In the quest to welcome the outdoors in with a grand gesture, home designers are turning to a time-honored transparent transition: the conservatory.
These bespoke glass houses, which date to the 16th century and were spectacular symbols of wealth from the 17th through the 19th centuries, have become an integral architectural element in luxurious homes and high-rises around the globe.
Lisa Morton, owner and director of Vale Garden Houses, a conservatory company based in Lincolnshire, England, said the form has remained consistently popular in Europe and the U.K. since the 1980s, when her company was started, and that its prevalence is expanding geographically.
“There is a whole new emerging market in new countries with new money like Lithuania and Latvia,” she said, adding that in addition to the U.K., Vale has done projects in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan and Switzerland. “There also is a lot of new interest from clients in colder countries like Norway and Sweden,” she added.
Transformed into crystal palaces on prestigious properties, conservatories house dining rooms, living rooms, family rooms, billiard rooms, workout rooms, swimming pools and sometimes even the hot-house plants for which they were originally intended.
‘A Piece of Art, Not Just Another Room’
“I don’t care how big or beautiful a house is, the conservatory becomes the most popular room,” said James J. Licata, president of Town & Country Conservatories (U.K.), which has offices in Chicago. “It’s a magnet.”
“They add a magical sense—the light coming in from above allows you to see the room in a significantly different way,” said Alan Stein, co-founder of Tanglewood Conservatories in Denton, Maryland. “Because every element is exposed, it’s a piece of art, not just another room.”
Custom conservatories, which are also called solariums, are designed, built and installed by specialty companies as well as independent architects.
They come in all styles: Staid Georgian structures and ornate Victorian confections give way to sleek, see-through contemporary cubes.
Mr. Stein, who has had clients in the United States as well as China, Australia and Africa, recalled creating a replica of Vienna’s 1880s Great Palm House at Schonbrunn Palace for a client on the West Coast of the U.S.
“It required special engineering because the iron and glass structure is an exoskeleton,” he said.
The interiors, added Barney Bell, marketing manager for David Salisbury, which is based in Highbridge, England, and has created conservatories for houses throughout Europe and the U.K., “are outfitted every bit as luxuriously as the home.”
Award-winning New York City architect John B. Murray, recently added a 22-foot-square exterior solarium to a 1920s Colonial Revival home in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
The flat-roofed room, which is on the back of the house and is designed to be a procession to the swimming pool area, features a high ceiling with triple-hung windows inspired by those at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, a radiant-heated French limestone floor, recessed LED lighting, concealed solar shades, a double-sided stone fireplace and air conditioning.
“It feels like a loggia,” he said, adding that he has designed at least a dozen conservatories and typically includes them in plans for new homes. “And it’s designed for three- to four-season use.”
The Unofficial Family Room
Conservatories, which reached the pinnacle of their popularity in the 19th century, have, more often than not, taken on the role of the traditional family room, even if that was not their original designated use.
Town & Country, for instance, created a 5,000-square-foot custom conservatory for a 20,000-square-foot stone mansion in Saudi Arabia.
“It was a social space, a show space,” said Mr. Licata, adding that it included an elevator, a mezzanine, crystal chandeliers and a large-screen TV.
For an estate in The Channel Islands, Vale Garden Houses created an enormous orangery that served as an entertainment lounge and was the heart of series of glazed spaces that housed a dining room, a kitchen and a corridor filled with plants.
“Our clients are asking us to create light-filled spaces where everybody can be together all doing independent things without sitting on each other’s laps,” Ms. Morton said. “They always tell me that if they had known how much time they were going to spend in the conservatory, they would have made it bigger.”
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Orangeries and the ‘Connotation of Quality’
In the U.K., orangeries, which are conservatories with flat, skylighted roofs that are less than 75% glass, are the most popular form.
In a garden-centric country where conservatories are almost caricatures, said Mr. Bell, “orangeries have a connotation of quality.”
They also are more energy efficient. “There is less glass, and there’s more of a feeling of enclosure,” Mr. Licata said. “You can adjust the size of the glass in the roof skylights to make them bigger or smaller, and you can have one or more than one.”
The addition of eaves and soffits allows designers to add detailing and provides the perfect space for hiding unsightly elements like air conditioning tubing.
Mr. Bell said that adding conservatories to existing U.K. properties is part of a larger trend being fueled by the effect of the stamp duty land tax on high-end parcels. “In the last two to three years, people are moving less,” he says. “They are improving their properties instead.”
Rudi Elert, a partner at the award-winning architectural firm of Rolfs Elert Office in Port Chester, New York, sees conservatories as an ideal solution for opening up spaces in traditional enclosed residences.
He cited a 10-foot by 18-foot conservatory he was commissioned to design for a century-old Tudor-style landmarked house in Pound Ridge, New York. Although it’s a stage for nothing more than a built-in banquette with seating off the kitchen, it melds the entire back of the residence with the landscape.
Conservatories, which have more than five centuries of history, are evergreen to their core: Their self-cleaning, thermos-glass panes are energy-efficient.
Because of new breakthroughs in technology, “their lifespan has increased tremendously in the last 10 years,” said Paul Zec, owner of Parish Conservatories in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Mr. Zec, who once created a conservatory for a Manhattan penthouse, said that the nature-enlightening structures continue to captivate consumers.
Like the exotic flora trees that inspired them, Mr. Licata said, their popularity continues to grow.
“I’ve never seen one used in a bathroom or a bedroom,” he said. “But I recently had an inquiry for one in a bathroom.”
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