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A Brief History of the glass Conservatory

24 Aug 2010
This week’s Pilkington Activ™ blog is designed to give you a brief insight into the history of glass buildings to reveal how they have become a key part of everyday life in Britain.

When the term ‘conservatory’ was initially coined it referred to stand-alone structures that were often used to house exotic plants in climates that couldn’t sustain them.  The ‘Glass House’, built in the grounds of Oxford University’s historic Botanic Gardens dates back to 1637 and is said to be the first building of its kind in the UK, and possibly the world. Although this particular building was created mainly from stone and slate – glass was only being installed for use as small windows.

Kew Gardens today

As time progressed more elaborate conservatories were developed – John Nash’s Georgian design constructed in Kew Gardens is a prime example of a 17thCentury conservatory. The Victorian era was vital to the evolution of conservatory building as the production of steel – an ideal material for framing glass – became cheaper allowing designers like Sir Joseph Paxton to blaze a trail in glass architecture.  The conservatory he built at Chatsworth House between 1836 and 1841 covered three quarters of an acre and was the largest glass structure in the world at the time.  This glass house was only the beginning for Paxton as he was later commissioned to design and build Crystal Palace in London – a global symbol of Victorian style and prowess – that was built over a 22 week period, covered 19 acres, and required 293,635 panes of glass.  Crystal Palace helped popularise the use of glass as a building material, with many wealthy Victorians extending their homes with glass rooms as a result of being wowed by Paxton’s epic design!

Artists impression of Crystal Palace

The popularity of the conservatory dipped with the trials and tribulations of the early 20th century – two world wars and economic instability – leading many people to abandon or dismantle them as they were difficult to maintain and impractical in an age of austerity. But the popularity of conservatories spiked post-war as improvements in glass technology and an increase in the number of homeowners saw many acquire the Victorians’ appetite for a glass outhouse.

Pilkington has been at the forefront of this growing consumer trend – developing innovative glazing solutions incorporating thermal and solar control properties to keep homes snug and warm in winter and cooler in summer, and self-cleaning glass which dramatically reduces the need for cleaning – which have become integral to today’s modern conservatories.