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Conservatories of Distinction – Design/Build Business Magazine

By James David AIA

Conservatories of DistinctionConservatories (or orangeries as they were once called) have a rich history, going back to the days when wealthy families of Victorian Europe would travel the world and bring back specimens of plants and trees that needed a warm environment to survive the colder climate, so the idea of a glass-enclosed conservatory was developed.

While Europe has the majority of conservatories in existence today, the U.S. began a slow revival in the 1970’s— around the time insulated glass became available—and conservatories continue to increase in popularity.

In recent years, I have designed eight homes with conservatories, with half of these homeowners specifically requesting that one be included as part of their home’s initial design.

A Conservatory Adds a Unique Design Statement

Conservatories are similar to libraries, billiard rooms and wine cellars in that all are easily recognizable and visible symbols of the luxury life style and where homeowners can enjoy their leisure time devoted to the pleasures of life in grand style.

Historically, conservatories have provided the environment necessary to grow flowers for use in dressing the many rooms of bygone mansions, but today they are enjoyed as a transition room between the comforts of being indoors and the beauty of being surrounded by gardens and lush landscaping and manicured lawns-regardless of the outdoor temperatures, weather or climate conditions.

A conservatory adds a sophisticated, yet traditional design element to a home with the potential for also adding a level of detail and architectural accent unlike anything else in a home.

While conservatories situated off of kitchens for use as breakfast or morning rooms are the most popular locations in a home, they are used for a variety of functions from swimming pool enclosures to dining rooms, music rooms, sitting rooms. In the past decade, there has been an increased demand by homeowners for larger conservatories.

A good example of the design and functional flexibility of conservatories is one I incorporated into a large Tudor residence that included a wet bar that gave the outdoor space the feeling of a Parisian sidewalk café.

Finally, conservatories add curb appeal to any residence as well as to its overall uniqueness as a home of design distinction and taste.

Design Challenges of a Conservatory

Nearly all of us have been in suburban nursery centers or sat under the glass roof at a highway fast food restaurant. These structures are typically built of extruded aluminum tubing with rubber gaskets to hold the glass sections in place and to make them water tight. These are not what I mean by conservatories!

Rather, I believe it is imperative that the quality of the conservatory design be on par with the quality of the residence design its services, including that similar attention to detailing be present in both. Today’s wooden conservatories combine age-old joinery techniques with high efficient glazing that is now readily available. Conservatories call on the traditional design vocabulary of the past and thereby enhance any residential design.

While most residential architects are familiar with such things as roof systems, windows, wall construction and have been educated to design structures that are water tight, few, if any of us are well versed in the special techniques and design challenges associated with wooden conservatories.

As a result, many architects elect to choose conservatories from marketing materials by stock conservatory pattern designs in the same matter in which they select windows or doors from manufacturers’ literature, relying on their expertise and past experiences to guide their choices, rather than immerse themselves in the myriad of details necessary to actually put together these windows and doors. Why reinvent the wheel when there are these options readily at hand?

However, stock design conservatories have very real and very substantial limitations. In my opinion, designing and building a conservatory have several design challenges that are unique and specific to these structures including:

Can it withstand the various weather elements from hail to winds and snow?

Can the seals successfully accommodate the changes in temperatures and humidity and has the design factored in how the precipitation flows off of the conservatory roof-whether it is rain, snow, sleet, hail or any combination?

Structural Engineering
How is the conservatory’s roof designed to support all the glass? How are the electrical wiring, heating, air conditioning ductwork work, weather stripping and flashing hidden?

Can the material expand and contract with temperature changes and does it withstand ultra-violet light?

Design Integrity
Does the conservatory enhance the overall design of the residence—from the successful integration of the roof lines to the blending of overall residence/conservatory architectural concepts to the unanimous attention to every design detail?
Collaboration: The Key Ingredient
Some time ago I was designing a large waterfront Georgian residence on New York State’s Westchester County shoreline that was to also include a conservatory. I was in the process of selecting a stock English conservatory when I was introduced to Tanglewood Conservatories, Ltd., a firm that specializes in the design of one-of-a-kind conservatories that have been created to partner and enhance the home to which is attached.

The firm, located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was founded and is led by Alan who is also an architect.

The collaborative process developed by my firm and Tanglewood has evolved from that initial project in Westchester County to one that, four conservatories later, begins at the earliest possible point when the design parameters and budgets are being developed.

In my experience, I believe this works well with clients as they watch first hand an expert such as Alan help to shepherd the design of their future home through preliminaries right through the design development and construction.

Like other architects, most projects I design involve other professionals-from engineers to kitchen designers and interior decorators—who all add their expertise under my guidance. When an architect understands this role as a conceptual and design supervisor, he will then find it easier to improve the overall project design to include experts of an artistic nature, such as artisans who were employed to extend the design of the interior and exterior spaces of the great European buildings.

To me, the collaboration with Tanglewood is analogous to commissioning a sculptor for a piece of art. I lay out the design generically and then rely on their specialized expertise. Because of the talent of their staff, Tanglewood can design a conservatory that is sympathetic with my own ideas.

In my years working with Tanglewood, I have come to use the relationship that Alan and I have built together as a model for I want a professional collaborative relationship to be. For example, before I invite any professional into my design process, it is crucial to I identify talent that I have knowledge, confidence and trust in their abilities. This is the foundation on which Alan and I have created and built our collaboration over the years.

Other hallmarks of our collaboration that I believe strongly should be in all such relationships including:

Is this person really an expert at what he does? If you’re going to add someone to your team, make sure that expertise is really there and that it will be the asset that you require.

It’s all about the Work
Take the time to really learn about and to also share a good sampling of each other’s projects. Is there a consistent level of quality and is there a depth of professional accomplishment?

I believe that at the root of a good working relationship is a good personal relationship, especially in a successful collaboration. Can you communicate? Is there a mutual professional respect? Will your client relate well to this individual?

Shared Vision
A shared vision of the project as well as shared design goals too often takes a back seat, especially when time is of the essence. Both of these elements need to be in place at the outset and make the critical difference between just working together and collaborating.
With this caliber of collaboration in place, I gladly stand aside and let the experts do what they do best because I am confident that my client will receive the absolute best that is available and that the entire team will be proud of the end result.

Jim Davis is a licensed architect in both New York and Connecticut and for the past 30 years he has specialized in high end residential design.