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Exploring the History of Roof Lanterns

6 June 2018
Roof lanterns are a consistently popular architectural feature in residential and commercial properties. Typically made of a metal or wooden structure containing a number of glazed panels, they are designed to sit above a roof’s construction – distinguishing them from skylights, which are generally fitted within or in line with the roof.

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A roof lantern allows natural light into a building, adding height to interiors and, optionally, providing a source of ventilation. These factors can combine into significant energy savings in the long run. Roof lanterns can also make a striking talking point in the space they are installed, with stylish aesthetics both inside and out.

For all the modern perks they offer, the history of roof lanterns goes back further than you might think! In this blog, we examine the roof lantern’s not-so-humble beginnings and its long journey into the 21st century, as well as what the future may hold.

Read on to learn how roof lanterns became one of the most dominant features in the modern skylight installation.

The origins of daylighting 

While an increasingly popular concept, the idea of using the sun’s natural light to illuminate a room from above is not, in any way, new.

As with many aspects of history and culture, we can look to the ancient Romans for inspiration. In structures as old as the Pantheon, large openings providing sunlight and ventilation still stand today as proof of the long-term popularity of this basic idea.

It’s worth noting that the Pantheon’s ‘oculus’ did not necessarily catch on elsewhere immediately, largely due to wet weather conditions in wider Europe. Nevertheless, there are many examples of primitive “roof lanterns” in Roman antiquity, despite the necessary drawbacks caused by their limited technology such as downdrafts or rainfall entering interiors.

While Romans were pioneers in creating glass and using it in their architecture – with evidence of glass trade spreading well beyond the Roman Empire’s borders – the technology was still in its infancy at the time, likely a fenestration feature reserved for only the wealthiest of property owners.

Roof lanterns through the Middle Ages

By the 13th century, Venice had become the firmly-established centre of the glass industry. However, glass remained a difficult and costly material to work with. Crafting pieces or planes of glass larger than 3 feet tall was beyond the capability of the manufacturers of that era. So, even though glass-panelled lanterns were invented during the Middle Ages, they were almost exclusively restricted to use in cathedrals and castle windows as a result.

Through the 14th and 15th century, glass production became much more common. These rare lanterns gradually evolved in form, becoming a smaller constituent part – called a ‘cupola’ –  designed to sit on a domed base. These were particularly ornate architectural features which dominated cathedral rooftops.

Famous instances of early roof lanterns and cupolas from throughout the centuries are dotted all over the continent. They can be seen at the Baptistery of Saint John and Cathedral of Santa Monica del Fiore in Italy, for example, as well as in Spain’s Seville Cathedral, and many more.

When English glassmaker George Ravenscroft invented lead-based glass in the 1670s, it made the material much more malleable and easy to work with. As a consequence, the Renaissance and Baroque periods featured glazed masonry windows and timber-framed roof lanterns in droves (even though timber frames were prone to leaking and rot, as they are today).

In sunny France and Italy, during the 16th century, roof lanterns saw a manufacturing boom through the rise of the orangery (or orangerie in French). These were an early form of conservatory or greenhouse, with tall windows and a glazed roof, designed to house citrus trees and valuable plants through the winter seasons. However, it’s worth noting that – between the 17th and 19th centuries – possessing your own orangery was a fairly good indicator that you were part of the fashionable, monied elite.

New materials: the Victorian era and beyond

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, it became possible to manufacture both larger panes of glass (up to 6×9 feet) and advanced sheet metal constructions. The latter invention helped with sealing new glazed units from unwanted weather effects, in the process creating the capability to replace leaky timber-and-glass lanterns from the post-Renaissance era.

Sheet metal was able to be reshaped and cut to size in interesting formations, while glass-making processes began to include machine polishing techniques which made glazing more transparent than ever before. During this era, the skylight as we understand it today was born, providing homeowners with the ability to illuminate rooms without the need for oil lamps.

Urban row houses, during the late 19th and 20th centuries, increasingly relied on metal-framed roof lanterns to provide daylighting to interior stairwells, with more extravagant homes coming to feature grandiose cupolas, spires or towers inspired by those aforementioned medieval cathedrals.

It is still possible to buy skylights made using similar methods to those used 100 years ago, with durable replicas (often used to replace older models) utilising single-pane glazing, and framed with sheet metal.

Contemporary roof lanterns

Roof lanterns have only continued to evolve alongside glass manufacturing practices, driven by the inevitable advance of technology. From their most elemental form in ancient Rome, through the imperfect Middle Ages (when they were far from weather-proof), roof lanterns today have seen a vast explosion in the range of manufacturing materials available to them.

Contemporary glass roof lanterns feature, for example, the most advanced glazing available, with sealant products, insulation and watertight weatherproofing to ensure improved energy performance and efficiency to the highest codes and standards. New features on the market are emerging all the time, from advanced energy efficient glass coatings, remote control operated opening skylights, or even glazing that can transform from opaque to clear with the touch of a button.

A huge range of elegant designs for roof lantern products are available nowadays, giving builders, designers and homeowners countless ways of adding a distinct focal feature to a property without need to invest in an entire conservatory. With science continually learning more about the benefits of natural light in human environments, we predict that products like skylights and roof lanterns featuring ample glazing will only continue to grow in popularity.

After all, the advantages of having interiors with ample daylighting and ventilation were intuited as far back as 1000AD, and there no signs that – as a species – we’re going to stop now.

If you’re curious  about roof lanterns and would like to discuss this subject, skylights, or any other Sunsquare product that could benefit your project, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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