Conservative Attitude to Conservatories

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in mid-Wales features, among its many exhibits, a low energy house. It was built in the 1970s but remains a relevant example of how dwellings can be designed to increase comfort for the homeowner and lower demand for resources from our planet.

Visitors are free to wander around the house and pick up tips on all facets of sustainable living - from reduced energy use to a more intentional diet, via ideas for saving energy and water. On one side of the house is a substantial conservatory, with information boards explaining the potential benefits that such an addition can bring - and that came as a surprise.

Don’t get me wrong, I understood the logic. By acting as a buffer between inside and outside, a conservatory can help regulate temperatures, control ventilation, and maintain a more comfortable indoor environment. In theory, they are a pleasant room in which to spend time - but how often does practice match the theory?

My surprise stemmed from the only real experience of conservatories I’ve had: numerous phone calls complaining the room is too hot in summer and too cold in winter, leading people to consider retrofitting insulation on the inside of the glass or polycarbonate roof.

A wise person once said something about stable doors and bolting horses, and it’s highly unlikely that insulation could be fitted to the structure effectively. It won’t seal the roof, meaning the thermal performance of the rigid foam won’t be utilised. At best it will provide some shading but, even if that was the intention all along, the aesthetics will be far from desirable.

Braving the lawless world of opinions that is the internet (a world to which I'm clearly willing to contribute my own voice!) reveals a plethora of well-meaning but conflicting advice for anyone considering investing in a conservatory. As this article points out, they were traditionally intended as a dedicated space to grow plants, with space for a spot of socialising among the flora. These days:

the distinction between conservatory, garden room, orangery and sunroom has become blurred.

Supporting that delightful bit of understatement is this piece, summarising common conservatory mistakes; the contributor runs a company specialising in orangeries, conservatories and garden rooms, and describes it/them as a "new extension" capable of providing:

truly flexible living space

...that flows seamlessly with the rest of the ground floor. Hardly consistent with how CAT sees the role of a conservatory, and also at odds with the ‘space for plants’ theory. A specialist quoted in that piece is forthright in his assessment that:

a conservatory is essentially a glasshouse in its own right, not an extension of your house.

For CAT, conservatories are perfectly fine acting as a “pleasant extra room” but shouldn’t come to be relied upon as extra living space. It’s easy to imagine a certain type of person sneering at this ‘eco-friendly’ attitude towards a common home improvement/house price-boosting measure - but then you find other sites and read statements such as this:

The conservatory … will not be used unless you budget for the extra cash needed to furnish it, heat it, cool it…

The idea of building a predominantly glazed structure, then stumping up for both heating and air conditioning, is demoralising for the unnecessary cost, complication and consumption of energy and resources. But it’s a dilemma that people find themselves in, and there isn’t the consistency or clarity of advice to aid the search for appropriate solutions; the same piece provides the most succinct conclusion I’ve come across:

Think through carefully what you would use a conservatory for before making any rash decisions.

If I was surprised by the house at CAT then I’ve been even more surprised by the confusing picture I’ve since found. I felt moved to write this because there’s something fundamentally sad about the time and money spent on conservatories, only to leave spaces that aren’t used, or which can cost more to run than was ever saved in the design and construction.

If flexible living space and year-round use is the goal then a carefully designed, highly insulated, well-built extension can feature enough glazing to give the same natural light and outside views as a conservatory, while offering minimal running costs and a life expectancy to match the rest of the house. It’s a message that should be commonplace and yet, as with many other instances in the construction industry, the problem is only identified once it is too late - and it is the homeowner who is left uncomfortable.

The CAT website features a summary of how conservatories can be designed to maximum effect and contribute to the energy efficiency of a home.