf that you can see all the light coming through (it faced north). It sat above the rooftop of the existing home, so it could capture northern light over the top of the existing home.
This was an extension I designed for the rear of an existing Queenslander home that faced south-to-rear. The clerestory window is the high one above the bookshelf that you can see all the light coming through (it faced north). It sat above the rooftop of the existing home, so it could capture northern light over the top of the existing home.
I then created a void over the living area, to bring this northern light downstairs into the south-facing living area. (The north-facing window is the trapezoidal shaped one at the top of this photo - you can see how much light is coming through a relatively small window!)
I then created a void over the living area, to bring this northern light downstairs into the south-facing living area. (The north-facing window is the trapezoidal shaped one at the top of this photo – you can see how much light is coming through a relatively small window!)
Looking down into the living area from the upper floor. Big glazing to the east also captured morning light over the adjacent home.
Looking down into the living area from the upper floor. Big glazing to the east also captured morning light over the adjacent home.

If you have a two-storey home, using the stair void to get natural northern light into the guts of your home is also great. Opening the stair up can improve this too, but isn’t always necessary.

Using voids (holes cut in the floor) to open up volumes through your home that are lit from the top will also get northern light into the lower parts of your home. Your view may be out one side, but all your natural light may be coming from the other.

And in planning your home size and shape overall … if your home is south to the rear, a one-storey home will shade less of its yard than a two-storey home. (See the below image as an example.)  Think about using one-storey elements in your homes facing yards that are your main outdoor play or entertaining areas, so they can still get access to northern light.

This home was part of Waterline Bulimba, Mirvac's development that I was Project and Design Architect on. This home faced north-to-street, so we created an internal courtyard to get access to northern light and bring it into the home.
This home was part of Waterline Bulimba, Mirvac’s development that I was Project and Design Architect on. This home faced north-to-street, so we created an internal courtyard to get access to northern light and bring it into the home.
This is what occurs within the home. Up to the right of this outdoor room, you can see a small gap between the roofs of the tow building elements, which was sized and designed to let in winter sun, and shade from summer sun. On the left is a high clerestory to get that light deep into the rear of the home. Doors and windows on all sides integrate this space into the home.
This is what occurs within the home. Up to the right of this outdoor room, you can see a small gap between the roofs of the tow building elements, which was sized and designed to let in winter sun, and shade from summer sun. On the left is a high clerestory to get that light deep into the rear of the home. Doors and windows on all sides integrate this space into the home.
  1. weigh up the compromise

If you have the benefit of choice … ie if you’re just setting out on this journey of buying a new home, or a block of land … really weigh up the compromise. Think about how you’ll manage the challenge that your best aspect and your best orientation are in different directions, and really consider whether you have other alternatives (ie buying a home or land where this doesn’t occur).

It may sound strange, but having lived in lots of south-facing homes, and west-facing homes that weren’t designed to deal with this orientation, I know first-hand that it’s hard work. Spaces are dark, or hot, or cold – at all the wrong times. Miserably so.  I had a client once show me through their south-facing home and when I asked if they had any issues with the orientation, they said they didn’t mind, as it was cooler overall (which was good for where they lived). However, as we looked through the home, they showed me parts of the floor plan that could only be used for storage because they were too dark for anything else. Storage and disused areas much larger than they needed to be. These areas still cost you to build, they still cost you to maintain them, and they’re not being optimised in what they offer to your lifestyle.  These homeowners hadn’t put it together mentally – that because their home faced south (without any design devices to capture northern light), these areas were wasted.  A home CAN capture northern light AND still be cool – when designed correctly.

So yes, as the Mirvac mantra goes – aspect over orientation. With the Undercover Architect caveat … just don’t ignore getting that precious northern light into your home.

Enjoyment (orientation) and wow (aspect) combined is a great way to start creating the perfect home for you.

