A conservatory on the cheap

Fiona and I both love the sunshine, and it’s something you don’t necessarily get a lot of in Britain. We’ve often thought that if we had the money we’d love to add a conservatory (“sunroom” for you Americans) to the house — but we never have had the money and doubt we ever will. Plus who needs all the upheaval and disruption?

Then one day it occurred to us that a conservatory is basically just a greenhouse with a sofa in it — so why not get a greenhouse and put a sofa in it? And that is exactly what we’ve done. I woke on the morning of Saturday 24th April, looked at Facebook Marketplace, and found that someone was selling a greenhouse for £2 provided we could come and collect it that day. The listing said it was missing some panes of glass, but obviously it was bargain. So I woke Fiona up and we drove 30 miles to Cheltenham, thinking it would take half an hour or so to take the greenhouse apart and load it into the car.

The greenhouse in its old location, part-way through being disassembled on a very hot day. Our vendor, who was already not getting a great deal, provided drinks including some very good beer (Adnam’s Ghost Ship).

Har har har. It was a long, hot day’s work — not helped by our not having the right kind of spanners for the nuts and bolts holding it together. But eventually it was done and we drove our prize home. Along the way a few more panes of glass got broken, but we unpacked everything that had survived onto the patio, and called it a day.

Over the next week or so, Fiona and I figured out how to reassemble the frame. I had to buy some replacement nuts and bolts because quite a few of the old ones sheared off as we were taking it apart. It was an interesting challenge, identifying what parts went where, made harder by my not having taken nearly enough photographs during the disassembly process.

The frame is less than half complete here, but more than half of the work is done because at this point we know where everything is going to go.

But we got it sorted out.

The frame is complete, but sitting on uneven and non-level patio slabs.

Then we had to figure out where to put it. We needed a solid, level base, and we didn’t have one. So we had to build one. That was by far the biggest part of this job. I had to lift paving slabs from our poorly assembled patio, extract some others from elsewhere in the garden, dig out the area, build a containing frame from 4x2s and treat them with wood preserver, set the frame level, fill it first with hardcore, then with laying sand, level it off, and re-lay the slabs. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my youngest son, Jonno, who at age 18 is now far mightier than I am.

The next thing to do was build another frame of 4x2s, this one the same size as the greenhouse’s footprint, for the frame to sit on, and treat that with wood preserver. Then I attached a damp-course, and we placed it on the foundation, lifted the greenhouse onto it and attached it to the frame.

If a convervatory is a greenhouse with a sofa, we needed a sofa to convert our greenhouse into a conservatory. Once again, Facebook Marketplace came through with a perfect sofa for £30 within walking distance of home.

As it appeared in the Marketplace listing. I like that it doesn’t waste valuable space with thick arms and back.

We removed one upright from the greenhouse frame to get the sofa inside, then replaced that upright so that the frame was once more complete.

Finally, it was time to clean and re-fit the glass. At this point it was apparent that some more of the panes had broken while they had been waiting, stacked on the patio. We should have taken more trouble to put them somewhere more completely flat. So we had to take a trip to the local builders’ merchant and buy replacement panes: 16 in standard sizes and one triangular one that had to be cut to shape.

And we were done!

The completed conservatory, with Fiona for scale. (The three plates on the small table to the left contain all the bones of an otter — except for the skull, which I have prepared separately. The hot, dry atmosphere inside is perfect for drying bones that have been soaking.)

We call it La Conservatoire.

Here’s how it looks in context (from an upstairs window of the house):

Greenhouse to the left, conservatory to the right. At the back, decaying remains of the summerhouse.

And I have to say, it’s working out really well. We love it: it warms up really quickly in the mornings and holds the heat well into the evenings. And the sofa is more like a bed with convenient arms: we’ve put cushions at each end of the matress, and spend plenty of time relaxing in there with a cup of tea and a book.

Fiona, plus my right leg. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea omnibus for scale.

The total cost came to £237.60, made up as follows:

Second-hand greenhouse (some panes missing)2.00
Cropped-head bolts, 2 packs of 209.70
4×2 timber for foundation: 2x 224cm, 2x 304cm30.55
4×2 timber for base: 2x 191cm, 2 x 245cm32.33
Pack of 100 wood-screws, 10×4″5.46
30m damp-proof course roll7.99
Flooring sand, 1-ton sack (including delivery)52.20
Second-hand conservatory sofa30.00
Panes of glass: 7x big, 9x small, 1 corner67.37
TOTAL237.60

It’s easily possible to spend £23,760 on a proper conservatory. This came out at 1% of that price, and was a lot less trouble, too. In conclusion, I highly recommend doing this if you have space.

5 responses to “A conservatory on the cheap

  1. It looks great! Here’s to the indoor/outdoor life.
    Also, isn’t England using the metric system? Is 4×2 timber 4cm x 2cm or 4″ x 2″ (what we in the US call a “2 by 4”)?

  2. Very impressive Mike! I hope you get lots of time to enjoy it, I reckon you’ve earned it.

    Kaleberg – UK uses the metric* system, where mostly things are traded in metric, but loads of things are still named in imperial, e.g. drinks sold as pints, wood sizes (2×4 is inches), human height is often given in feet and inches, human weight is often in stones and pounds (though I feel that is gradually changing to kg). Basically, most of the places where imperial has a more “natural scale” allowing you to work with nicer numbers. Except for temperature, which is now almost universally ºC. Oh and road signs all stayed in miles, I’m not sure why that never changed.

  3. I can confirm – this is a fantastic addition to our leisure time!

  4. @Kaleberg in fact, yes, 4x2s are sold as 10×5 cm beams, but the phrase “four by two” is too enshrined in racial memory to be dislodged by such facts.

    More generally, the UK is an unholy mess regarding the units in play. For example, while we measure road distances in miles, and buy fuel by the litre, we measure fuel consumption in miles per gallon. While milk, which was traditionally sold by the pint, has now reconfigured into 500ml/1 litre/2 litre bottles, beer is still sold by the pint in pubs … but by the 500ml bottle in supermarkets. I measure my own weight in kg, but most of my family use stones and pounds. (There are of course 14 pounds to the stone, just like there are 16 ounces to the pound.)

  5. When I was a kid, my parents took me and my sister to Europe on Five Dollars a Day. I remember being surprised at a French market that fruit sold by the livre, basically a pound. I had read so much about the metric system that I had expected things to be much more exotic. The French also had old francs and new francs, so you had to divide by 100 for old coins, so that felt different. We Americans make do with the dime, a coin which gives no clue as to its value.

    If you ask Americans how they buy fruit, they’ll say pounds and ounces, but if you look at the market receipt it’s decimal pounds, so 0.72 lbs of apples. Soft drinks come in two liter bottles, but milk is sold by the half gallon (US, not imperial). I actually enjoy it. You sometimes find a useful gem, like a hectare is roughly 100,000 square feet. BTW, in Canada, 30 miles (50 km) from here, they measure road distances in kilometers and use the European liters per 100 km metric for fuel usage.

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