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Bringing the outside in.
I was sitting in the office the other day, wondering what to write about this month, when the phone rang and a client booked a consultation for me to re-design their conservatory. Now it happened to be one of those lovely late winter days we’ve had recently where it was bright and crisp but blooming cold. Yes, I thought, this is exactly the weather where conservatories come into their own. For me, the biggest benefit of a conservatory is not that it is a room solely, or even mainly to be enjoyed in the height of summer when the temperature inside can be all but unbearable, but that it can be comfortable and inviting both in the spring and autumn, when the sun is shining but doesn’t have much heat in it.
I believe a successful conservatory is one that looks like it’s always been there, and it’s meant to be there. It blends in with the architecture of the house, both in style and proportion. It is thoughtfully situated with regards to both access from within the house, and its place in the garden. It doesn’t stick out like a huge blister, and its perimeters are softened by shrubs and plants, thus making it the perfect halfway house between indoor and outdoor living.
So how can we achieve this, and what are the pitfalls to look out for? If you are starting from scratch and planning to add a new conservatory, the first and fundamental point to consider is the function of your new room. Will it be an extension of a family area to provide extra all day space? Will it run off a kitchen to give an al fresco feel to dining? Or will it be a quiet bolt hole away from the hustle and bustle after a demanding day? Of course, you may want it to be all these and more, but be careful not to try to cram a quart into a pint pot. A cluttered and over-furnished conservatory is a disaster, not only aesthetically but in practical terms too. As soon as the overall feeling of space and relaxation is lost, so is the desire to use it.
When considering the location of a new conservatory it’s also worth considering the impact it will have on the room to which it is attached. Generally, the addition of a conservatory, however thoughtfully designed, will take some light from the original room. I have seen conservatories tagged onto the back of an already long and relatively narrow living room, making the whole room look like a dark tunnel, and very difficult to furnish effectively. If however you decide to run your conservatory from a dining room the impact is lessened, as dining rooms are more often than not used when it’s already dark outside.
Two other elements that need to be taken into account at the design stage are heating and lighting. Whilst it is possible to make further provision for these at a later date, it will undoubtedly involve considerable upheaval, and stress that could be easily avoided. Heating in your conservatory is an absolute must. Thermostatically controlled under floor heating would be my first choice every time. Not only is it supremely practical in keeping an ambient temperature for any plants in the room, but it is certainly the most discreet in appearance. It’s always sad to see an oil filled radiator or an electric fan heater in the corner of an otherwise elegant and stylish conservatory.
Lighting is also extremely important, and will usually take the form of soft, low level light from table lamps, perhaps topped up with a well-placed floor lamp or two to enable reading. With this in mind make sure you have enough sockets from the outset. If your conservatory is particularly large you may want to incorporate one or more floor sockets to alleviate the need for trailing flexes.
One of the most influential factors in the overall look of a conservatory is the floor. For out and out practicality there is no beating ceramic or quarry tiles. If your conservatory runs off of a family area, and is designed to be extra living and play space for youngsters, then this is ideal. A ceramic floor however does have an inevitably clinical feel to it. This can be softened by adding a large rug, preferably with a good amount of texture. For a softer and more elegant feel use fully-fitted natural floor coverings, such as jute, wool or sisal. This may be more appropriate if your conservatory runs from a living or dining room. Whatever you do, don’t try to install wood flooring, as this will warp and buckle very quickly due to the extremes in temperature.
When it comes to decor, and fabrics to cover your furniture, once again it is important to pick up the mood of the room your conservatory runs from. For a light, bright feel use splashes of colour, mixed with tickings, stripes and checks in lively greens and soft whites. Using these colours of nature will also help to blend together the house and the garden, bringing the outside in. For a more sophisticated and elegant look use a neutral palette, and introduce a variety of different and interesting textures. One word of caution though, whatever the desired appearance you would do well to consider the fibre content of any fabric before you select it, as it will be constantly subjected to massive amounts of the sun’s ultra-violet rays. In practise this means that natural fabrics with strong colours will fade, and delicate fabrics such as silks will very quickly rot and shred.
As we have already touched on, the temperature of a conservatory in the height of summer can get so high as to almost prohibit its use. This can be addressed by the thoughtful addition of blinds, possibly on the windows, but certainly to the roof. There is a wide variety of products available, from simple roller blinds through natural wood pinoleum blinds, to the extremely versatile plisse and duette blinds. The latter two can be manufactured in an extensive range of fabrics, each giving different degrees of light and heat control. The duette blind is made using a honeycomb effect, thus trapping a layer of air and giving excellent results for both insulation in winter and cooling in summer. Roof blinds can also be motorised for ease of use and durability, although these can be quite expensive, and are difficult to subsequently install if the relevant electrical feeds have not been provided for at the design stage.
The thoughtful inclusion of plants in a conservatory really helps to blend together the house and the garden, but be careful when selecting your varieties as they will have to thrive across a huge temperature range. If you have a constant and controllable source of heating you will be able to introduce some really quite exotic species, but do seek expert advice, and try not to cram it so full as to look like the hot house at Kew Gardens. Shrubs and plants around the outside of a conservatory, whether they are in borders or tubs on a patio, also help to soften its lines and make it truly a versatile and worthwhile addition to your home.
John Biddell, John Charles Interiors
Live 24 7 magazine editorial - March 2015