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Comments(24)

  • Rachel
    February 18, 2016, 9:30 pm  Reply

    We have a bit of view out the back of our house and yep, you guessed it faces west! But that also means we get awesome sunsets and who doesn’t love a good sunset. BUT there must be ways to design the structure at the back of our house to make the most of the view, still keep some shade on the deck for coolness and still keep light in the house. Right? Not to mention the rest of the house design 🙂

    • Amelia
      February 18, 2016, 11:16 pm

      Hi Rachel,
      Yes, watching a sunset from your deck and home can be beautiful! However, when it’s hot and harsh summer sun, it’s not so great is it?
      Western sun always requires vertical shade – so screens and blinds (or landscaping). It’s great if you can put that barrier outside, to shade the heat before it gets into your home, or deck space. Even better is if you can select something that is retractable – such as a blind – so you can enjoy those sunsets in their full glory when the weather isn’t hot.
      Then seek opportunities to grab the northern light from the side. I designed some riverfront homes in Brisbane when I was at Mirvac – they all looked west out to the river. We had retractable blinds over the west-facing glass, and also used a higher performance glass to reduce heat and glare. In addition, we had skylights facing north that were used throughout the home, and especially around the stair void, so we could get northern light in, and downstairs.
      Best wishes with making it work at your place,
      – Amelia, UA x

  • Ben
    June 2, 2016, 1:24 pm  Reply

    Hi Amelia, you have a great blog here with lots of useful and interesting information.

    I’d love to know what your thoughts are on skylights or light tubes in lieu of north facing windows. Do you think heat gain is likely to be a major problem on a west facing skillion roof if skylights or tubular skylights are used sparingly? We have a garden with west aspect.

    Thanks and regards, Ben

    • Amelia
      June 2, 2016, 1:51 pm

      Hi Ben,
      Thank you for your comment, and your kind words about Undercover Architect. I’m glad you’re finding it useful.
      In regards to skylights and light tubes in lieu of north facing windows – especially when contending with a western orientation – I’m all for them … generally!
      The same rules apply, as to north-facing windows. You need to think about how you’ll shade them to keep out hot summer sun, and how you’ll enable access for warm winter sun.
      The challenge with light tubes, is that they don’t offer a lot in terms of access to views or optimisation of the light – they simply appear as a glow in the ceiling. So whilst, they are great for light – northern light is such a strong source of beneficial natural light (when you manage the heat) that I don’t believe sky tubes really maximise this. Great for bathrooms, laundries etc – but for living areas, my preference is skylights – or ‘sky windows’.
      With skylights, look for models which have the ability to manage heat loads – be it via double glazing, tinting or performance glass, being able to open them, and blinds that can cover the glass. I have used Vental many many times, and love them because you can sit them between regular roofing structure, and create fantastic shafts of light that will move during the day. In addition – that view of the sky can create a great sense of spaciousness to any home.
      I hope that helps!
      – Amelia, UA

  • Ben
    June 2, 2016, 4:25 pm  Reply

    Thanks Amelia. We’re mid way through plans with an architect for an extension like your Denning St living area per the photo – except the roof is skillion and it faces west. The master bedroom (situated where your dog is lying) will block the north sun and I had the fear that a deep verandah would block the interior light despite 5 or 6 panes of stacker doors. Skylights sound like a winner. Ben

  • NICOLE HARRIS
    August 30, 2016, 2:58 pm  Reply

    Hi A, thinking of renovating our 100 year house in Melbourne. has a heritage overlay on the street . back of the house faces south front faces north. Do you know of any good architects who can bring some different ideas in bringing light into the back of our house.cheers Nicole

  • Mark gillespie
    January 2, 2017, 1:00 pm  Reply

    Hello Amelia,
    I r ad you comments with interest as we are about to build a home on the range in Toowoomba qld. The block faces south east where we will have a 180 degree view into the valley. Toowoomba has a temperate climate so we would very much like to use natural light and passive heating as much as possible. Do you have any suggestions that we should include in the design?

    • Amelia
      January 3, 2017, 8:07 am

      Hi Mark,
      Thanks for your comment. A south-east facing home can be challenging, and requires certain design strategies to bring in northern light and assist with passive heating (and cooling). I recommend listening to Season 01 of the podcast, as it will outline in detail the strategies you can use for each orientation. Episode 6 also outlines some online resources to help you as well.
      – Amelia, UA

  • SS
    January 4, 2017, 10:01 am  Reply

    Hi Amelia
    There are so few articles discussing this subject.
    Our site has great views to the west. Bushfire planning prevents close trees to shade big west facing windows. The suggested solutions are very expensive glazing, pergolas and concertina’d sliding shutters that close across the windows. Any other ideas?
    thanks

    • Amelia
      January 7, 2017, 3:29 pm

      Hi Steven,
      Thanks for your comment. It can be challenging to deal with bushfire constraints, and achieve affordable solutions – however there are certain things you can do. If you haven’t yet, check out the latest episodes of the podcast. The next episode coming out specifically discusses west-facing orientation, with some examples and ideas to help you out.
      – Amelia, UA

  • January 6, 2017, 1:12 pm  Reply

    Hi Amelia

    Good content and useful advice for householders. Hopefully some of the estate planners will pick up on your advice in regard to orientation.
    I am a fellow architect in Brisbane.

