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What's Up Magazine

Seeing is Believing

Nov 06, 2012 10:39PM ● By Anonymous

In the 19th century, conservatories assumed more dramatic forms and grander proportions, particularly in England. Iron and steel construction resulted in larger spaces. Glass could be formed in larger sheets. A well-traveled population, who wanted to house their assortment of palms and orchids, took the technology and created cathedral like glass structures. One of the highlights of this type of architecture was the Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton in 1851, housing not only plants, but industrial marvels as well. Baltimore’s Rawlings Conservatory, in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, was built in 1888, reminiscent of London's Crystal Palace. Rawlings is one of six conservatories built in Baltimore in the 19th century. Many 19th-century homes in England had their own conservatories, usually filled with potted palms. Today the form is still with us, albeit with more efficient glass and sealants.

Sunrooms and conservatories have considerable overlap, but generally, sunrooms contain a larger ratio of glass to architectural and decorative components. Conservatories will typically have more traditional arches, cupolas, or columns, usually with a higher price tag.

Fairly typical forms for sunrooms might be a lean-to or cathedral shape, often off the kitchen or family room. Leading manufacturers of sunrooms often recommend 4.0 R value glass (R-value measures how easily heat travels through a material) but can go higher with triple glazing. Tinting and coatings to block UV rays and minimize fading are also recommended. Laminated glass, similar to car windshields, is a safety feature in case a branch falls on the roof. Exactly how the space is used is important. Want more plants? Choose glass with less tint. Want to have passive solar design? Choose glass that allows for heat gain with shading provided by deciduous trees in summer.

A well-designed, mostly glass sunroom or conservatory can be an enchanting and comfortable spot from which to enjoy nature in its various guises. In summer you can sit in the sun without sun spray, or stargaze in the evening without bug spray. A swirling snowstorm can fascinate as you casually sip tea, perhaps surrounded by a collection of exotic plants or flowers.

One leading manufacturer creates varied sunrooms in wide price ranges. The three-season room is not designed for winter use, but a four-season room features insulated glass and appropriate heating and cooling. Structure is usually extruded aluminum, but they also fabricate units with steel and wood. Interior finishes vary depending on client preferences. One of the products, built on the Eastern Shore, features a roof deck rather than a glass roof; with wrap around windows it still gets plenty of light.

Yet another noted manufacturer of conservatories located in Denton, Maryland, ships intricate and prefab products throughout the U. S. and beyond. They have clients in Canada, Gabon, and Shanghai. What strikes one immediately about the portfolio of work is the variety of designs, and careful attention to detail. The inspiration can be Palladian, or Gothic, whimsical or serene. They can enclose pools or living areas. Character can be sparkling and bright, or feature sunlight cascading over dark lustrous wood paneling. Structure can be carefully crafted wood, or steel incised with laser cut patterns to create a lacey effect. Sometimes concepts from clients are literally scrawlings on the back of napkins. A current project features paintings of fairies on the glass inserts; a special request of a client who wants to amuse her grandchildren.

All the components of these conservatories are custom, including the windows. One does not have to worry about standard size constraints. Siting is an important aspect of these projects, both in terms of view, and in terms of energy usage. Once built, inevitably clients say their sunroom or conservatory is their favorite spot in their home.

Many 19th-century homes in England had their own conservatories, usually filled with potted palms. Today the form is still with us, albeit with more efficient glass and sealants.

Pamela Heyne is a member of the American Institute of Architects, an author, and lecturer living in Saint Michaels. She would like to thank Four Seasons, Atlantic Aluminum Products, and Tanglewood Conservatories for their contributing information