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Get that glazed look

More light, more space and a better view: the benefits of a conservatory are transparent. Fenella Willis discovers what’s on offer and how to set up a modern marriage of house and garden

Ever since monks first took the air under the cover of cloisters, we have been trying to find ways of enjoying the great outdoors with protection from the elements. These days an estimated one in four homes features a conservatory, and a scene-stealing structure such as the 2005 Big Brother house’s eviction room contributes to the popularity.

Whether you’re looking to create an extra living space, a home office, an open-plan family kitchen or a room in which you can commune with nature without putting your coat on, the options are limitless. The word conservatory covers a whole spectrum of structures—from do-it-yourself uPVC affairs to hand-finished, period-style sun rooms and modernist glass boxes—but the you-get-what-you-pay-for rule applies.  Assuming you are looking for an attractive extension, which complements the architecture of your house and is built to last, you are unlikely to start your research at the local DIY store. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find an off-the-peg option made to more exacting standards.

Vale Garden Houses, whose bespoke timber-framed creations cost an average of £45,000 (including installation but not building works), has just brought out an elegant collection of modular Elizabethan-, Georgian- and Victorian-style designs in association with The National Trust.  “The quality of timber is the same,” says director Lisa Morton, “but because the sizes are mapped out, the design details bought well in advance and the drawings produced in a day, it’s more cost-effective.”

Some companies keep their prices competitive by using an extensive selection of modular components that are customised to create a unique structure. At the top of the market, an entirely bespoke project overseen by an architect and/or conservatory or architectural glazing company will lighten your wallet more, but give you much greater flexibility in the design and detail.  Just as importantly, it means you hand over the headache of organising relevant planning consents and co-ordinating the various sub-contractors to someone else.

So what style should you go for? “Stand-alone period houses tend to have period conservatories,” says interior architect Penelope Tiffney of Spatial Designers, “but modern houses don’t look good with a traditional design. A contemporary glass extension can work really well on, say, a Georgian terraced house that has a contemporary interior.”

Purists looking for traditional, timber-frame options will find a wide range of companies using everything from Douglas fir—a softwood to which paint adheres particularly well—to cedar, sapele and other hardwoods. “It should be a naturally durable timber, from a sustainable source, selected and cut to last 50 years or more,” says Peter Marston, managing director of Marston & Langinger and author of The Conservatory Book (Cassell, £25). He recommends double-glazed, toughened safety glass with inert gas insulation inside and a low-E coating, which reflects heat back into the room.

His company’s projects cost anything from £10,000 to £1m: complex ground plans, intricate finishes and windows incorporating many tiny panes of glass are the kind of extras that are likely to send the cost climbing.

It’s as well to remember that timber expands and contracts according to the weather and may need repainting every few years. Alitex, a company best known for its greenhouses, has recently developed the aluminium-framed Plant Conservatory—ideal for those who want their overlap zone to be as much garden as home.  As project manager Nelly Hall explains, its classic designs, which typically cost around £30,000, work on the principle that  “what is great for plants—proper heating and ventilation—is good for people.”

Temperature, lighting and air flow are carefully controlled. Exterior blinds give creepers free rein, while internal beds allow for direct planting into the ground and brick sofas with removable cushions mean “you can go mad with the hose.”

Low-maintenance steel and aluminium, powder-coated in chic shades, have the leading edge in the burgeoning fashion for minimalist glass extensions. Although metal extrusions cannot produce the same level of complexity as timber frames, projects by such companies as Apropos show their creative scope. Trombé’s “frameless” systems bond the glass to discreet substructures invisible from the outside.

Cantifix is an architectural glazing company that, according to sales and marketing manager Richard Leech, does “the things other people haven’t been able to do. It’s precision-engineering with glass”.  Priced between £15,000 and £50,000, the one-off structures are mainly silicon-bonded, with the glass supporting its own weight (the only frame is above the doors).  “Because [these extensions] are glass, planners are usually more sympathetic, as you can still see the outline of the house through them,” says Leech. A recent project includes an all-glass spiral staircase, clear proof that conservatory design has moved confidently into the 21st century.

Clear thinking

  • Think about your budget and how you intend to use the space. Always give a clear brief.
  • Bear in mind that a fit-all solution won’t fit any house particularly well.
  • Always check what a company’s “project management” includes, and don’t push beyond their brief: a dedicated conservatory company may not have the skills to do any extra building.
  • Visit the workshops of a few conservatory companies. Ask to see a completed project, preferably one that is at least one-year old.
  • Check about planning permission (especially in a city or conservation area), building regulations (if you are planning structural alterations) and, if applicable, listed-building consent. Clarify who is responsible for obtaining approval.
  • If you have a particularly complex or unusual project in mind, employ a designer yourself.
  • If you plan to open up the back of your house, a structural engineer will have to be consulted.
  • Consider underfloor heating so that your conservatory can be used all year round.

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