Let there be light

Uri Geller uses his for meditation. Others want a place to exercise or somewhere relaxing to dine with friends. Raul Peschiera looks at why the conservatory is back
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To the Victorians, conservatories were a pinnacle of architectural design and engineering. A century or so on, architects can wince at the mention of them. Tacked ingloriously onto the back of suburban semis, conservatories conjure up images of damp, cane furniture basking beneath the shady fronds of hanging ferns.

But in a cooling housing market, more homeowners are staying put and looking at improving their home life from within ­ and are acquiring a renewed taste for conservatories.

Andrew Thompson, a design and development director of the conservatory company Ultraframe, says that a new generation of homeowners is pushing this renewed interest in conservatories forward. "We've seen more recently a growing trend among the 20- and 30-year-olds. Their primary motivation for having a conservatory is having an extra room in their house, and conservatories are a very effective way of getting extra space. They're also not so interested in the fussy Victoriana type of styles."

How far people want to break free of the past depends on how they will use a conservatory. Uri Geller, with Ultraframe, designed his own red-framed, pyramid-shaped conservatory, where he meditates and practises yoga. Very few others, however, would have the temerity to erect a glass pyramid in their back garden. Richard Heelas, a designer for Marston & Langinger, says most people settle for something that complements their lifestyle.

"There are so many hideous conservatories around, people are slightly frightened of them, and they don't want to do something terrible," says Heelas. "People are also much more careful about what they do to their houses. They think more carefully and are braver in terms of design."

One client in Macclesfield, for example, ended up having a grand, two-storey conservatory, incorporating a veranda off the living room on the ground floor and crowned by a glass-enclosed bathroom overlooking the garden. "That project started from the client wanting to add an en-suite bathroom to their bedroom. That meant that they had to add the space underneath it--it's not the sort of design you could just plonk on any house," he says.

The drive to have a glass-enclosed bathroom overlooking the back garden came from wanting a larger house and the pleasure of enjoying the open space that conservatories can offer. "People have learnt that having a very glassy room is a nice thing to have," says Heelas. "Some people have a definite specific use in mind, such as a bathroom or an exercise room, and a very common thing now is to extend the kitchen."

Even space-restrictive properties are opening up to the possibilities that conservatories offer. For a top-floor flat in Devon, Ultraframe built a nine-metre-wide, semi-circular conservatory on the roof terrace overlooking the sea. The conservatory doors fold back, so that the whole flat can be opened up to the seaside air. But not all properties have such luxuries of space.

"Sometimes it's like building a big window," says Heelas. "We built a conservatory in Oxford that is only 8ft wide by 3ft 6in. It had French windows opening into it, really just enough room for a couple of chairs and a table ­ it makes a very special and private little place in which to sit quietly and look over the garden."

But the reason for the rise of innovative conservatories may come down to practicalities. Sarah Featherstone, the founder of the architect Featherstone Associates, says that when extending a house, many people opt for conservatories simply because it means that planning permission for them is less problematic. "Planning officers generally look more favourably on conservatories, in part because they tend to appear to be less permanent structures, with no real change to the building," says Featherstone. "It's a bit like a caravan or a garden shed. It has a different status."

Getting the conservatory to look right is not as straightforward as it seems. Tara Bernerd, managing director of the interior design consultancy Target Living, says you need to consider how the inside of the conservatory works with the outside. "The exterior design has huge implications when you're working with glass," says Bernerd. "One of the reasons we don't all jump up and down about conservatories here is the climate. If it's not raining, then it's probably very grey, so immediately I'd think about how the room will be lit and the floor, which would have a huge impact on the room ­ a real chocolate-brown, wide-board floor would be good."

Although a conservatory can be put to nearly any use, Bernerd would stop at turning it into a study or a TV room, because the light would cause a glare on the screens. "A dining room, however, can work well, with fibre-optic light on the outside. You could really go to town on that. I'm a real believer in mixing the old and the new, so you might want to bring a big swirl rug and a stylish modern table, for example, and then maybe top and tail that with old leather chairs." Besides the increased floor space and opening up the house to outside light, a glass-walled extension encourages a more casual approach to entertaining. "The light from the top is wonderful," says Heelas. "It suits a more relaxed, less formal life. Rather than sitting in a cold, dark, north-facing dining room being prim and proper, people would much rather be in a nice, bright room overlooking the garden."

Ultraframe, www.ultraframe.co.uk.