A guide to building a conservatory

Are you thinking of building a conservatory?

For many people building a conservatory is an ideal way of acquiring more living space without having to move house. In many instances planning permission is not needed and, provided they are well-built, they are almost guaranteed to add value to your property.

They provide a versatile space and can be used as a sun room, dining room, breakfast room, family den, study or even kitchen. One of the real advantages of conservatories over any other type of extension, is that they let in the light and warmth from the garden whilst at the same time providing shelter from the elements.

Planning Permission

60% of all conservatories built require planning permission. Different local authorities have different rules and regulations so always contact your local planning office for advice. As a starting point, however, there are some general rules of thumb:

  • Detached or semi-detached houses can be extended by up to 70 cubic metres or 115% of the house’s total volume, whichever is greater. This, however, includes any previous extensions.
  • Similar provisions apply to terraced or end of terrace houses but the limit is reduced to 50 cubic metres.
  • Planning permission is unlikely to be granted if the conservatory covers more than half of the garden. Likewise, conservatories should not normally be 20m or less from the road or public footpath.
  • If your conservatory juts out from the house by more than 3m, planning permission is likely to be denied on the grounds that it will affect your neighbours’ enjoyment of their property. Similar rules apply to conservatories built within 2m of the boundary if the highest point is 4m or more.
  • If your house is a Grade II listed building or in a conservation area, you may be obliged to use hardwood and glass rather than modern materials.
 

Where to build it?

Conservatories have traditionally been built on the back of properties, leading out to the garden, although it is possible to have them on the side or even the front. Since they are designed to feel part of the garden they are almost exclusively built on ground floor level, although there is no real reason (apart from planning implications) why they cannot be built on an upper level, depending on the design of your house.

Different aspects bring with them different advantages and disadvantages, and careful consideration should be given to the direction of your proposed conservatory at the planning stage.

  • East-facing - This will get the sun in the morning so is ideal for a breakfast room. It will not overheat in the middle of the day or evening.
  • West-facing - This will get the sun from late afternoon onwards and provides good conditions for many plants.
  • North-facing - This will get angled sun at the start and end of the day and, although it will not overheat in the summer, it could be bitterly cold in the winter. Unless you are using the conservatory solely as a summer sun-room, give careful consideration to how you are going to heat it.
  • South-facing - This is excellent for catching the sun but will be unbearably hot in the summer with the sun overhead at the hottest time of the day. Give careful thought to ventilation and blinds.

Designing your conservatory

Perhaps the most important point when planning the sort of conservatory is to ensure that it is in keeping with the rest of the house. Ornate conservatories can look wrong on a plain Georgian or 1960s house, for instance, and modern materials do not complement period buildings.

Although it is wise to make the most of your new space, make sure that it does not dwarf the original house by making it too big. Similarly, do not lose too much of your garden by being over-ambitious with your conservatory plans.

When planning your dimensions it is a good idea to mark the area out with string and place some garden furniture in it, to get an idea of how much room you need. If you are planning to use it as a dining room, make sure that you have enough room for a dining table and chairs.

Think carefully about the positioning of French doors. Having them at the front of the conservatory is good when they are open leading on to the lawn but it can give a corridor feel and restrict where you put your furniture. It may therefore be better to have them at the side, leading on to the patio or garden path.

There is little consistency within the industry as to what constitutes a Victorian, Edwardian or Georgian conservatory. Even the humble “lean-to” design is often referred to as a Home Extender. There are brochures galore, however, showing every possible variation, and the Internet is an excellent starting point.

DIY or builder

Much will of course depend on your level of expertise but if you are on a limited budget and keen on DIY then it is well worth exploring the “kits” available. They come with full instructions and most suppliers will be happy to advise on particular problems. It is fair to say that you only get what you pay for so buy the best that you can afford. The “kit” does not include the materials for the base so remember to take this into account when budgeting.

If you do not feel up to going it totally alone, you can always pay for a bricklayer to build the base or get a carpenter to erect the conservatory. By doing the work yourself you have control over the finish, you are not going to rush and take shortcuts which may in the long run be problematical and, if you are a perfectionist, you only have yourself to blame for any parts of the job that are less than perfect.

If you are employing a building company to do the work, be aware that much of it may be subcontracted out. Make sure that you are happy with the professionalism of everyone working on the project and do not be afraid of asking questions, such as who is responsible for disposing of the rubbish generated.

