timber Frames, Conservatories, Special Construction

Custom Conservatories & Sunrooms: Custom Designs

Homeowners looking for more light and space often consider conservatories designed specifically for their needs.

Click here for a list of suppliers of conservatories and sunrooms

By Martha McDonald
As defined by The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, a conservatory is a "grander and more ornamental version of a glasshouse or greenhouse," which can be either "detached or joined to a dwelling." These elegant structures can be found attached (or not attached) to all sizes and styles of homes to serve a wide range of different purposes, including, but not limited to, serving as a comfortable home for plants. Adding both space and light to a home, the contemporary conservatory is quite likely to be a complete room with heating, cooling, lighting and all the indoor amenities.

Like any addition to the home, the conservatory requires careful consideration. While modular models are available in many styles and configurations, the custom conservatory allows the homeowner to design his or her conservatory to suit specific needs and to coordinate the styling to fit with the original home. A number of companies specialize in designing and building custom conservatories and are quite flexible in how they work with homeowners and architects. In some cases, they will be responsible for the design and construction of the conservatory, and in others, they will follow the architect’s guidelines.

A conservatory, like any custom work, carries a price tag. Most suppliers say it ranges from $500 to $1,000 per sq. ft., depending on whether or not the finished interior is included.

An example of an elegant orangery was designed by Cole Smith, Sr., FAIA, of Smith Ekblad & Associates of Dallas, TX, with interiors by Sherry Hayslip of Hayslip Design Associates, Inc., for a family in Dallas. Designed to coordinate with the family’s 17th-century Cotswold-style home on a nine-acre site, this structure consists of a central rectangular 30x15½-ft. orangery with matching eight-sided parapets on either end. Storerooms and bathrooms are set into the areas between the main room and the parapets.

The walls of the conservatory are solid masonry Leuders limestone, the same material the firm used to veneer the wood-frame home several years ago. The structure provides 1,745 sq.ft. of space on the main floor, plus a 1,563-sq.-ft. basement for mechanicals. The family uses one of the end rooms as a ceramics and pottery studio (there’s a kiln in an adjoining back room on the north wall) and the other for horticulture. The central main room is for social functions.

The southern glass wall of this orangery, designed by Smith Ekblad & Associates, flows into the surrounding terrace and then into the larger English perennial garden and Koi ponds. The orangery is made of Texas Leuders limestone, an indigenous material that was also used to build the main house.

The heavy-plank exterior doors leading into the two end rooms feature handmade hardware, kick plates and ornamental oak branches. All were forged and galvanized in a soft silver tone to complement the metal framework of the conservatory.

"Our intention was to create a period-style building of classic proportions," says Smith. "We used indigenous Texas Leuders limestone in varying textures counterpointed with a luminous curving tripartite glazed ceiling-roof anchored with a galvanized zinc-coated steel exterior and a painted steel interior frame."

This particular orangery is graced with many features custom designed by Hayslip and Smith, including the two chandeliers and a large table for the main room, all inspired by A.W. Pugin. Smith, who is also a blacksmith, designed wall-mounted bronze lanterns for the exterior, as well as the ornamental leaf-and-branch motifs on the two heavy plank exterior doors leading into the two eight-sided end rooms. The hardware was forged and galvanized in a soft silvery tone to complement the metal framework of the conservatory. Smith notes that because of "the hand-crafted fabrication of virtually every aspect of the building, the cost was in excess of $800 per square foot."

Town & Country completed this 320-sq.-ft. conservatory in Bryn Mawr, PA, in about four months, from design through completion. The challenge was to create a conservatory to encompass the large French doors and to replace one that had been on the same footprint.

Another recently built orangery was designed and fabricated by Town & Country Conservatories of Chicago, IL, for a French-style carriage house in Bryn Mawr, PA. The 320-sq.-ft. space was designed to create a year-round room on the same footprint as a former dilapidated sunroom that had been built in the central alcove in front of pocket doors. Enclosing full-height barn pocket doors and accommodating a long sloping roof were two of the challenges of this particular project.