    • Amelia
      January 7, 2017, 3:40 pm

      Hi Richard,
      Thanks for your kind feedback. I hope EVERYONE picks up on my advice in regard to orientation 😉 Best wishes for your business,
      – Amelia, UA

  • teri
    January 10, 2017, 6:22 pm  Reply

    Great advice here! Our backyard will be south facing. we are thinking of adding a courtyard on the eastern side (between the guest bedroom and family room) to add in more light but concerned about the house flow and design. What are your thoughts on this? Teri

    • Amelia
      January 11, 2017, 11:45 am

      Hi Teri,
      Thanks for your comment and feedback. I’d recommend checking out the latest episodes in my podcast – they will contain some super useful info for you to help with designing for that orientation.
      Best wishes for your project,
      – Amelia, UA x

  • Jeunx
    January 28, 2017, 1:41 pm  Reply

    Hi,

    Does this mean our house choice and the land that we got are not perfect combination? 🙁
    We ended up purchasing an east-facing lot and the layout we like when flipped to fit the required driveway access has the bedrooms on the north side, the living areas on the south and the alfresco at the west.

    • Amelia
      January 28, 2017, 3:12 pm

      Hi Jeunx,
      Thanks for your comment. I recommend you listen to Season 1 of the podcast – it will help you understand the impact of various orientations and how to design for them. When I discuss which direction a house or block faces, I’m referring to where it faces to the rear not the street (I explain why I do this in Episode 01).
      Best wishes for your project.
      – Amelia, UA

  • irene
    February 1, 2017, 3:03 pm  Reply

    OMG I am very glad I stumbled on your site! I have explained orientation to my husband but I can’t get him on board at all. He complains that it took us awhile to buy our land because I was being picky on the orientation. We ended up buying a front-faces-the-south property here in Melbourne, which is good but may not be my most ideal one.

    Anyway, I will be stalking your site from now on 🙂

    • Amelia
      February 2, 2017, 12:59 pm

      Hi Irene,
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you’re finding the website helpful. I’d encourage you to listen to the podcast. The first few episodes of Season 01 take you through why orientation is so important, then through each orientation individually, and how to best design for them. Perhaps some listening with hubby in the car might work 😉 Head here to check them out.
      – Amelia, UA x

  • March 29, 2017, 1:55 pm  Reply

    Hello Amelia
    What ideas do you have for a west facing unit in Brisbane (just purchased). The large balcony has the master bedroom, living, dining & 3rd bedroom running along this balcony with doors (regular glass). The balcony has 2 sets of vertical blinds (we’re on the top floor) shading the western wall & there are some small windows on the opposite eastern side of the unit.

    • Amelia
      March 30, 2017, 11:33 am

      Hi Anne,
      Thanks for your question. I highly recommend you check out the first season of the podcast. There are episodes for each orientation with ideas about how to deal with the sunlight in each. You can listen to the one about “All things West” here >>> All things West Podcast
      – Amelia, UA x

  • Carmen
    June 2, 2017, 8:59 am  Reply

    Some really superb info, Glad I detected this.

  • mike
    July 20, 2017, 5:12 pm  Reply

    Hi Amelia,

    Thanks for this information, it’s really useful. I’m planning an extension at the moment which will be a rectangle shape modern box with the main outlook to the north. The issue I’m contending with at the moment is how to provide some shade to the deck outside the extension (to the north) without blocking out the northern light for when we want it to come in. Suggestions? Thanks!

    • Amelia
      July 21, 2017, 4:45 pm

      Hi Mike,
      My pleasure – glad it helps. When adding a covered outdoor area to a home on its northern side, consider the sun angles and how sun will still reach your interiors (especially during Winter). This can impact how you design the roof, the pitch of it, how its sized, and whether it extends directly out from the house – or whether you provide opportunities for northern light to come into the house over the top of the deck roof. Hope that helps!
      – Amelia, UA

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