Whitney Sander's house is located on a 28-foot-by-90-foot lot in a dense Venice, Calif., neighborhood. Its three-foot setback means the architect can stand in his house and seemingly shake his neighbor's hand, and yet, he somehow managed to design light-filled spaces that are visually off limits to outsiders.

Designing and building homes in urban environments can be an exciting professional challenge that centers on this common conundrum: How do you reconcile your clients' desire for light with their need for privacy? “The tricky thing,” says Michael Taylor, a founding partner of Toronto-based Taylor Smyth Architects, “is that people want their spaces to address the outdoors, but they may be self-conscious” living on display. Conventional windows, curtains, and artificial lighting are typical mediators, but their limitations are prompting some architects and designers to explore more sophisticated options. Specialized glazing, light-diffused wall systems, and plastic and acrylic exterior wall panels are a few of the contemporary solutions they're using.

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Architectural glass is the new favorite among architects working in urban environments. “We try to use glass as much as we can,” says Janet Bloomberg, AIA, principal of Washington, D.C.-based KUBE Architecture. She says she prefers frosted glass because it allows light to penetrate the interior during the day but preserves homeowners' privacy when the house is lit from within at night. In some cases, she'll design walls in which the lower 7 feet is frosted glass and the upper 18 inches is clear glass.

Because frosted glass is usually pricey, Bloomberg admits to improvising when budgets are tight. One trick she's used is to “have the glass company come in and put a frosted film over the window,” she says. “It's about $5 to $10 per square foot cheaper to do than acid-etched glass.”

Other firms strategically arrange back-painted and clear glass to limit what the outside world sees. “We don't feel you have to close yourself off from the city,” Taylor says, “so we might use regular glass with a wood screen” on the exterior. The work-around “allows people to look out and still get light,” he explains. For his own house, Taylor used film to counter the transparency of clear glass, admitting that it's “cheaper and easier to manipulate than frosted glass.”

Rebecca B. Swanston, AIA, principal of Baltimore-based Swanston & Associates, makes a point of giving her clients plenty of open, yet controlled, views. “The urban landscape is magical, and the night sky is quite wonderful,” she says. Swanston is especially fond of obscured glass, which allows homeowners to see out but prevents passersby from seeing in. “We prefer etched glass, because sand-blasted glass shows fingerprints and is hard to clean,” she explains. As a compromise, she sometimes uses architectural plantation blinds or electronic shades from Lutron Electronics Co. in Coopersburg, Pa.

Lutron's Sivoia QED shading products operate with low-voltage drives. Each can be powered by remote control or electronic keypad and integrates with Lutron's lighting-control systems. Swanston, who usually specifies a system that will disappear into the ceiling, says she appreciates the privacy and control over light transmission the products provide and their stealth when not in use. MechoShade Systems of Long Island City, N.Y., offers similar systems featuring a variety of shade and installation options.