Sun rooms push the indoors into the great outdoors

LET THERE BE LIGHT

April 24, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie

Think of a cool tile floor, long deep windows, French doors, comfortable furnishings in bright, cheerful colors -- coral and peach, aqua and rose -- and most of all, of light pouring in, filling the space to the ceiling.

In short, think of a sun room, that gracious, lively, livable sun-catcher, so much a part of Baltimore architecture from Waverly to Homeland, from Hampden to Guilford, from Ednor Gardens to Roland Park.

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On the west side of a graceful, center-hall Colonial in Homeland, light filters through white wooden miniblinds. It falls on )( peach-colored walls and persimmon-colored pillows, on a 19th-century French country hutch displaying American, French and English Majolica plates, on a small desk, on a doll's dining suite atop an Oriental painted cabinet.

The narrow room used to be a terrace, and under a blue and orange antique Hamadan carpet, it still has its flagstone floor. A former window and a door are now matching pocket French doors, leading into the brilliant persimmon and navy living room. At the back of the terrace, double French doors open to the meandering terrace.

"It started out to be a family room," says owner Jean McHale, antiques dealer, furniture designer, collector of fine English and European antiques, and mother of three boys. "But now it's become a reading room."

She describes the house as typical of its neighborhood and style; the columned corners and many-paned windows of the sun room might always have been part of the structure. The value of the sun room over the terrace, however, is its usefulness in any season.

"It's the most cheerful room in the house," Ms. McHale says. "You know what I love to do out here? I love to turn on my Mozart and sit at my desk. I design a lot of furniture, and I really like to sit at my clean desk and work. . . . It's the closest thing to heaven."

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They are called by many names -- sun rooms, sun porches, solaria, sun parlours, but the appeal is always the same: It's the whole indoor-outdoor living concept, says architect Mark Beck, of Beck, Powell & Parsons Inc. of Baltimore. People want a place where they can sit and watch birds flying overhead, or look up and see leaves all around, Mr. Beck says. The magic of sun rooms is that they introduce light into a space.

"If you bring light from above, it hits the walls and the walls bounce the light all around. . . . The idea is to feel like you're actually sitting outdoors," he adds.

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Outside the arched windows, beyond a row of evergreens, is where the wildlife are.

"Right there -- that's where the deer walk across," says Cheryl Jones, standing in the new sun room-conservatory at the back of her house in the countryside northwest of Baltimore. "I had never seen all the birds and squirrels -- we even have a family of little rabbits."

The space where the sun room is used to be a deck. "But basically, it was a space we really didn't have much use for," says her husband, Jim Jones. The Joneses, who have three sons, knew they wanted some kind of sun space, and had looked at "restaurant-style" additions.

"But they didn't appeal to us," Mrs. Jones says. Then the couple discovered a construction firm called the Sun Room Co., and their sun room -- a rectangle broken by the graceful circle of the glass-roofed conservatory -- began to take shape.

Now, they have a room filled with light. The white tile floor, the bright wicker furniture with its pale and pastel upholstery, the glass-topped table and the ring of plants all gather in the sunshine.

Although it's new and has all the advantages of modern, dTC technologically sophisticated construction (skylights that close automatically if touched by drops of rain, for instance), the room is in keeping with the comfortable, traditional style of the house.

"We're always in this room. I spend almost all my day here," says Mrs. Jones, who collects dolls. "This is my doll house," she says with a laugh.

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"People like to get close to nature," says Mark Barocco, president of the Sun Room Co. Mid-Atlantic, which designed and built the Joneses' sun room. "So many people have beautiful back yards, and they don't get to use them all year."

The Sun Room Co. uses Amish and Mennonite craftsmen to do the millwork on its sun rooms, conservatories and custom windows.

Sun spaces aren't inexpensive, Mr. Barocco points out: They can cost from $75 to $85 a square foot (about as much as conventional home construction) to as much as $200 per square foot to build, and they require more heat in winter and more air conditioning in summer. And there are other drawbacks: The glass has to be washed, it can break, and in some cases, opening up the house diminishes privacy. But those can be small concerns given the benefits, he says.

"What seems to be happening is the world is getting crowded," he says. "The space we inhabit seems to be getting smaller. This type of space gives you the opportunity to spread your elbows."

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