How Does Your Sunroom Grow?
by Stephanie Cavanaugh
For the Wall St Journal's OWN Magazine - September 2012

Molly and Michael Metzler sleep under glass. Their bedroom opens to a domed conservatory with marble floors and a panoramic view that skips across 15 acres of garden and grounds to the lapping shore of Delaware's Nanticoke River. 

From the boudoir one also sees a free-standing conservatory nestled in a woodsy setting and echoing the style of the 5,000 square foot main house.  Molly Metzler originally wanted a simple greenhouse, but the project grew, as these things do, into a mahogany-lined, cupola-topped jewel-box, with windows set in bronze. 

"It's much too nice to be a greenhouse," she says of the single-room building that features a sitting area with a fireplace, a wet bar, and an in-ground spa for splashing amid hibiscus flowers and banana trees in the middle of January. 

 "It's just a place for my husband and me. We don't even let my son out there," then adds with a laugh, "He's 21. You don't want one of those in your spa." 

It's June in January
Fooling mother nature is a great part of the allure of green houses, conservatories, and orangeries. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, there are differences between these structures.

Greenhouses, which are generally detached from the house, are designed for the propagation of plants, with heating and lighting controls to create the optimum environment for your eupatoria and fritillaria. 

Conservatories are usually attached to the house and allow the harmonious cohabitation of plants and brunch.   

The orangerie is a cousin to both.  Originally designed to grow citrus trees in climates too chilly to sustain them outdoors, they are generally defined by a two-tiered roof that allows headroom for trees. 

There is, however, considerable overlap among the three forms. A conservatory might have a domed roof and an orangerie a flat one, with no glassing at all. A greenhouse can be used for reading as well as raising flowers and plants. 

"We've done greenhouses that incorporated relaxation rooms with tables and chairs," says Rob Suman, president of Creative Conservatories, which is based in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.  "They're all glass structures, of course, and very similar."  

To be frank (which is nice), he adds that whatever we call them, what we're talking about is building magnificently ornamented sunrooms.  Rooms that will become, as he puts it, "the jewel of the house."  

Having been given Suman's absolution, and to simplify matters, we'll dispense with the distinctions and simply call all of these glass rooms conservatories, since that is their ultimate function: to conserve plants. 

"Twenty years ago, when we started this company, most people were doing greenhousy kinds of things, says Alan Stein, the owner of Tanglewood Conservatories, who along with his partner Nancy Virts designed and built the Metzler's bedroom addition and woodsy retreat. "Conservatories were few and far between; people had not really moved toward classically detailed designs." 

"The conservatory harkens back to a long history, starting in Europe," says Stein. Beginning in the 16th century, conservatories were used to cultivate fruit trees on private reserves with inclement climates. By the 19th century they'd entered their heyday as public buildings, like London's Kew Gardens, exhibiting exotic flowers and foliage to delighted visitors. 

While George Washington and others had a private conservatories, public gardens did not become common in this country until the 20th century when we began building elaborate glass structures to rival those of the Europeans. Visitors flocked to them, taking pleasure in sniffing mid-winter blossoms in such elaborately elegant edifices as New York's Haupt Conservatory and the U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of the U. S. Capitol. 

They were admired as much for their architecture and charm as for their plant life. 

 "Little by little, people thought: Let's eat out here." says Stein. 

Over the years conservatories have morphed and morphed again.

Increasingly popular are kitchen additions and extensions, family rooms, and "bedrooms -- so owners wake when the sun comes up." says Rob Suman, who added with a laugh: "They have no choice." 

This is largely a market for the affluent, he cautions. Most buyers are in their forties or older and they think about it long before building.  "I have a client that's been collecting photos for ten years. I drew five different versions before we came up with what made sense. There's not a quick press of the button to design it right."
At Tanglewood, while most of the conservatories built by Stein's internationally known company are traditionally styled, "they don't have to be," he says. 

"I live in a modern house and love modern architecture, though we don't design to any particular one style," he says. "Perhaps because of their origin during the nineteenth century, conservatories tend to lean toward the classical, but people are not looking for a strict interpretation. They appreciate a well-proportioned, nicely-detailed design.”

And, of course, a place for plants, and for something perhaps more ephemeral as well.  

Suman says his clients enjoy the feeling "that you're outside when you're inside. To stand out in the rain in a lightning storm and not get wet? To be in a snowstorm and its 80 degrees inside?"

Or to swim in a tropical bubble as the winter winds howl outside the windows. 

Paradisiacal as they sound, pool enclosures are among the more complicated installations, with a climate that needs to suit not only people and plants, and an exposed and fairly large body of water. 

Now in its second year of construction is a 6,000 square foot conservatory with twenty foot walls that Suman's company is building into the side of a mountain in Pennsylvania. 

Sitting on a granite foundation, itself a marvel of engineering, is an irregularly shaped pool backed by an 18 foot rock wall "with little pools and a waterfall that you can sit behind." Fifteen feet above the main pool is a lounging area with a refrigerator and a bar. Below that, against a rock wall, is a bath with a shower. "You can live in this space," he says. 

Up On the Roof -- Or the Terrace
Adding a conservatory to a terrace or rooftop might be easier, or at least less insane, than you might think.  And, ah! The payoff

Stein's firm has designed buildings of glass for estates, city apartments, and rooftops round the world.
Recently completed is a roof aerie for a building on New York's Park Avenue that the owners use as a living space, "It's both a plant and a people room," he says. 

"You can't build one of these and not fill it with plants," Stein says. "The light is so wonderful and everything does so well."  So the owners set a wrought iron bistro table amid the palms and fichus and watch the seasons change from the wicker settee.

Conservatories built for city homes "are smallish," he says, adding, "You don't have a lawn." Most are kept to less than 300 square feet and "there are usually French doors opening to a small patio where you can open the doors in summer and put out your plants." 

The Park Avenue project was created in sections small enough to be bundled into an elevator and fit through a standard doorway.  

Because of their weight, roof installations frequently require more engineering than those at ground level, but the assembly is straightforward. Like Stein, Rob Suman's crew "...precuts and ships to the site. It's pieces and parts. It installs quickly -- the fine woodworking is not done in the field, it's done in the shop. 

 "Once you've parked your vehicle, you're golden."

Rizzoli, which consistently publishes some of the most magnificent books in existence, has two beautifully designed and comprehensive guides to creating and living in conservatories.

Rooftop Gardens: The Terraces, Conservatories and Balconies of New York  by Denise LeFrak Calicchio and Roberta Model Amon includes, among other choice specimens,  a 2,000 square foot terrace garden and a conservatory.  This glassed space functions as both a living room and an indoor garden for the winter cultivation of a collection of fruit trees, amaryllis, camellias, and the heavenly scented paperwhite narcissus. 

Conservatory Style: Garden Rooms, Glasshouses, and Sunrooms by Jackum Brown is an indispensable dream guide to these glassed wonders.  183 pages of conservatories large and small, elaborate and simple, in sun and snow, as kitchens and baths, family rooms and pool enclosures.  Brown includes a comprehensive guide to plants and planting and furnishings, as well.   

For the aspiring green thumb, Fulcrum Publishing offers Greenhouse Gardener's Companion: Growing Food & Flowers in your Greenhouse or Sunspace by Shane Smith, which offers guidelines for selecting suitable plants, propagation techniques, interior design and climate control, and -- for that fly in your ointment -- how to deal with pests.  

Stephanie Cavanaugh blogs about gardening and design at

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