"Orangeries were precursors to conservatories," says Town & Country's president, James Licata. "The early ones were characterized by high glass sidewalls and a central skylight roof, with the intent of allowing a lot of light in so fruit could be grown inside.

"The design of this conservatory works with the existing roof and horizontal lines of the house, while keeping the back wall open to the house," says Licata. It is made of Sapele mahogany, a dense timber from Malaysia, and incorporates such features as a raised-lantern roof, outward-opening French doors, clerestory windows, full-height glazed side frames with a true-divided arched Georgian glazing pattern, full-height external pilasters and a mahogany-stained interior with pre-built soffits. The lantern roof has electric opening sashes with insect screens, and the exterior roof is capped in aluminum to minimize maintenance. In addition, insulated glass is used throughout to provide a year-round room.

"The pitch of the lantern roof echoes the slope of the main house and the center dormer above the conservatory," Licata points out. "The soft arches in the conservatory sidewalls repeat the arches of the dormer windows." He adds, "All too often the quality of the glass is overlooked."

This conservatory cost approximately $110,000, plus another $50,000 for the general contractor for the foundation, electric, air conditioning, paint and copper work. Each Town & Country conservatory is hand manufactured in the firm’s workshops in England.

Based in York, England, Oak Leaf Conservatories of York also specializes in custom-designed, hand-crafted English conservatories that are built in the U.K. These are installed throughout the U.K., U.S. and Europe. Amy Magner, director of the American office in Atlanta, GA, emphasizes the benefit of complete design flexibility afforded by a custom conservatory. "Our clients have the opportunity to bring in architectural features such as moldings and window designs that already exist in their homes, or to make an architectural statement," she says, "whether the conservatory is freestanding or attached to the house.

Oak Leaf Conservatories of York built this traditional orangery with a 10-ft.-dia. glass dome. It measures approximately 26 ft. across the front elevation and 17 ft. to the end of the rotunda. Made of mahogany from managed sources, it is framed by 10-in.-dia. round columns, including two internal columns under the dome. A gutter is hidden in the perimeter of the timber cornice and between the three lantern roofs.

"To make sure that the conservatory fulfills expectations and accommodates the clients’ lifestyles, we work with the clients, architects and designers to help them think through how the space will be used," she adds. "We consider the client’s needs, whether it is for living space, a garden room or even a pool enclosure. We ask a lot of questions that often bring possibilities to light that they would never have considered. Each individually designed conservatory ultimately reflects the owner’s specific needs and style."

Oak Leaf's conservatories are built of premium-grade West African mahogany from managed forests. "It’s a durable, long-lasting hardwood that lends itself to profile moldings," Magner states. "Traditional techniques such as mortise-and-tenon joinery are used when building the conservatories. A range of high-performance glazing options can provide insulation, solar control and even a decorative effect, such as with leaded glass. Features that are becoming popular are built-in roller insect screens for operable windows, concealed gutters, base panels, windowseats and other built-in components."

Tanglewood Conservatories, of Denton, MD, was co-founded by husband and wife, textile artist Nancy Virts and architect Alan Stein. Their company looks at conservatories as "works of art, not just products," according to Stein. "We have found that they are getting more elaborate, more detailed, less like traditional white Victorian conservatories. People are starting to think about conservatories in less traditional ways, in ways that have to do with real architecture rather than an added-on conservatory look."

All of Tanglewood’s conservatories are 100% custom and are built in the firm’s facility in Denton. "We meet with the client and get a direction for the room," says Virts, "and then we present three or four options. Clients are looking for something that goes with the house, something more artful than functional." The firm works three different ways. The first method is for the architect to specify everything in the conservatory and for Tanglewood to make it happen. Another is for the architect to develop a concept and then for Tanglewood to design and develop it. The third method turns the complete design and development over to Tanglewood.

Designed and fabricated by Tanglewood Conservatories to fit on an existing footprint, this grand conservatory provides more than 1,100 sq.ft. of space, with ceilings up to 24 ft. tall. It is located on a large riverfront estate dating from the early 1800s. A standing-seam copper roof supports an octagonal glass cupola, and eave brackets are designed to complement those on the main house.