By all means negotiate your price but it rarely pays to take the cheapest quote. Unfortunately it is usually the less professional companies that can afford to be beaten down on price. Although this is obviously a more expensive option than a DIY job, you may not have the skills or time necessary for the job, in which case it will be money well spent.

What material?

Conservatories can be made of uPVC, aluminium or hardwood.

uPVC

Perhaps the most common material, uPVC is a thermoplastic which can be moulded into shape when heated and then becomes rigid when cooled. It can be strengthened with aluminium for roofs, conservatory frames or doors and, provided it is a good quality, will not discolour. Traditionally it came only in a white finish but nowadays wood grain effects are popular, often mahogany or golden oak. It has the advantage of being low in maintenance, long-lasting and the cheapest of the three options.

Aluminium

This comes in strong slim sections meaning that you are able to have more glass in your conservatory. This may be the best material for conservatories which do not have a brick wall beneath the windows. It is, however, more expensive than uPVC and not as well insulated.

Hardwood

Such conservatories were very popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and ideal for a more traditional feel. The wood generally comes from sustainable sources in Europe and Africa, perhaps the most popular being mahogany and oak. This is the most expensive option and, although hardwood requires more maintenance than uPVC or aluminium, modern varnishes reduce the work required.

For the roof, you have the choice of glass or polycarbonate. Glass, being heavy is not always suitable depending on the design of your conservatory, but, if you have the money available, the best for controlling heat and condensation is Pilkington K glass. Polycarbonate is lighter and cheaper but can be very noisy in the rain.

Heating and ventilation

If you want to be able to use your conservatory all year round, heating is an important element to consider, particularly if it is north or east facing. Some people choose to extend their central heating system to cover their new conservatory, whilst others prefer the idea of free-standing heaters.

If you opt to have central heating, be sure to find a good plumber. It is important not to put too much strain on your boiler. It is of course cheaper to buy a couple of small, compact, portable electric heaters which have the added advantage of being quick to heat the room and can be put away in the summer.

As far as ventilation is concerned, roof vents are the easiest option. These can be opened manually or alternatively you might like to splash out on electric ones which open automatically at a set temperature and close if it starts to rain. Roof fans are also worth considering and can add an attractive tropical feel to the room.

Blinds

Conservatory blinds help to keep the room cool, give privacy if you are overlooked and plan on using your conservatory on dark evenings, and help to reduce fading from the sun’s glare (important for furniture and fabrics). Blinds can be fitted to both the roof and windows and come in a variety of materials and designs.

If you prefer a traditional and elegant look you should investigate French pinoleum blinds which are made from thin strips of hardwood woven together.

There are also fabrics such as Solar R which reflect up to 85% of the sun’s energy. Window blinds can be roller or pleated and, no matter what shape your roof is, blinds can be made to measure. If money is no object you can buy blinds which are operated by remote control. If on the other hand you are on a tight budget (and handy with the needle), you might like to try a DIY approach using muslin or voile for drapes.

Flooring

Your choice of flooring will depend to a great extent on what you are using your conservatory for. If you want an outdoors feel, then tiles or wooden flooring will probably suit you best. Up until recently, wooden flooring was not considered suitable for conservatories because of the problem of twisting and warping due to the high temperatures.

Solid hardwood and laminates are still unviable but, with the introduction of engineered hardwood flooring, a solution is now available. It comes in the traditional woods such as oak, cherry, beech, maple, ash, teak and mahogany as well as the lesser known aloma, merbau and iroko.

If on the other hand you are using your conservatory as a dining room for instance and want it to feel a proper part of the house, then carpet may be a better bet.

Furniture

Furnishing a conservatory depends greatly on the function of the room and personal taste but be aware that the sun’s rays have great potential to damage fabric. That exotic vibrant pattern which you fell in love with can fade quickly unless throws are used when the sun is strongest. Unless you are prepared to do this, you will be better choosing a paler colour which also has the advantage of making the room seem bigger.

Wooden furniture such as dining tables can also suffer because of the rapid expansion and contraction caused by the extremes of temperature so do not be tempted to put the family heirloom out there.

Plants

When choosing plants for your conservatory, make sure that they will tolerate not only extreme heat but also the cool temperatures of winter. Subtropical ones such as those found in parts of Australia and citrus trees are a good bet. Be prepared for the fact that you will have to water them a great deal in the summer and you may have to have a portable heater switched on during the winter.

Most conservatory plants will survive in temperatures as low as 4 degrees but, if it dips below that, then heating will be needed. For a comprehensive guide to suitable plants the Jungle Gardens website is extremely useful.

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