Design Definitions: Conservatory or Solarium?

A friend was recently describing an old, Victorian home with a somewhat derelict (but impossibly romantic) glassed-in room built on one side.  He stumbled over the language while explaining it, unsure whether to call it a  solarium or a conservatory.  What’s the difference, he asked?

And we, gumshoe detectives that we are, decided to take the case.

We learned that the distinctions are few and, in this day and age, the words are used pretty much interchangeably.  The differences we could find lay more in their historical context than in their current-day function.

While conservatories were first conceived in Europe as places to, literally, conserve and nurture plants, the design of solaria seems to be more human-centric.  In the dictionary, a solarium is defined as “part of a house arranged to receive the sun’s rays” and “a room (as in a hospital) used especially for sunbathing or therapeutic exposure to light.” 

Both solaria and conservatories are attached by one wall to the building (otherwise, we guess, they’d just be called greenhouses).  Both words suggest a room made mostly of glass, though the word conservatory seems to refer more exclusively to British-style iron work and not as much to wood-framed rooms.

Whatever you call them – and with the power vested in us as bloggers – we sanction the use of either word to describe the following images.  The design of these pretty glass rooms run the spectrum from opulent to English countryside to bohemian, and we like them all.

The sheer scale of this one is breathtaking and, though we quail at the thought of washing all those windows, we certainly wouldn’t object to warm afternoons spent beneath the palms.

The tile in this conservatory is glorious – put some chairs around that table and we’d be the dinner guests who never leave.

Can you hear that blue caned chair calling your name?

A living ceiling and tiled floors?  Be still our hearts.

We wouldn’t object to some time spent hanging out in this incarnation:



Nor among these perfect plants:

Solaria seem like they’d be especially nice on misty days, and we can both imagine happy hours spent in this hammock.

The wide-plank floors and textile-draped couch give this one a decidedly bohemian feel that we like a lot.

These rooms, scanned from one of Terence Conran’s books, effectively blur the lines between indoors and out.



And, finally, we’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more relaxing setting for a bathtub than this:

Katie is pretty smitten with that living ceiling and tiled floor in the fourth photo and Mera loves the one with the wide plank floors and the couch draped in blue.  What’s your favorite?

12 responses on “Design Definitions: Conservatory or Solarium?

  1. Nina

    Oh, the hammock. That’s where I’d like to be right now on this rainy, dreary morning.

    But, is it just me or does the word “conservatory” also bring to mind the words “Colonel Mustard” and “lead pipe?”

    1. Katie & Mera Post author

      It’s not just you, Nina! Somehow the reference never made it into the post – which is a grave oversight (can we blame the butler?).

  2. Auntiepatch

    Although I love the first photo (not practical in So. Calif. summers), my favorite is the one scanned from the book by Terence Conran.
    And, yes, Nina, it does remind me of “Clue”!

  3. Susan Glassow

    I love the first photo-romantic, elegant, all together tended by someone other than myself…snipping blooms and dead leaves, polishing floors and windows and giving me the chance to choose from the invitingly presented stack of books and relax with a mojito or mint julep….

    1. Dylan

      What great examples of both solaria and conservatories! I feel terrible for the stumbling buffoon who had a hard time describing these wonderful spaces to you. He should subscribe to Red House West and up his Int Des game!

      1. Katie & Mera Post author

        Ah, you recognized yourself! Thanks for your deep and thoughtful questions which led us to investigate this linguistic mystery 🙂

  4. Carol Bryner

    I, like Susan, am partial to that first one with the comfortable seating in it. It doesn’t look like little spiders or tiny toads would climb down a tree and land on your neck in that room. As for taking a bath in that glass walled room, I would feel a little exposed, but that’s just me – the east coast puritan.

    1. Katie & Mera Post author

      Carol, you are hilarious! You make us see these rooms – chosen mostly for their elegant aspects – as filled with peril. Places to cower from tiny toads or little spiders (or peeping Toms)!

  5. Mya

    After doing a good deal of research, I can clarify these beyond just “purpose.” Since a conservatory is built for plants, it shares a good deal of characteristics with a greenhouse that a solarium won’t. You’ll likely find mounted fans, opening roof panels, and water access. In solaria, which aren’t created to grow plants, these are few and far between.
    As a side note, I believe it pertinent to include orangeries, conservatories with a water feature such as a fountain or pond, also usually larger or taller than a regular conservatory, as it’s meant to house full-sized citrus trees; patio rooms, an attached solarium room with a different foundation than the rest of the house; garden rooms, attached greenhouses which are far more utilitarian and less decorative than a conservatory; atria, which are multi-story solaria; and thunderstorm rooms, rooms with a glass ceiling yet standard drywall or plaster walls (although I have seen some with windows across the top 1/4th of the wall).

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