Bringing the Garden Inside
August 14, 2011 | 9:35 pm CDT

A Maryland company creates a ‘fantasy’ room for the home.

Tanglewood Conservatories is one of a relatively small number of manufacturers that build conservatories in the United States. Their whimsical, fantastical structures combine a romantic air with the comfort of a sitting room.

Conservatories have always been a magical, sunlit place for upper-echelon homeowners to experience the joy of nature in the comfort of their own home. From traditional classical structures attached to the home to more secluded buildings on the estate, a conservatory harnesses the sun through an expanse of windows and provides a lush, garden-like living space.

Conservatories are probably most associated with England, where they abound from the manor house to the small cottage. But these structures are also becoming more popular in the United States. Serving this small niche market in America is Tanglewood Conservatories, located in Denton, MD. Owners Alan Stein and Nancy Virts use their love of art and architecture to create millwork-filled retreats that inspire and stir the heart of the romantic. Many of their buildings overlook a pond with views of the setting sun or overlook a landscaped paradise.

Stein says that he started out as a carpenter, building houses and doing commercial construction work, but he soon realized that he wanted more. “I enjoyed that work very much, but I had friends who were artists and I realized that though I was a fine craftsman, the design side of my craft was something that was totally foreign to me. I decided that what I really wanted to do was to become more proficient in design.”

Armed with that revelation, Stein began searching for art schools, finally deciding to attend the California College of Art. “It was a very, very good school for art and design,” he says. But halfway through the program, Stein had another revelation: “What I really wanted was a combination of art and building, which is architecture,” he explains.

So Stein moved back to Maryland and attended the University of Maryland, where he received a degree in architecture. After working in an architectural firm for a brief period, Stein decided to branch off and start his own company — a construction company. “I felt that I didn’t belong sitting behind a desk all day long, and I missed being involved in construction,” he says. Although Stein returned to construction, this time he was able to draw on the design skills he had learned by giving his new company a design focus.

“We did design work and building work — design-build. Back then it was kind of a newer concept. Now you hear more about it.”

This conservatory features specialty lighting, mahogany paneling and stain glass windows.

Stein’s new firm dealt mostly in residential projects. It was one of those residential clients who approached him about building a conservatory for a customer. “He showed me a picture of what the customer wanted and asked if I could build it. I said ‘Yes, we could,’ before knowing exactly how I was going to do it,” Stein chuckles. “I’ve always been very inventive and I like challenges when it comes to figuring out how to build things. This was a great challenge and I said, ‘Yep, no problem, I can really do that.”’

One of the first things that Stein said he did was to look around at the prefabricated products for conservatories that were available. Many of these products are manufactured in the United Kingdom. “As a builder and an architect, I didn’t like the quality that I saw in those products,” he says. “They were really kind of backyard greenhouses that had been upgraded a little bit, but were nowhere near the standard that I would supply to one of my clients.”

So Stein decided to build the conservatory himself. He used off-the-shelf windows and doors from a manufacturer and figured out how to fabricate the entire structure. The design was plain and the building did not have a lot of detail. Stein says that he was limited by the fact that the windows were made by someone else and that it was his first conservatory. Still, when clients look at his portfolio, it is one of their favorite structures, he notes.

Once Stein had finished that first project, he was approached by a second client who asked him to build another conservatory. It was totally unconnected, he says, “just out of the blue that these two projects happened.”

The second conservatory was built a little differently using the experience gained from the first project. It became a more detailed structure. After finishing the second project, Stein says that he “thought there might be a market for that sort of thing.” From that point, Stein began to focus in that direction.

He did a lot of research and traveled to the United Kingdom to look at the products that were produced there. “We started coming up with a system,” he says. “We renamed the company Tanglewood Conservatories. [The original construction company was called Solar Solutions.] Virts came up with that name. She loves music, and Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Pops out in western Massachusetts. They have a big estate out there; she knew about it and had been there, so she loved the name Tanglewood. It seemed to fit, and I thought it was a great name.

Although the lines between greenhouses and conservatories are sometimes blurred, the main function of a conservatory is as a living space or sitting room, but it also can feature lush greenery, such as the hanging ferns and flowers in the picture above.

Refining the Process

Conservatories are somewhat unique in that they involve exterior work as well as interior woodwork (sometimes quite extensive), like vaulted ceilings, mouldings, doors and lots of windows. Tanglewood’s initial conservatories were built using prefabricated parts, but this method of fabrication became difficult due to issues with maintaining the production schedule.

To gain more control over the process, Stein says that they decided to bring the window- and door-making in-house. After significant research, a window and door were designed. Tanglewood then did R&D test production and bought equipment. “And pretty soon, we were making our own windows and doors, which alleviated that problem,” Stein notes.

One of the company’s biggest struggles with suppliers had been the fact that oftentimes a product would never be “quite right” — off by fractions of an inch. Because of the customized nature of conservatories and Stein’s quality standard, bringing the production of windows and doors in-house gave Tanglewood quality control, as well as control over the delivery time. Other outsourced products that were eventually brought in-house include mouldings, insulated glass and handcrafted copper fixtures.

Creating the Design

About half of the conservatories fabricated by Tanglewood are designed in-house and not by outside architects. Their design process generally starts when Stein and Virts, who was a fabric artist, meet with the clients. From that initial meeting, they get a sense of what the clients want, their budget and the kinds of features they are interested in.

“Every project has inherent possibilities and problems associated with it. It’s how you solve those problems and take advantage of those possibilities that makes for a successful piece of architecture,” says Stein. “So my job is to try to get a sense of the big picture and how to address that — to sort of chart the course.”

The design staff then develops several design schemes. The customer chooses a scheme, and the design is then refined to ensure it matches the original concept. The front-end design work usually happens within four to eight weeks; the whole process of fabricating a conservatory, from design to installation, can take six to nine months.

Tanglewood has projects all across the country and has even completed a project for a residence in Shanghai, China. The installation is not outsourced and is generally done by shop workers. “If we’re short-handed, we have to do some adjusting to the schedule. But we find that the same people who put it up in the shop [are better equipped] to put it up in the field,” Stein says.

Future Plans

Stein’s goals for Tanglewood include surviving this economy, which has been worrisome, he says. But so far, they have been “okay. I’ve been around long enough to see recessions come and go,” he adds. “So I know that a difficult economic time doesn’t last forever.”

Stein believes companies that have strong core values “will come out the other side just fine and with new opportunities.

“My interest in this business is to do new and interesting types of projects. I love the uniqueness and the magic of conservatories,” he adds. “You can do anything you can think of and that’s what I love about this business. The moment we lose that will be when it is time for me to retire.”

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