Space and light in house design by Marc Lithgow

Aluminium louvres create privacy and dappled light.

Understanding the relationship between space and light is fundamental to designing spaces that are to be lived in. Architect Marc Lithgow shares some important insights from a recent project.

With this project, we wanted to arrange space, light and materials so as to transform a project constrained by its location on-site into an open and light-filled environment. Our strategy was to introduce as much natural light as possible throughout, so rooms that otherwise might have felt enclosed and small became more expansive and inviting.

The house is built upon what was once a four-car garage.

The house is built upon what was once a four-car garage.

Built on the foundations of an earlier building

In this case, the property is built upon what had once been a four-car garage. The large, tree-covered plot used to be within the grounds of a 1930s Arts and Crafts house. When the owners purchased the land, they chose to build upon what remained of the garage. This gave us time savings that were too good to ignore by simplifying the whole council consent process.

Our biggest challenge was to bring light and space into the strict confines of the 88-square metre footprint.

By working with the original structure, the project could be completed considerably faster and the family were able to move in months earlier than if they’d built from the ground up. It also presented us with a unique opportunity to create a house with plenty of interesting spaces and interactions between these spaces. For starters, the building was dug two metres into the hill. This defined a relationship between the existing in-ground rooms and the added structures.

The site was also surrounded by 1930s vintage homes plus one 1970s-era neighbour in the picturesque Auckland suburb of Mt Albert. I referenced these different characters through my design in subtle ways — in the pitch of the roof and by including window louvres and timber.

Clear storey light makes a private but light-filled space.

Clear storey light makes a private but light-filled space.


An obvious way for us to introduce more light would have been to punch holes in the existing brick walls of the old structure. However, I felt that leaving these mostly intact — the brick walls are unaltered except for plastering, and building lightly above them presented a more elegant approach.

This created a nice alternating pattern of solid, light, solid, better defined as base, window and roof. From the inside, the subterranean nature of the ground level gave us the opportunity to open up a light-filled area with clear storey light piercing from above. The bottom of the clear storey window is 2.3 metres above the floor level. This creates a sense of privacy because the light and views are formed at dynamic angles throughout the living spaces.

Tree canopies surrounding the house filter the light according to the angle of the sun and the season. This produces contrast between a more contained lower level and a soaring ceiling that echoes warehouse and loft-type spaces. Consequently the quality of light is quite different to a typical house.

Clear storey light makes a private but light-filled space.

Clear storey light makes a private but light-filled space.

Designing for volume

The double height within the building provides a sense of space in an otherwise compact living area. We used this as a focal point around which to arrange the rest of the structure. As a result, we didn’t need to devote much floor space to circulation. This occurs naturally within the rooms. As a result, the occupiers can observe activities such as their children’s day-to-day play inside the house as well as visitors approaching from the outside, even if they’re sitting in the study area.

Beyond the ground level living space and set into the hill are the two children’s bedrooms. We set the master bedroom and study loft-like at the top of the double height area. To add privacy, I specified external louvres. These create attractive lighting effects as the angle of sun changes to interact with the shutters, without impeding the views.

Off-white and light timber increase the sense of space.

Off-white and light timber increase the sense of space.

Materials and colour

The final part of the design project is to support the idea of a spatial and light-filled interior with appropriate fittings and materials. We used timber to overlay the existing concrete slab, wrapping this up the stairs to the upper floor. Timber also lines the underside of the only flat ceiling over the family lounge area, emphasising where the ceiling is lower around the family nook.

The clients selected an attractive off-white paint for the majority of the house interior. This avoids looking too clinical yet accentuates the feeling of lightness, adding in subtle colour hues under certain lights.


By using recessed fittings, except for a cluster of feature light shades, we were able to introduce restrained interior lighting. We chose recessed lights both to provide a consistent degree of illumination and also to accentuate internal elements such as the uplighting and high level glazing to the mezzanine. The resulting effect is a moody glow throughout the double-height space day and night. Woven feature globe shades add an extra layer of dappled light across the internal surfaces.

Built-in furniture

We enhanced the feelings of expanse and space with wall-hung joinery in tall proportions. To avoid clutter, joinery in the house has been designed to integrate into the spaces. I wanted all the units to be viewed as furniture-like elements when closed. This theme continues into the kitchen where wood is used as a joinery finish. By contrast, the bedroom units’ finish matches the wall colours. The master bedroom is the exception, combining timber with wall colours.

A high windows brings light to the subterranean bathroom.

A high windows brings light to the subterranean bathroom.


Two bathrooms sit one on top of the other in the design. Here we enhanced the feelings of expanse and space with wall-hung joinery in tall proportions, mirrors and by employing a simple palette of materials. Both rooms are lit by neutral lights extending to the floor and walls. A dark reflective tile highlights the single element wall below the window.

By re-using the existing building formation together with a simple arrangement of space and use of materials, we were able to transform a relatively constrained project area of 125 square metres into a light-filled and open family home that is easily enjoyed.

Floor plans

Floor plans.



Written by Marc Lithgow of Space Division

Project – Mt Albert home built on garage foundations, Auckland, New Zealand
Photos – Simon Devitt