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Shore Life Magazine

Making Dreams Come True in Glass & Steel –
Shore Life Magazine

By Peter Howell

They’re building what in Denton?

Conservatories. No, not music schools. Glass rooms and buildings. Like the Crystal Palace at Disney World, only smaller.

If you want to add a glass room to your house or build a freestanding glass structure on your property, Tanglewood Conservatories can design and build the conservatory, greenhouse, pool enclosure, palm room, dome, cupola, skylight or orangery of your dreams. And it all happens in their 40,000-square foot factory in the Denton Industrial Park.

Tanglewood Conservatories is not easy to find. No sign announces its presence. Only the street number, 15 Engerman Drive, confirms that this is the place. But that’s okay with co-founder and President Alan and his wife, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Nancy Virts. For they don’t rely on walk-in traffic for their business.

Rather, they find their clients all over the world. Recent projects, their website reports, have been completed, not only in New York, South Carolina, Utah, California and Texas, but also in London, Shanghai and Africa. Conservatories are much more popular in Europe than in America. Abroad, says Alan, “They’re kind of like backyard decks in America.”

Tanglewood’s major projects include designing the conservatory for the Rockefeller Center Flower and Garden Show; and the conservatories and glass structures at Sandlewood Estates in Shanghai. Out of respect for their private clients’ privacy, Nancy and Alan won’t name names, but he says they are “highly recognizable people” in the worlds of business and entertainment; art lovers and people involved in the arts, “people who have the means” to spend $10,000 to $100,000 for an architectural accent like a dome or a cupola . Prices for a complete room or a separate structure start around $100,000, and the only limits are the client’s imagination and budget. About 30 percent of Tanglewood’s projects are freestanding buildings.

Such prices are not for the faint of heart. They are for customers who have (a) a vision; and (b) no desire to compromise. “We like to invent new ways of doing things,” says Alan. “One of our strengths is the ability to conceive something and actually pull it off,” using glass, wood, steel and other metals. “We’re figuring out how to do it as we go.”

What they don’t use are stock designs. Their conservatory production teams are “heirs to a 300-year-old Craft and Woodworking Tradition,” as described in Tanglewood’s website. That tradition predates the Industrial Revolution, which made possible mass production — and standardization — of iron-and-glass palaces. But standardization is not spoken at Tanglewood Conservatories. Nancy and Alan and their 30 employees want no part of contemporary building practices, which are “devoted to the development of mass-production building technology.” There are plenty of companies that design and build conservatories and other glass structures, according to Alan, but Tanglewood is “one of a very few dedicated to architecture.” When you buy one of the 20 to 25 buildings that Tanglewood produces in a typical year, the “engaging, detail-rich architectural forms of our past” are part of the package.

Tanglewood Conservatories started out building modest structures: 200 square feet. But their clients insisted on bigger and bigger conservatories, as large as 5,000 square feet. Alan and Nancy have had to quadruple the size of their plant since it opened in 1997, and as they’ve done so, they have heard the siren song of standardization. While many of their competitors have succumbed, they’ve resisted. Just as they create unique structures, Alan says that they also created “great, strong systems to handle what could easily become chaos.” So even though “Each project is one of a kind,” Alan says, Tanglewood’s business model is scalable.

Virts, a designer and fiber artist, and Alan, a former residential builder and 1983 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Architecture, launched Tanglewood Conservatories in Silver Spring in 1993. Virts says people are surprised to learn that they relocated their luxury business to the Eastern Shore, especially to Caroline County.

Tanglewood’s products might be exotic, but their reason for choosing Denton, according to Alan, was common: “We moved here because the State of Maryland, and especially because the Caroline County economic development team just made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.”

It might be tempting, in these parlous times, to assume that no one can afford a greenhouse, a conservatory, or even a cupola, and to wonder how Tanglewood keeps going. Indeed, the company has felt the impact of the recession. “When we did see a downturn in business, back in 2009 and 2010,” according to Alan, it affected even the very wealthy, and “We lost some jobs that we thought were going to go forward.”

It could have been worse, though. “The last place people cut back on spending is their homes,” he says. “So that helps to insulate us.”

The fact that all their customers pay cash, and are not dependent on hard-to-get credit also helps. Still, some clients took a hit, while others who lost no money were still affected psychologically by the recession. “Some people got hurt,” says Alan, “and some people just got scared to death.” Either way, they cut back on their spending.

Glass is a mediocre insulator, and you’re probably wondering how Tanglewood makes its products energy-efficient and controls utility costs.

“First of all,” says Alan with disarming candor, “you don’t.” Even though Tanglewood uses state-of-the-art glazing technology, special coatings, low-thermal-emissivity (low e) glass and double- and triple-paned panels filled with argon gas, Alan says glass is less than optimal for keeping hot or cold air out or in. On the other hand, weather-stripping and intelligent siting to take advantage of passive solar energy, coupled with the option of shutting off the lights and heat or air conditioning in the rest of the house while spending time in the conservatory, rein in utility costs slightly.

“But it really doesn’t matter,” says Alan. “Clients who can afford to buy a conservatory are not likely to fret over their utility bills.”

The quality of Tanglewood’s products has not gone unnoticed. Honors have included the Comptroller of Maryland’s Better With Less Award in the spring of 2011; the Gold Conservatory Sunroom Award from Qualified Remodeling Magazine in 2006; and the Best of Show Award and Best Conservancy Project Award in 2004, both from Qualified Remodeling Magazine. In addition, Nancy and Alan are the only non-Germans to be made honorary members of the Winter Garten Fashverband, the trade association of German manufacturers of high-end conservatories. One of their projects even graced the cover of the Fashverband’s annual magazine.

Tanglewood Conservatories’ mission is to combine the best of the old-fashioned and the newfangled in its manufacturing: “to rediscover and reinvent the blending of modern, efficient production techniques,” according to their website, “along with the traditional sensitivity to form, proportion, materials and detail.” So even though they installed computerized production machinery in 2004 and use modern materials like triple-paned, argon-filled glass, Alan says, “We’ve captured that 19th-century aesthetic.”