What is the Difference Between Conservatories and Sunrooms?

The difference between conservatories and sunrooms is the quality of the construction, quality of design and attention to detail.

Victorian era England was the first country to build all glass plant spaces on a large scale beginning in the late 19th century when England’s trading empire was bringing back fruit trees from faraway places. Large public botanical gardens like the Crystal Palace and Kew Gardens showcased exotic plants from England’s far-flung empire. These large public buildings led to residential versions referred to as conservatories. There were two surges of residential popularity, first in the late 19th century and again starting in the 1980’s when using insulated glass in conservatories made them suitable as year-round living spaces instead of simply greenhouse growing spaces which were dedicated growing spaces and to this day are most often built with non-insulated glass.

The appeal of conservatories spread to North America from England in the late 19th century. Many large public conservatories still enjoy use in dramatic public spaces in virtually every major city. When the idea of an all-glass plant room spread to use as attachments to homes, smaller residential conservatories based on those public designs were built on turn of the century, often historic homes. These structures were also built with single layers of glass.

The surge in popularity in England in the 1980’s resulted from the widespread use of insulated glass and appealing, beautiful designs. It is not an exaggeration to say that everyone in the UK either has a conservatory or wants one.

These English conservatories in the 1980’s were built primarily of wood and later aluminum. The designs traced their roots to the early Victorian structures, but have evolved with the times to a broad range of custom structures from ornate traditional replications to very contemporary interpretations of classical styles.

In the United States conventionally framed home additions with skylights in the roof became popular after commercial spaces like restaurants began to add all glass dining areas as early as the 1950’s. The idea spread to home improvements and are called a variety of names such as atriums, Florida rooms, solariums and sunrooms. Standard size versions of sunroom additions are quite common with custom made spaces being less prolific. The importation of conservatories from England also occurred in the 80’s and 90’s on a limited scale.

Confusion about the difference between sunrooms and conservatories is caused by many sunroom manufacturers calling their sunrooms conservatories in an attempt to give their products more appeal. The use of the term conservatory imparts a perception of higher quality in design and specifications, even if the product is not of any special quality.

Custom made English conservatories are regarded as the best designed and built in the world and that is that is the association that mass- produced sunroom manufacturers want to create.

Another popular marketing tactic of sunroom manufacturers who use the term conservatories is to include some features like finials and cresting that mimic more upscale buildings.

To learn the difference between a conservatory in the true sense of the word requires consideration of the details of the product, starting with the design. The vast majority of sunroom manufacturers work within a specified range of sizes and modular components. Modular systems offered by sunroom companies are intended to save money in the manufacturing process, but frequently sacrifice detail, design excellence, and structural quality
There are no such limitations in a true English conservatory, although the first English imports were limited to modular, medium quality buildings.

An authentic conservatory starts with the goal that the conservatory be designed to look as though it is part of the original adjoining structure or grounds, not a commodity add-on. The process begins with design drawings that illustrate how the conservatory will blend with and enhance the home and its surroundings, or the site if it is a free-standing conservatory. A true conservatory will properly balance scale and proportion not just to the host structure, but within the building’s framing and decorative details. Conservatories should accent homes, not dominate or compete with them. Relation to landscaping is also an important element.

Details are also important to examine. Sunrooms are mostly made by inserting glass pieces in a large sectional frame. This is called direct glazing, another money saving sunroom manufacturing process. A real conservatory will have true window framing similar to a house, that is window within a window frame, also called true-frame construction.

In good conservatory design, whether commercial or residential, the correct alignment of window and door stiles, rails, window patterns, correct roof pitch and proper proportions of elements of the structure are rudimentary considerations. But often, even in supposedly custom conservatories, these attributes are sacrificed in the name of cost savings or are due to a lack of design skill or experience, or simply a different point of view about what constitutes a conservatory versus a sunroom.

The roof framing system is also dramatically different in an authentic conservatories than in sunroom “systems”. Modular roof systems are assembled by butting together pre-fabricated sections which are then screwed together and covered externally with a separate piece of wood or metal. A conservatory roof is a true architectural frame, built for the specific site, with rafter spacing and rafter size coordinated with the side frames.

Stronger wood or aluminum allows for more support to be drawn from the individual rafter than in a limited modular system. A more thoughtful roof framing system permits the use of taller, thinner rafters that can bear more weight and afford the addition of detailing that enhances the appearance of the carpentry. The result is a clearer, less cluttered view.

Sunroom companies use dimensional timber (no molding on the rafters) and shallow rafters which sometimes require metal cross supports. Larger sunrooms might also require intrusive exposed support frames inside the room to support the roof. Quality conservatories use individual rafters sized to meet the engineering requirements of the roof with no cross braces required for support. In an authentic custom designed conservatory, steel support, where needed, is concealed within the framing. Electrical requirements can also be concealed within the framing, while in sunroom systems, lighting or other electrical conduits often need to be mounted externally to the rafter and ridge framing.

Although photos of conservatories can all seem beautiful, a close examination of photos and details educates a buyer as to the difference between a conservatories and sunrooms.