Stein points out that the firm works with architects on 50% to 60% of the projects and adds that about half of the work is new construction and the other half is add-on. "My recommendation to an architect considering a conservatory is to go with an expert," he says, "someone who can make the job easier and can probably save the client some money. We do both the design and manufacturing here in Denton so these two functions are more integrated."

At Renaissance Conservatories of Lancaster, PA, company president, Mark Barocco says, "The clear advantage of a custom conservatory is that it is tailored to specifically satisfy the needs of the client and to complement the architectural style of the home. The designer has the freedom and latitude to create this unique product." Renaissance custom manufactures conservatories as small as a 3-ft. bump-out from the side of a house up to huge freestanding garden rooms of mahogany, cypress, teak and western red cedar.

Renaissance Conservatories built this 16x20-ft. orangery for a Northern Colonial-style home in the New York City suburbs. A standing-seam copper roof connects the elevated glass lantern to the lower portion, and the integrated plant trellis helps soften the façade with climbing flowering vines.

Like others, the pricing is approximately $500/sq.ft. to design, manufacture, deliver and erect the superstructure, while finishing projects such as flooring, heating and painting bring the price tag up to about $1,000/sq.ft., although "square footage is an inaccurate way to price any custom project," Barocco says. "Using custom leaded art glass, for example, adds cost but doesn’t add to the square footage. We try to identify all the needs of the clients, including functional, aesthetic, time and budgetary."

Renaissance builds all of its conservatories in its facility in Lancaster and focuses on a "quintessential American look. Even the hardware is chosen to evoke memories of the American Industrial Age," says Barocco. He adds that with the use of hig- performance glazing and movable shades, "an all-glass ceiling is not always in our clients’ best interest. Renaissance designs a lot of conservatories with limited overhead roof glass," he points out. "Every environment has different needs, and all-glass is not the way to go for every job. In some instances, we may advise clients to insulate a ceiling and then locate a skylight or glass lantern to create core lighting or to intensify the dramatic effect. When summer heat gain or winter heat loss becomes a design issue, we’ll tend to direct our clients toward a sensible approach to overhead glazing. The reward can be a conservatory that is highly functional as well as beautiful to behold."

Built by Colebrook Conservatories of Honduras mahogany for a client in Connecticut, this two-level, 20x26-ft. conservatory provides a meeting and living room on the upper level and an exercise room on the lower level. A 6x12-ft. gabled pediment bump-out accented with a 12-ft.-wide circle head window appears on one side. The lantern is 15 ft. above the floor, creating a spacious cathedral-like feeling. The structure is connected to the house with a breezeway.

Colebrook Conservatories of Winsted, CT, builds everything in its own shop. "We usually collaborate with the architect on the design," says the owner, Ed Sarcia. "It seems to be a market that is expanding," he adds.

He agrees with others on the pricing, noting that the starting point is $350 to $400/sq.ft. and that it can go up to about $1,000/sq.ft. for the finished room.Traditionally made of mahogany because of its resistance to decay and its dimensional stability, custom conservatories are also becoming available in aluminum or PVC. "These materials don’t have the design flexibility," says Sarcia, "but they provide some economies. More and more are offering traditional detailing, such as dentil moldings and profiles on the rafters."

One of the features he recommends is a de-icing cable in the rafters to prevent ice buildup in cold climates. "We put these in all of the conservatories we build in the Northeast," Sarcia explains.

Another approach, says Sarcia, is the orangery, which he describes as "a structure that might have conventional walls and a flat roof, with a skylight and lantern. It can be quite dramatic." One interesting design option, he adds, is to build a hallway or breezeway to the conservatory and then let it stand on its own, "like a jewel.

"We’ve been building conservatories since 1984," says Sarcia, "and architects weren’t very interested in those days. They are getting more knowledgeable and are beginning to enjoy these projects."

Click here for a list of suppliers of conservatories and sunrooms