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Light House – Vacation Homes

By Nikki Swink

Vacation Homes MagazineIn the 1st century, Roman encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote a medical treatise, called De Medicina, in which he recommended that people live in rooms full of light, presumably because of the positive effects that sunlight has on mood and, in limited doses, on the skin. In that vein, Alan, cofounder of Maryland-based Tanglewood Conservatories, has built his company around man’s desire to have a space that maximizes a room’s exposure to natural light. “Conservatories are completely different from every other kind of building you see,” says Alan. “The light comes in from above and illuminates the space in a way that is almost magical. It’s as close as you can get to nature without eliminating walls.”

Alan, originally a home builder and craftsman, founded Tanglewood Conservatories along with his wife, Nancy Virts, in 1993 after a client asked them to design a conservatory to add onto his house. “I said yes, but I really didn’t know how to build one,” admits Alan. “I looked at the prefab products, but they were basically hobby greenhouses or backyard sheds. The quality just wasn’t there.” The couple decided they needed to immerse themselves in a culture where conservatories are part of daily life, so they ventured to England where they studied the structures’ history, design principles, and construction techniques. After months of research that included attending a number of flower and garden shows, touring conservatory factories, and visiting places such as the Kew and Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, Alan and Nancy designed their first conservatory. Soon after, the couple received more requests for similar structures and resolved to focus solely on conservatories.

The modern conservatory surfaced in the 18th century when the aristocracy in Britain and France began using them to protect exotic plants, shipped in from newly discovered countries, from the cold. The ability to sustain these plants regardless of weather conditions made conservatories a symbol of status. Unlike a greenhouse, which is a separate glass building used only to propagate plants, a conservatory is a recreational space and often an extension of the home.

Alan’s clients typically use conservatories as additional entertaining areas to host dinner parties or have afternoon tea. “At night, they often become a place for the entire family to gather and gaze through the glass ceiling at the stars,” says Alan, whose company builds between 15 and 20 conservatories each year.

Not limited to minimal glass boxes, the conservatories that Tanglewood creates usually range from 200 to 4,000 square feet and have furnishings, details, and finishes that match the quality found in the main home. Some even include fireplaces, spas, high-end sound systems, and flat-screen televisions. “Conservatories can function as anything from a small second family room to a virtual second home located across from the main house,” says Alan, adding that they can cost anywhere from $100,000 to more than $1 million.

At an estate on Long Island, New York, the company built a nearly 350-square-foot conservatory that serves as the property’s pool house and includes dressing rooms, a sauna, and a living area. “The pool is set quite a bit away from the main home, so the pool house is a retreat for the homeowners without having to go too far,” says Alan.

Tanglewood’s conservatories can be built using a variety of materials, but the company most frequently uses solid mahogany and steel to support the expanses of glass, which can vary from thick panes able to withstand a hurricane to bulletproof glass. From a design standpoint, Tanglewood follows in the grand Victorian style of conservatories, but in construction, the company uses modern technology, such as specially designed weather stripping, wood treatments, heating and air conditioning, and touchpanel—controlled windows that automatically close when it starts to rain. However, the company also is willing to modify a traditional design in order to please its clients. In one such case, recalls Alan, a husband and wife could not agree on whether to have a glass roof or a copper roof. The wife wanted natural light streaming through a glass roof, but the husband was worried about glare. As a compromise, Tanglewood added a glass cupola—an ornamental structure that crowns the top of a building—to the copper roof to admit light and provide ventilation.

“Sometimes people ask for things that no one has done before,” says Alan, who cites a client’s desire for a conservatory completely clad in copper as one of his most unusual requests to date. “The fun part of our job is figuring out how to do it.”